Obviously, every year people are optimistic about what their favorite college football team can and will accomplish in a few, short months. At the risk of sounding more optimistic than normal, it should not be considered out of the realm of possibilities that this offensive unit could be as talented as any group Paul Chryst has coached, especially in a head coaching capacity.
Many fans will look back fondly on the 2010 and 2011 teams as some of the most potent offenses in the country, and in Wisconsin history. Piloted by Scott Tolzien and Russell Wilson, respectively, those two offenses propelled Wisconsin to consecutive Rose Bowl appearances.
Those were the last two seasons that Chryst was the offensive coordinator in Madison.
Now that Wisconsin Badgers fans are entering year four of the Paul Chryst Experience (complimentary crew neck sweater included), this year’s edition could have as much potential as those early 2010s teams, and put some fear into defenses outside of the Badgers’ bludgeoning run game.
A third-year starter at quarterback, a prolific running back, four proven wide receivers, and arguably the top returning offensive line in the country should have Badgers’ fans worked into a frenzy come Friday, Aug. 31st.
This could be, potentially, the most talented offense that Paul Chryst has ever fielded.
Let’s take a look, position-by-position, at what the Badgers will be fielding this season.
This is likely the crux of the entire thing. If Alex Hornibrook continues to progress and develop, as he has over his year-and-a-half as a starter, Wisconsin could be flat out scary to opposing defenses.
Hornibrook improved last season, tossing 25 touchdowns, including four in the Orange Bowl victory over the University of Miami. Seemingly improving as a contested catch thrower week-by-week, the redshirt junior will look to truly take the next step as a passer in 2018. This might not mean throwing for 40 touchdowns or 4,000 yards, rather efficiently running Paul Chryst’s offense and limiting turnovers.
Hornibrook’s 15 interceptions in 2017 is simply too many. While the nature of Chryst’s passing game seemingly leads to a lot of contested or tight window throws (could also be alleviated by the increased athleticism of wide receivers you’ll read about shortly), Hornibrook has to continue to hone in on what throws he can and can’t make, and sometimes live to fight another down.
If he can cut his interceptions in half, or even slightly less than that, Wisconsin’s passing game will be in good shape.
I know this is the part that y’all came to read, and it isn’t without reason.
Jonathan Taylor is the high powered engine that will take the Badgers to promised land, or at least they hope.
According to Bovada, the true sophomore is the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy this preseason, and it’s tough to argue. Taylor, in 13 starts, ran for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago, in only 13 starts. The biggest improvement Taylor can make heading into his sophomore season is continue to work on his work in the receiving game, allowing the Badgers’ offense to be much less predictable. Often times last season, if Taylor came out of the game, Wisconsin was going to throw the football.
During the spring, however, Taylor also worked with Chryst and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard on route running.
The remaining carries will be shared by the deepest assortment of backs Chryst has had since his return in Madison in 2015. Returning senior Chris James, last year’s opening day starter Bradrick Shaw (returning from injury), the oft-injured Taiwan Deal, walk-on sensation Garrett Groshek and incoming freshman Nakia Watson will be fighting for the remainder of the reps at running back.
The effectiveness of this group of players will likely play a bigger role in the success of the offense than you’d think.
Senior Alec Ingold will take over the lead blocking duties for the Badgers in 2018. After being moved from inside linebacker to running back as a true freshman, Ingold has personified the selfless behavior and high character that the university prides itself on.
Ingold has shown to be capable as a runner, with 11 career rushing touchdowns to go along with three touchdown receptions.
One of the more unsung heroes of this program under Paul Chryst, Ingold will likely carry on the tradition of effective fullbacks in the cardinal and white.
Alright, here is where business starts to pick up. The Badgers return every player from a year ago at the position, outside of Jazz Peavy, who left the program mid-season, and George Rushing, now a grad transfer at Buffalo.
Quintez Cephus is the most talented wide receiver Wisconsin has had since Nick Toon, and I’m sure he’s already caught NFL scouts’ attention. Look for Cephus to bounce back in a big way. He’s the main red zone threat for the Badgers, and has shown the ability to be a vertical threat as well.
A.J. Taylor is the other elder statesman of the group (he and Cephus are both true juniors). Taylor plays primarily out of the slot, and also has experience as a return specialist.
Taylor has shown the ability to utilize the full route tree, but has done a lot of damage up the seam. I expect Taylor to be the main benefactor, along with Kendric Pryor, with extra attention allocated on Cephus and the next receiver in this section.
