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Predicting Wisconsin’s breakout players for 2017

Which Badgers do you have your eye on?

Alex Hornibrook
Alex Hornibrook during a spring practice at Camp Randall Stadium.
Patrick Barron

Players come, players go each year in college football. In each one, someone steps up to fill the void.

The 2017 Wisconsin Badgers have to fill the shoes of NFL-bound T.J. Watt, Ryan Ramczyk, Vince Biegel, Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale, Sojourn Shelton, and Bart Houston, among others.

Yet the program is ready to reload with young talent and a plethora of experience at various positions. We asked some of our writers who they feel will be the breakout players this upcoming season.

Owen Riese: I said this back in March at spring practice, but Quintez Cephus is going to be what Wisconsin wanted Robert Wheelwright to be. He’s going to be that big Z receiver who can box-out smaller cornerbacks and use his size as a weapon after the catch. With that being said, my actual answer is David Edwards. Now a full year into his transition onto the offensive line, I expect a lot of the green mistakes to be out the window, and Edwards should be fine anchoring the left side. He’s got ideal athleticism at that spot after playing quarterback in high school and moving to tight end as a redshirt freshman. Edwards should be the next Wisconsin tackle drafted into the NFL, especially as he’ll continue to add strength and experience.

Ryan Mellenthin: I would have to say that Cephus will be the breakout player in 2017. As a freshman, he caught four passes for 94 yards and ran for 41 yards on five carries. He hauled in the longest reception of the 2016 season (57 yards) and displayed his breakaway speed in doing so. With that ability and a year’s worth of experience under his belt, Cephus should turn into the deep threat Wisconsin has been missing since Jared Abbrederis left Wisconsin.

Kevin O’Connell: I am going with cornerback Nick Nelson to be the breakout player this season. It would not surprise me if the Hawaii transfer develops into Wisconsin’s most important defensive back. The redshirt junior enters this season with plenty of hype after starting 21 games in two seasons at Hawaii and receiving rave reviews from players and coaches about his play on last year’s scout team. I believe Nelson exceeds high expectations and plays at an All-Big Ten level at cornerback in 2017.

Neal Olson: I’m all aboard the Alex Hornibrook Express. He’s had an entire offseason as the clear-cut starter at quarterback and no longer has Bart Houston and his six shooters looming behind him.

Hopefully the confidence that comes with being the undisputed leader on offense will lead toward a breakout year. Hornibrook showed flashes, especially in big games at Michigan State on the road and at home against Ohio State, but still had some consistency issues. A more experienced offensive line and receiving corps should really make for more comfort and, in turn, iron out the confidence and consistency issues that opened the door for Houston to take over down the stretch last season.

Ryan Timmerman: Paul Chryst could end up with a three-headed monster at running back. Between them, they have pretty big shoes to fill with Clement and Ogunbowale gone. Since this is “breakout” player, I’ll defer to the running back that’s probably the least known amongst Badger fans: Chris James. If he’s the least known among himself, Taiwan Deal, and Bradrick Shaw, it’s only because he transferred from Pittsburgh and sat out last year per NCAA rules. As a freshman at Pitt, James played for Chryst, so there is a background there that will only benefit all parties. For his career, James has 690 yards on 143 carries (4.8 per). He had a year to mature, work out, and get acclimated to Madison. Running back is a wear-and-tear position, which makes it a bit weird that, by virtue of transferring, James is the eldest of the top three running backs on the roster, but he should be the healthiest given that he’s had a year away from in-game contact. Look for him to get out to a fast start.

Jake Kocorowski: I got to this question after everyone else, so I’ll go with a position that needs to replace 15.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss from a year ago: outside linebacker. I’ll go with either of the two redshirt seniors in Garret Dooley or Leon Jacobs. Dooley performed well in the spring after admirably contributing in 2016 (6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks), including a couple of starts with Biegel out for two games with his foot injury. Chryst mentioned Dooley was practicing like a senior in March and in the fall, and he should continue to build off of that momentum.

I do have to say Jacobs, who’s finally back at his original collegiate position after moving to inside linebacker and fullback throughout his career, could be the sleeper of the group. He’s shown his speed in years past and during summer conditioning was in the midst of squatting 675 pounds. If he picks up that insight at outside backer and combines that with his athletic ability, it could be another “reload” situation for Tim Tibesar’s group.