With all of our talks and breakdowns of a successful 2017 season, many now turn their attention to the 2018 Wisconsin Badgers.
A defense that loses seven starters plus two key contributors must find younger, unproven players to step up, while the offense reloads while attempting to replace All-American tight end Troy Fumagalli and versatile fullback Austin Ramesh.
Yet there’s hope the team with many returners on offense that could take Wisconsin to the next level on that side of the ball, and with T.J. Edwards returning to lead Jim Leonhard’s defense, the Badgers can be looked at in “reload” mode.
B5Q’s writers came together once again to break down what could lie ahead for Paul Chryst’s program next season.
What position group excites you the most?
Owen Riese: Offensive line baby! They return all five starters and are only continuing to build depth and talent to a group that getting back to Wisconsin level strength and size. Expect a dominant unit next season.
Andrew Rosin: I’m going to cop out and say the offense as a whole. It’s looking increasingly likely they only lose Ramesh and Fumagalli, and with a wide receiving crew where someone as dynamic and talented as Kendric Pryor looks like WR4 on the depth chart, Fumagalli’s pass production loss might easily be mitigated. Add to that the offensive line with some second unit prospects ready to step in and an early Heisman contender at running back? If the flashes of brilliance Alex Hornibrook showed in the final four games of the season become something more, this is an offense with the might that could surpass the Russell Wilson year. I’m not kidding.
Ryan Mellenthin: The wide receivers without a doubt. In the past, Wisconsin has had one good receiver, and a couple of guys that are steady contributors. In 2018, Wisconsin will have Quintez Cephus, Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor. All of which have good speed and have the ability to break a game open with a single catch.
Kevin O’Connell: The inside linebackers should be the defense’s biggest strength in 2018. The Badgers return All-American T.J. Edwards, last year’s leading tackler in Ryan Connelly, as well as Chris Orr and Arrington Farrar. This is a stacked position group and one that should be a steadying force for a defense that must replace seven starters next year.
Bob Wiedenhoeft: Wide receivers. Wisconsin returns Cephus, Davis, and Taylor as well as a few new promising freshmen. There is a lot of talent there, and with Gilmore developing it further, it could be the best overall receiving corp we’ve ever seen in Madison.
Looking at defense particularly with so much turnover, which position group will be the one to watch for?
Owen: I’m going to look at the defensive ends. Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand will need to make some plays in the backfield in order to alleviate some pressure on the new outside linebackers entering the lineup.
Andrew: Outside linebacker. Inside linebacker is going to be at the level that it’s accustomed to. And as we’ve seen, Andrew Van Ginkel is a potential showstopper at one outside linebacker position. The opposite side is going to be an underrated position battle. Zack Baun was probably one of Wisconsin’s most gifted athletes when he came into Madison, but a leg injury slowed his 2016, foot injury ended his 2017 in August and he’s going to face a former Alabama commit in Christian Bell. Bell’s got a little more size, very good athleticism, and he’s simply been healthier. It’s going to be interesting to watch.
Wisconsin loses both starters at outside linebacker, but returns Andrew Van Ginkel in 2018— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) January 6, 2018
In his final two games (Big Ten championship and Orange Bowl), Van Ginkel had 2 interceptions and 1 fumble recovery. #OnWisconsin pic.twitter.com/duq11QssIH
Ryan: The front seven for Wisconsin has typically been a point of strength, their linebackers always seem to find their way to the ball, regardless of who is in there and who is injured. The biggest question mark for the defense is going to be the defensive backs, Wisconsin is losing 75 percent of their starters from 2017, which will be tough, but if the Wisconsin defense has proven anything over these past few seasons, they find all the right pieces, to complete the puzzle.
Kevin: The battle for playing time at cornerback will be wide open next year. Dontye Carriere-Williams returns after a solid redshirt freshman season, but outside of DCW, there is really nobody else that has seen serious game reps. Madison Cone, Faion Hicks, and Caesar Williams will likely all get a shot to secure a starting spot opposite Carriere-Williams. Keep an eye out for true freshman Donte Burton, a highly-regarded prospect from Georgia who is expected to enroll early this spring.
Bob: How is Wisconsin going to handle the loss of Nick Nelson, Derrick Tindal, and Natrell Jamerson in the secondary? They’ve set a high standard; one that makes me glad Leonhard is coaching the newcomers.
This is way too early, but what game on the schedule intrigues you the most?
Owen: The Penn State game should be an early litmus test for what to expect out of this team next season. Penn State loses Saquon Barkley, but should still be a Top 25 team to start the season.
Andrew: I think I’m going to go with Michigan. There doesn’t feel like a conference trap game for Wisconsin quite yet, and while Michigan hasn’t turned to the level that it was accustomed to before hustling backwards from the Lloyd Carr era, there’s a lot of talent on their two-deep roster. For Wisconsin, they’re never a gimme.
Ryan: It’s hard to pick just one game, Wisconsin has a lot of tough road games in 2018 - Wisconsin plays at Iowa City, Ann Arbor, Evanston AND University Park. Historically these have been tough places for Wisconsin to play in the past.
Not going to lie, I wanted to say the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game, but I didn’t want to get too ahead of myself.
Kevin: I’ll go with the Penn State game. The Badgers travel to Happy Valley on November 10, in a game that could have Big Ten Championship implications. The Nittany Lions lose Saquon Barkley, but if quarterback Trace McSorley returns they should be squarely in the race to get to Indy. For a team that received so much flack for it’s schedule this season, a road win at Beaver Stadium would do wonders for the Badgers’ resume and reputation.
Bob: Good Wisconsin, bad Wisconsin teams, and every team in between seems to struggle playing in Evanston. It’s always interesting to see how the Badgers handle that challenge.
Fill in the blank: If Wisconsin competes for a Big Ten title and a spot in the CFP again in 2018, _______ has to happen:
Owen: The passing game has to continue to grow to what its potential appears to be. The youth at wide receiver along with the continued development of Alex Hornibrook need to carry this offense in the games where Jonathan Taylor is the main focus of the defensive game plan.
Andrew: I agree with everyone here. One of two things need to happen. If the secondary slides, the Badgers will need the Hornibrook that showed up in the second half of the Michigan game and the Miami game to be a more constant presence because there’s going to be a shootout or two the Badgers will have to win to contend. If the secondary can be something close to last year, the Badgers can fade one of those 12-21 with 1 touchdown and 3 interception games from Hornibrook.
Ryan: Their offense needs to continue to evolve. Hornibrook took a huge step forward against a great defense in Miami. If Hornibrook can use the Orange Bowl as a stepping stone toward the 2018 season and Jonathan Taylor can continue to be Jonathan Taylor (minus a couple of fumbles), Wisconsin’s offense should be able to contend with anyone. Defensively, they just have to continue to be the Wisconsin defense and prevent the opposition from gouging them for big plays.
Kevin: Hornibrook will need to make confident, clutch throws on the road. Wisconsin plays road games at Northwestern, Iowa, Michigan, and Penn State next season, and how Hornibrook and the rest of the offense responds in hostile environments will determine how far this team goes.
Bob: They need to hold par in the secondary. Wisconsin gave up some big plays this year, some more costly than others. I fear with a new batch of backs around Dixon that problem compounds. On the other hand, if they fend off big plays and can play disciplined man-to-man coverage, Wisconsin’s in a great place for another record season.