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Discussing the biggest storylines facing the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers

What’s on your mind as fall camp begins?

Ohio State vs. Wisconsin: Exclusive photos from Badgers', Buckeyes' OT Classic Patrick Barron

Today is the day, folks.

The Wisconsin Badgers’ media day starts with head coach Paul Chryst speaking to reporters at 3:45 p.m. CST, while players will be available from 4:15-5:15 p.m. before Family Fun Day at 6:00.

B5Q’s Jake Kocorowski and Owen Riese will be down at Camp Randall Stadium for the entire event, hoping to discuss some of the biggest storylines with players and coaches.

Before that, we asked our group of writers what, in their opinion, is the biggest storyline for Wisconsin heading into fall camp?

Owen Riese: The kids are back! Wisconsin is going to impose its physical will onto you, and you aren’t going to have much say in it. This offensive line unit should show a marked improvement over last year’s unit, which was leaps and bounds ahead of the 2015 group. While losing Ryan Ramczyk hurts, the sum of the unit’s parts will be greater in 2017. The unit is bigger and stronger than a year ago, with the shortest projected starter measuring at 6’6 and the lightest member of the line tipping the scales at 315 pounds. This is an NFL-sized offensive line, and college defensive lines are going to share those sentiments, especially early in the season.

Ryan Mellenthin: To me, the biggest storyline is that Wisconsin is now on its third defensive coordinator in as many seasons. Dave Aranda’s final season with Wisconsin came in 2015 prior to taking the same position at LSU and Justin Wilcox, who recently took over as head coach of Cal, manned the position in 2016. Enter Jim Leonhard, who will take over as defensive coordinator for Wisconsin after holding the position of defensive backs coach in 2016, his only season spent as a coach following his retirement from the NFL at the end of the 2014 season. While Leonhard is new to this whole coaching thing, he is no stranger to Wisconsin athletics and to the inner workings of the defense. Leonhard went from walk-on to All American at Wisconsin and from undrafted rookie in the NFL to a 10-year veteran, all as an undersized safety. Under Leonhard’s lead in 2016, Sojourn Shelton earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and Wisconsin collected 22 interceptions, second-most in the FBS. Even with all of his success, he is now stepping into a new role leading a defense that ranked first in scoring defense in 2015 (13.7 points per game) and fourth in 2016 (15.6 points per game).

Kevin O’Connell: The biggest storyline to me is the development of quarterback Alex Hornibrook. I suspect we will find out early in the season if the redshirt sophomore signal caller has what it takes to lead Wisconsin to another Big Ten championship game. On paper, Paul Chryst’s team projects to be the favorite in the Big Ten West and the Badgers will most likely win at least eight games, but inconsistent quarterback play could hamper expectations. In 2015, Chryst had one of the best defenses in school history and an abundance of playmakers on offense, but two poor games by quarterback Joel Stave (vs. Iowa and vs. Northwestern) took the Badgers from a 12-1, potential College Football Playoff team to 10-3 and Holiday Bowl champs. I hope for a different narrative in 2017, and if Hornibrook limits turnovers and shows an improvement with his decision-making under pressure, this Wisconsin team could be one of the best in all of college football.

Neal Olson: Can the Badgers make the leap? It seems the last half-decade or so has featured some truly heartbreaking losses on a national stage. For every Cotton Bowl victory or LSU opening-season win, there are several Rose Bowl losses and crushing Big Ten title game defeats. As the incumbent favorite to win the Big Ten West and appear in the conference championship game, can Wisconsin take the next step into national prominence? It seems the Badgers have settled into a very satisfying position (at least compared to pre-Alvarez times) as one of college football’s better programs. However, it still seems the national perception of Wisconsin is similar to the tired tropes of slow, plodding Big Ten schools vs. the NFL talent-laden SEC programs. It’s quite possible that an appearance in the College Football Playoff will do little to erase those thoughts, but certainly a few more prominent wins on the national stage will go a long way toward changing the misconception.

Ryan Timmerman: Balance on offense was once a virtue in football. Those days are long gone, at least for the bulk of football squads. While the Big Ten may still utilize the running game a bit more than others, getting to the opposing quarterback is imperative. There’s nothing more disruptive a defense can do than constantly throw off the opponent’s timing in the passing game. T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel are gone. Those two were responsible for 15.5 of the Badgers’ 34 total sacks last season. Plus, Leonhard enters his first season as defensive coordinator. He’ll have to rely heavily on Garret Dooley, T.J. Edwards, Conor Sheehy, and the rest of the defensive front seven to get to quarterbacks. There’s enough talent to get the job done, but how Leonard goes about creating the pass-rush scheme could open things up for one (or more) of those returning players to break out. Or, he could find strength in numbers. In games the Badgers play with the lead, they rely on ball control. Defensively, that means not allowing big plays. The best way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable.