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Debating Wisconsin’s biggest position battles heading into fall camp

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Just two (*crowd yells* TWO!) days until fall camp begins for the Wisconsin Badgers.

You know what that means.

B5Q Roundtable time.

Our band of merry writers—like many yearning for the 2017 college football season—are ready to break down, analyze, highlight everything coming from fall camp, maybe even try to pick strands of FieldTurf off of Camp Randall Stadium. OK, maybe not that.

The next couple of days, we’ll highlight one major question for them to answer. Here. We. Go.

There may not be extremely concerning holes on both sides of the ball, but what’s the biggest position battle heading into fall camp?

Jake Kocorowski: I’m going with one that no one has mentioned yet, and that’s the back-up quarterback spot. There really aren’t many “holes” per se after spring ball, but if redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook goes down with an injury during, the offense drastically changes its potency unless either Karé Lyles or Jack Coan (or Kimberly, Wis.’s Danny Vanden Boom) emerge as a viable back-up. That’s a tall order for a redshirt freshman and a true freshman, respectively.

Both are still young and learning Paul Chryst’s offense, but their development is key in establishing someone behind the southpaw.

Owen Riese: I think the nickel cornerback spot is something that was a bit hidden a year ago, but really needs to be rectified if the Badgers want to play defense how they’d like to. Natrell Jamerson was pretty good in that spot a year ago before his injury, but is now at free safety to replace Leo Musso. Lubern Figaro hasn’t really reached the success his career looked to be headed towards when he had that interception against Bowling Green, starting as a true freshman. It’s going to be between Figaro and Dontye Carriere-Williams, and that spot will be integral to putting the pressure on that Jim Leonhard will want to, considering his two pass-rush specialists from a year ago are now in the NFL.

Ryan Mellenthin: When reading this question, two position groups jump out in my mind—receivers and running backs. In regard to pass catchers, Wisconsin is returning four of the five receivers that caught passes in 2016. Two are seniors (Jazz Peavy and George Rushing) and two are sophomores (Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor). I think both Cephus and Taylor could factor in heavily in 2017. While Peavy will likely be the go-to target for Hornibrook, both Cephus and Taylor could overtake Rushing on the depth chart. One incoming freshman I am looking at that could see some time is Cade Green, a three-star recruit out of Austin, Texas.

The competition for playing time this fall will be competitive. The offensive backfield is going to be another competitive group. Wisconsin graduated both of the team’s top rushers from 2016, leaving the top three candidates to tote the rock as Bradrick Shaw, Taiwan Deal, and Pittsburgh transfer Chris James. Both Shaw and James are listed on the 2017 Doak Walker Award watch list. In my opinion, Shaw will be the bellwether back come Sept. 1, with James and Deal following behind for carries.

Kevin O’Connell: After the departure of NFL draftees T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, the battle for playing time at the outside linebacker position will be important to monitor during fall camp. Fortunately, the Badgers have a number of talented and experienced players to replace the production from a year ago. Redshirt seniors Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley, who have played 45 and 25 games respectively in their careers, are the most seasoned and will likely see the field a bunch early in the season. Redshirt sophomore Zack Baun showed flashes a year ago, including a six-tackle effort in the Ohio State game and could be starting Week 1 with a strong fall camp. Transfers Andrew Van Ginkel and Christian Bell are both immensely talented and will be in the mix all season. Van Ginkel in particular will be exciting to watch, he was a force at the FCS level with South Dakota and was one of the top junior college players after a year at Iowa Western. The Badgers have so much depth at linebacker that redshirt senior Jack Cichy, a projected starter on the inside, could be moved outside in certain packages if the coaching staff opts to give inside linebackers Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly more reps. This position battle will be fascinating to watch not only during fall camp but for the entirety of the season.

Neal Olson: I’m going to expand on Owen’s point here. Perhaps the Big Ten Title game is still too fresh in my mind, but the defensive secondary is the place to watch as the season unfolds. Sojourn Shelton and Musso were stalwarts on the back end of the defense and replacing them will be no small task. The two players ready to step in, Nick Nelson and Natrell Jamerson, both come with question marks. For Nelson, how fast will he be able to adjust Big Ten football after transferring from Hawaii and sitting out a year? And let’s not forget Jamerson is on his third position change and has only been on the defensive side of the ball since the start of last season. Should either player falter or miss time due to injury, the depth chart is filled with younger players who have limited playing experience with the exception of Figaro.

The good news is Leonard has quickly established himself as a first-rate coach for defensive backs. The Badgers replaced three defensive backfield starters heading into the 2016 season and they played above expectations—second half of the Big Ten title game aside. Additionally, Shelton himself was raving about Nelson’s ability after Wisconsin’s Pro Day last spring according to an interview he gave to the Wisconsin State Journal.

The front seven of the Badger defense will be the strength of the entire team and will likely mitigate any potential challenges in the secondary. However, if the Badgers want to capitalize on a reasonable schedule and make a run at another New Year’s Six bowl game, the secondary will need to be lock down.

Ryan Timmerman: The offensive line is the Badgers’ calling card. Like a herd of buffalo, the herd is only as strong as its weakest link. The Badgers, likewise, only go as far as the guys up front can take them, at least offensively. Despite getting four linemen back who started games last season, they are still pretty young up front (which is a good thing). However, Ryan Ramcyzk is now in the NFL, opening up the left tackle spot. David Edwards, last year’s starting right tackle, now moves over to take Ramcyzk’s spot. That shouldn’t be a problem. But sometimes when players are moved around to fill holes, others open up.

It looks like Patrick Kasl is the favorite to take over at right tackle. If it’s not Kasl, the Badgers would look to Jacob Maxwell, Cole Van Lanen, or David Moorman. All of them, like Kasl, are redshirt freshmen. The wrinkle in all this is that Honibrook is left-handed. That means the Badgers are replacing his blindside protection. Right tackle is now the most vulnerable and inexperienced spot on the offensive line, and also the most important in terms of keeping Hornibrook on his feet. The lack of experience at that spot should cause some concern.