The 2017 Wisconsin Badgers earned their place in school history as one of the most successful teams on the field. The 13-win season was the first in school history, with both a mix of young players and upperclassmen bonding to take UW within one game of a College Football Playoff berth.
Looking ahead to 2018, the defense has its holes to fill, but Paul Chryst’s offense will have most of its starters back, with the only concrete exceptions being redshirt seniors, fullback Austin Ramesh and tight end Troy Fumagalli.
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook should once again command an offense boasting the return of most starters, giving Wisconsin a chance at a dynamic balanced attack with a Heisman Trophy candidate and at least four young receiving targets that should give opposing defenses fits.
Barring any injury or unforeseen circumstance, Hornibrook will be the starter.
Hornibrook completed 62.3 percent of his passes for 2,644 yards with 25 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Those 25 scores through the air rank him second all-time in a single UW season behind Russell Wilson. He made his mistakes, but he also picked himself back up, and like any good quarterback, brushed them off as he went back out on the field. Another year in Chryst’s system should only lead Hornibrook to become even better on the field.
Behind him, Jack Coan won the No. 2 job over Karé Lyles to start the 2017 season. Coan’s skill set is intriguing, as seen in spring and fall camps, with a good arm and intriguing mobility. How far he develops will be worth the watch this year.
Lyles and Danny Vanden Boom will have another year of experience underneath them, with then 2018 quarterbacks Chase Wolf and walk-on Nate Carter beginning to learn from the likes of Chryst and newly minted position coach Jon Budmayr.
Like offensive line and wide receiver, the depth at running back is bountiful—though injuries showed many contributors were needed.
Jonathan Taylor will have an opportunity to improve on the 1,977 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns from his freshman campaign behind an experienced offensive line and blockers.
The New Jersey product showed a maturity well beyond his years with his patience, vision, and humility during the course of the season, and combined with his college-ready strength and speed, he ran over and past opponents to become the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a Doak Walker Award finalist.
Taylor needs to improve on holding onto the ball, as he lost a handful of fumbles this season, but it will also be intriguing how much more involved in the passing game he becomes—both blocking and receiving.
Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor worked hard for his yards this season, averaging 4.7 yards AFTER contact per carry, 3rd-most among Power-5 RBs. pic.twitter.com/fXNqa1qDh7— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) January 4, 2018
Bradrick Shaw and Chris James will provide complements to the Heisman Trophy candidate, a reversal of what many expected to be the makeup of Wisconsin’s 2018 rushing attack.
As seen in previous years, injuries always creep up, so their roles could become more if something happens to Taylor. Shaw (96 carries, 365 yards, four touchdowns in 11 games) will be returning from a left leg injury that ended his season prematurely during the win at Minnesota (and after he was hampered with a knee injury early on) while James (51 carries, 233 yards, one touchdown) re-emerged at times after missing five games himself.
The unit loses graduate transfer Rachid Ibrahim (28 carries, 130 yards), who became a third-down back in Chryst’s offense as a blocker with seven receptions, 63 yards.
As most walk-ons do at Wisconsin, Garrett Groshek made his reps count when called upon. The former prep quarterback standout was utilized in a wildcat look and also provided relief for Taylor at times to be third on the team in rushing (61 carries, 297 yards, two touchdowns). Yes, he even got to complete a pass this season to Hornibrook during the Big Ten Championship Game.
Again, it is never bad to have too much depth in college football.
The one position where a loss will be seen is at fullback, where Ramesh fullback-dove the #FullbackDive, smacked opponents while opening holes for his tailbacks, and went #AirRamesh in the passing game.
His loss will be felt in multiple areas of the offense due to that versatility, but would-be senior Alec Ingold has the abilities to continue the excellence seen at the position. It appeared Ingold underwent some procedure based on a Jan. 5 tweet, so we have asked UW for an update.
This season, Ingold only carried the ball 10 times for 25 yards, but accounted for three rushing touchdowns. As part of a three-touchdown performance against Indiana in early November, he also reeled in an 18-yard touchdown pass in the 45–17 win.
Maybe the one thing about this position group is it is not as deep as it has been the last two seasons. Walk-on Aaron Maternowski is no longer on the roster, leaving Jake Whalen as the only other fullback besides Ingold. There is also a report from BadgerBlitz.com’s Jon McNamara in early December saying Whalen would not be with the team in the spring due to injuries, and we have reached out for UW to confirm.
This position group, with a two-deep of wide receivers in Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Kendric Pryor, and Danny Davis that gave opposing secondaries fits in 2017, could be the most exciting on Wisconsin’s offense in the upcoming season.
And that’s saying something with a Heisman Trophy candidate in the backfield.
Wisconsin’s wide receivers caught 17 touchdown passes on the season, all by the newly-minted Four Horsemen (nickname pending once I speak with them during spring practice).
Cephus’s breakout season was cut short due to a right leg injury against Indiana, but he still wound up third on the team in receptions (30), second in receiving yards (501), and first in both yards per catch (16.7) and receiving touchdowns (six).
After the surgery, Cephus was seen around practice on a walking scooter that allowed him to move without putting pressure on his right foot.
According to Jeff Potrykus’ article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Dec. 28, Cephus hopes to be able to accomplish “at least individual work” during the upcoming spring practice sessions a couple of months from now.
