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What to watch during Wisconsin’s 2018 spring practices

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Here’s who we’re looking forward to seeing this spring.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

With just a couple of days until spring football begins for the 2018 edition of the Wisconsin Badgers, there is much to look forward to but also some questions that will need addressing before the Aug. 31 kickoff against Western Kentucky.

The 15 practices that stretch from mid-March to late-April will not, in all likelihood, decide particular starting spots. Rather, they will provide a glimpse into who the coaching staff believes could be potential fits at certain position groups when the team returns for fall camp.

Here is just a sampling of who and what B5Q will be watching the most during the spring.

Defensive line, particularly Garrett Rand and Bryson Williams

As previously discussed, gone are three huge contributors in Chikwe Obasih, Alec James, and Conor Sheehy. That leaves will-be senior Olive Sagapolu as the lone starter returning on the defensive line, but at nose tackle.

That will force some younger, unproven players to step up not just in spring camp but also in late July/early August. At end, Isaiahh Loudermilk translated an impressive spring last year into being a productive member of the defensive line by recording 1.5 sacks in 11 games.

Opposite him, it should bear watching who steps up (or bumps out) to be on the other side. Will-be junior Rand has been more than solid in backing up Sagapolu at nose tackle despite weighing in the 270-pound range due to his brute strength, power, and explosiveness. Will position coach Inoke Breckterfield move him back outside like we saw at times last spring? There’s also redshirt sophomore Keldric Preston and redshirt juniors David Pfaff and Kraig Howe (I’m very much interested in Preston’s potential).

A lot in this position group will also be dependent on the true freshman Williams, who enrolled early and could presumably be a contributing force at nose tackle in his first year in Madison, similar to the impact Rand made two seasons prior.

Williams has already shown the physical attributes that could allow him to make a splash early on. How well he picks up playing at the college level will be the next step, but the hype train picked up more steam late last week when this video hit Twitter:

The offensive line

Who goes where, and how does Wisconsin find its best five linemen for the season? It all starts here, and we’ll see how offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph utilizes his players.

Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel, and David Edwards all returned for 2018, allowing Wisconsin to have all five starters back from last year’s 13–1 team. Will-be redshirt sophomore Tyler Biadasz will lock down the center spot once again after emerging last spring, with Benzschawel the right guard.

Deiter bumped out to left tackle last year but many believe he will be an interior lineman in the NFL. Will he stay out there, or could Rudolph slide him back inside to potentially a more comfortable fit at left guard, where Jon Dietzen and walk-on Jason Erdmann combined for reps last season?

That also depends on how former four-star talents Cole Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl develop. Van Lanen played sparingly when Deiter worked through a minor injury last season and also contributed as an extra tackle in a “jumbo” package as No. 85 when Zander Neuville was lost for the remainder of 2017.

Kasl filled in admirably for an injured Edwards at right tackle in Wisconsin’s Orange Bowl win against Miami and some athletic Hurricanes linemen.

Oh yeah, there is also will-be redshirt seniors Micah Kapoi and Brett Connors, along with redshirt freshman Kayden Lyles, a former four-star product who enrolled early last year.

Again, I do not believe this will be resolved this spring, but we will be able to see the thought process with the combination of players being used.

Depth is good. Be intrigued.

Cornerbacks: Madison Cone, Faion Hicks, and co.

Seven of 11 defensive starters are leaving, including Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal. The two defensive standouts helped Wisconsin lock down the fourth-best defense in terms of passing yards allowed and the best in team passing efficiency defense.

With both now pursuing their NFL dreams, Dontye Carriere-Williams will be slotted in as one of the new starters barring injury or other unforeseen circumstance. Who else will step up in a relatively unproven group? The spring practices can definitely help these young players receive more reps.

Cone has the most experience on the field, playing in nine games last year and recording a pass break-up in the Orange Bowl victory. Hicks redshirted last year after injuring his shoulder in spring ball, and we’ve previously noted how defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard likes the South Florida native.

“Madison Cone is a guy that’s impressed me all year just with his approach to the game. He’s a very mature kid that understands football and wants to get better. Anytime you have that, it’s great.”

Redshirt sophomore Caesar Williams should also be in the mix after playing in two games last year, along with potentially Deron Harrell, who was reportedly switched to cornerback before UW pulled a version of its spring roster late last week, and true freshman Donte Burton.

Like Williams, safety Reggie Pearson, wide receiver Taj Mustapha, and athlete Aron Cruickshank—Burton is enrolling early.

Tight ends

With All-American and All-Big Ten honoree Troy Fumagalli off to play on Sundays, Neuville and Kyle Penniston are the likely candidates to pick up the production at this position.

I am intrigued to see not just how they pan out, but also who steps up behind them. With Neuville suffering that right leg injury, his status is currently unknown, but will-be redshirt sophomore Luke Benzschawel could receive some reps in Mickey Turner’s position group.

Another name is Jake Ferguson, who redshirted last year but picked up the offensive scout team player of the year honor. How he fares in picking up reps alongside the starters could be something to watch. Penniston has the game-time experience, but we will see what Ferguson, the Madison Memorial product, can do.

Outside linebacker

Once again, two starters at outside linebacker depart for the NFL. Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs replaced T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel last season and are now on the doorstep of playing on Sundays (especially after their performances at the NFL Combine).

Now, Andrew Van Ginkel and co., will have to replace their production. Van Ginkel could be next in the line of NFL outside linebackers from Wisconsin, especially after the way he played at the end of the 2017 season.

After him, who steps up to start and to contribute? Wisconsin utilized four outside linebackers at times last season. Walk-on Tyler Johnson stepped up when called upon last, notching a strip sack at Illinois. Zack Baun should return from his left foot injury, while Alabama transfer Christian Bell played in eight games last year.

Back to that accidental release of the spring roster that was not yet “finalized.” How could former four-star standout and former safety/inside linebacker Arrington Farrar work his way in if he is indeed moved there?

New position coach Bobby April III has some talent to work with.

Kickoff/punt returners

Beside forming one of the best cornerback duos in the nation (and recent Wisconsin history), Nelson and Tindal also contributed heavily on special teams, particularly as punt and kickoff returners.

There should be a slew of players vying to replace them. Walk-on Jack Dunn worked his way up to No. 2 on the depth chart behind Nelson last year at punt returner after Jazz Peavy left the team, but who else steps back there will be something to watch.

A.J. Taylor was listed as a No. 2 kickoff returner behind Tindal and actually led the team in yards per return (23.5, long of 42), while Danny Davis also returned one kickoff as well.

Could true freshman Cruickshank, whose junior and senior Hudl highlights show a dynamic playmaker, work his way in?

Others to watch

  • Free safety opposite D’Cota Dixon (Patrick Johnson, Eric Burrell?)
  • Wide receiver after the big four of Taylor, Davis, Kendric Pryor, and Quintez Cepus
  • Back-up fullback behind Alec Ingold