Danny Davis was another National Signing Day coup from Chryst and wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore, and Davis exploded onto the scene nearly immediately a year ago. He showed the ability to separate out of his breaks, but also excelled in contested catch/jump ball situations. His ability to track the ball deep also helps him along the sideline as it did at Minnesota in Week 12 a year ago. Only a true sophomore, the youth movement continues.
Kendric “Lamar Jackson Five” Pryor, a redshirt sophomore in 2018, also came along as the year continued for Wisconsin. Bursting onto the scene with touchdown runs against Iowa and Michigan, the Illinois native showed the ability to shine in the bright lights. Pryor has a lot of potential, and will look forward to showing it for a full season, as he missed the early part of last season due to a non-football injury.
Aron Cruickshank is one player who I believe can carry on the recent trend of true freshmen contributing to the team in year one (see: Cephus, Taylor and Davis). He is blindingly fast, and his immediately evident speed does all it can to negate his petite build. Soaking wet at 160 pounds and 5’9, the New York native is a jitterbug home-run hitter who will look to make his mark on special teams and jet sweeps.
This is probably the most talented group Wisconsin has ever had at wide receiver—and the best part, there is only one senior at the position on the roster (Chris Clementi).
If there was ever a “down” year for the tight end position in Madison, this is likely it.
For the first time in three years, the top receiving option won’t be Troy Fumagalli, as he is now a Denver Bronco. The top returning tight end on the roster is Zander Neuville, who will be a fifth-year senior. Neuville, who is coming off of a season-ending injury suffered against Minnesota in Week 12 last season, is not much of a receiving option, but he’s an above average blocker at the tight end position, and is very solid at what he does. After Neuville are two receiver-first tight ends: Kyle Penniston and Jake Ferguson.
Penniston was a highly-touted kid out of Mater Dei High School in California, and while he is flashed potential as a receiver, the learning curve in the blocking department has kept him from breaking out as a tight end.
Ferguson is a former four-star tight end recruit, and yes, he’s Barry Alvarez’ grandson. He was very impressive in spring practices, and I don’t think it’s much hyperbole to state that the Madison native is the most impressive athlete at the position and could be a big time player in his career in Madison.
This is where the Badgers’ bread is going to be buttered this season.
The Badgers return every single offensive lineman from a season ago, and the depth that Chryst & Co. have developed at this position is incredible considering where it was when they took over the program, but that’s an article for another time (writer’s note: soon, probably).
At right tackle, David Edwards is receiving a ton of preseason attention regarding potential NFL interest in 2019. While I think it may be a but overblown at this point, it is undeniable the amount of physical potential Edwards possesses, and his ceiling is in the sky. He is the blindside protector of Hornibrook, and is the most physically impressive member of the line in Madison.
Beau Benzschawel shunned the NFL, along with Edwards and Michael Deiter, to return to Madison for his fifth and final college season. A three-year starter, Benzschawel has been rock solid on the right side of the line, and will continue to do so in year four.
Tyler Biadasz was a bit of a surprise in 2017, as he stepped in as a redshirt freshman and held down the center position well. He took over most of the communication duties from Deiter following his move to tackle and was a stalwart in the starting lineup in 2017. Nothing but improvement should be expected moving forward for who looks to be yet another four year starter along the offensive line.
This is where some of the potential line mix-up could occur. Jon Dietzen has started parts of the last two seasons at left guard. He was a highly-ranked recruit coming out of high school, but his struggles in pass protection and more paramount, his struggles staying healthy at 6’6 335, have kept him from being as consistent of a contributor along the offensive line as was expected when Dietzen arrived in Madison.
While Deiter could start again at left tackle, there has been some suggestion that he could possibly slide back into left guard in order to get redshirt sophomore Cole Van Lanen playing time at left tackle.
Deiter, as we’ve discussed, can be another four-year starter who has played center, left guard, and left tackle in his career. While he’s readily admitted in the past, he’s a work in progress in pass protection at tackle, but he’s an excellent run blocker at all positions, and is the unquestioned leader of the offensive line.
It would be remiss if I didn’t talk about some of the reserves, as the offensive line room is unlike any other position group, and the fact that there is so much quality depth built up.
Fifth-year seniors Micah Kapoi and Brett Connors, redshirt junior Jason Erdmann and redshirt sophomores in Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl are all on the cusp of getting playing time at any time due to injuries. All experienced in-game action and provide a huge advantage to the roster.