If you would have said at the beginning of the season that Cephus, along with seniors Jazz Peavy and George Rushing, would be out for most of the season, it may have significantly tempered expectations for this position group.
Yet Taylor, Pryor, and Davis all stepped up—along with walk-ons Adam Krumholz and Jack Dunn—and became greater threats in the Badgers’ offensive attack.
Taylor (31 receptions, 475 yards, four touchdowns), a former prep running back, will again have the opportunity to improve at receiver. He recorded a game-high eight receptions for 105 yards and a score in the Orange Bowl, and his presence in his third year at Wisconsin should be felt.
Pryor worked back from a facial injury suffered during fall camp to play in 10 games, catching 13 passes for 179 yards with a score. He also made highlights in the run game, rushing for 63 yards on five carries with two touchdowns.
The last signing for the class of 2017, Davis pushed for playing time early, playing in 12 games and winding up second on the team in yards per catch (16.1) on 26 receptions. His three-touchdown performance in the Orange Bowl could be a sign of greater things to come, as he was named one of the potential “breakout players for 2018” by ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg earlier this week.
Krumholz and Dunn also filled in admirably when injuries hit the receivers for snaps on the field, and it should bear watching how they progress and compete with would-be redshirt freshmen Emmet Perry, Cade Green, Deron Harrell, and fellow walk-on Sam DeLany.
“This receiving corp is deep,” Davis said back in December. “With Emmet and Cade and Sam DeLany, Deron, it’s crazy how deep we are. This spring, there will be a lot of guys making plays and things like that. It’s going to be fun. We just go out there and compete and play for each other, and we’ll be good.”
How Class of 2018 wide receivers Taj Mustapha—an early enrollee—and A.J. Abbott, along with designated “athletes” Aron Cruickshank and Isaac Guerendo, impact the depth chart remains to be seen, but as seen the past couple of years, there have been early and immediate contributors to Ted Gilmore’s unit.
The #Badgers return all four of their top wide receivers for 2018:@QoDeep_87 - 501 yds, 6 TDs@aj_taylor2016 - 475 yds, 5 TDs@DDIII_7 - 418 yds, 5 TDs@_KPryor3 - 179 yds, 3 total TDs#OnWisconsin || #Badgers pic.twitter.com/a13C2TvpJX— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) January 4, 2018
All-American tight end Troy Fumagalli finished his storied Wisconsin career—from walk-on to Burlsworth Trophy finalist—with a win and also leading the team in receptions (46) and receiving yards (547) this season.
This position group does have unproven players, but also potential depth that could help mitigate Fumagalli’s departure.
Both Kyle Penniston and Zander Neuville contributed to the offense in 2017, and now will have to shoulder the responsibility of keeping production high.
Penniston is perceived to be the more immediate receiving threat of the two, but only caught seven passes for 56 yards and a touchdown this season. His progression in both the run and pass games will be key to give UW options at every skill position.
Neuville was ruled out for the rest of the season with a right leg injury after the win at Minnesota, and it remains to be seen how much time he will miss in this offseason after undergoing knee surgery.
Behind them, Luke Benzschawel and Jake Ferguson should also contribute. Benzschawel, for most of the season, was out with a right leg injury, but at 6’6, 261 pounds could be like Neuville in being that on-the-line tight end who can block and catch passes.
Ferguson was named the offensive scout team player of the year in 2017.
“I’ve actually not thrown to him too much just because we’ve been in different rotation, but from what I’ve seen, he’s made some crazy catches,” Hornibrook said in early December. “Just his body control, and I think that’s probably one thing, he’s really athletic when he’s catching the football. Sometimes people will be stiff and things like that, but he looks really fluid.”
If Michael Deiter returns, the Wisconsin offensive line should return all of its starters plus competent back-ups that will allow Joe Rudolph to again find his best five linemen to anchor the offense.
If injuries or other circumstances do not hit the line, it could be Wisconsin’s deepest in years. That can only help the offense, one that rushed for 3,121 yards and 28 touchdowns and only gave up 21 sacks in 2017.
Deiter, a second-team All-America honoree by the Sporting News and a consensus first-time all-conference selection, admitted he submitted feedback to the NFL Draft Advisory board back in December. His future on Sundays is likely as an interior lineman, so if he returns, it will be interesting to see where he is placed on the line.
At left tackle, former four-star lineman Cole Van Lanen played at times with Deiter dinged up with an ankle injury but also as an extra lineman wearing No. 85 in a jumbo-type package later in the season. Rudolph mentioned back in October after Van Lanen took over for Deiter during the Northwestern game how he liked how the Green Bay native had been progressing.
Jon Dietzen, along with walk-on Jason Erdmann, solidified the left guard position this season. Redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz’s emergence during the spring and fall camps allowed Deiter to bounce around the line, as the would-be third-year player earned Freshman All-America honors from USA Today and was a consensus third-team All-Big Ten pick.
The right side of the line, with Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards at guard and tackle respectively, should cement their spots and develop further heading into 2018. Both earned various All-American selections, with Edwards a first-team honoree by the AFCA and The All-American and Benzschawel a first-team selection by Sports Illustrated.
There’s also Patrick Kasl, who filled in admirably for an injured Edwards at right tackle during part of the second half of the Orange Bowl. Throw in the likes of Micah Kapoi, who has played in 35 games now heading into his redshirt senior season, and there appear to be game-ready players in the two-deep.