Camp SZN kicks off for the Wisconsin Badgers later this week, as the 2018 season (finally) draws near.
On Sunday, our writers gave their thoughts as to which position battle they are most interested in heading into fall camp later this week. Today, we ponder what is the biggest question marks for Wisconsin heading into camp.
Jake Kocorowski: I talked about the defensive line as the position battle to watch heading into fall camp. Well, I’m going back to the well once again to this group. You lose three defensive ends—Chikwe Obasih, Alec James and Conor Sheehy—that combined for 156 games played. During the spring, I felt that Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk would provide stability to the group, but with the former now out for the season and the latter’s timetable for return murky, this group will need to find players to step up quickly.
Aaron Vopal stood out at times and seems most likely to take the reigns as one of the starters. Kraig Howe had a nice couple of scrimmages to end fall camp, and both he and David Pfaff are redshirt juniors who have been here the longest. I’ve always been intrigued by Keldric Preston, but Breckterfield noted he wanted him to get up to 265-270. UW still listed him at 250 on its fall roster recently released.
Again, the non-conference schedule should help them ease into the first three games, and depending upon how much 2-4-5 nickel subpackages Jim Leonhard deploys, they could get away with utilizing Olive Sagapolu and just one end in a particular look for a bit. You bet UW hopes Loudermilk returns around then, as when that fourth game of the season rolls around at Iowa to kick off Big Ten play, there needs to be some answers.
Andrew Rosin: I’m going to stick with the defensive theme and talk about safety. Y’know, the non-D’Cota Dixon part. So long as he’s healthy one half of the question is answered. But Natrell Jamerson was a valued free safety who’s now in New Orleans, and whoever replaces him is going to have to step in and help steady an already young secondary. Scott Nelson’s a redshirt freshman who has shown a high upside in practice, and Eric Burrell was a steady force on special teams last season. Both could easily step in, but the pace of the game might still be too fast for them when conference play starts.
Owen Riese: To me, one of the more undersold issues for this defense is finding a starter across from Andrew Van Ginkel. While in theory the names there are familiar to most Badgers fans, there isn’t much actual contribution to look back on. Zack Baun flashed athleticism and potential in 2016, but obviously missed last season. Tyler Johnson is a former walk-on who played quarterback in high school (in a running offense), and while he accumulated some stats last season, when I saw him he seemed to be a bit overwhelmed physically. He’ll need to step up in a big way to uphold the standard set by this defense.
Ryan Mellenthin: While there are a lot of question marks on the team, be it on the defensive line or the defensive backfield, my biggest question is will Alex Hornibrook take the next step forward, in his junior season. Through the first 13 games of the 2017 season, Hornibrook threw 15 interceptions, which tied him for fifth most in the NCAA and second most in the Big Ten.
However, Hornibrook seemed like a completely different player in the Orange Bowl, facing Miami, a team that was famous for forcing turnovers [ed. note: insert Chryst “Turnover Chain My F***** A**” GIF here]. He completed 23-of-34 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns. He threw several back-shoulder passes for scores and fit throws into tight holes. This was something we hadn’t seen much of earlier in the season.
Hornibrook seems to have continued his improvement, winning the Manning Passing Academy Air It Out competition. This season will be the ultimate test, as Wisconsin is packed with talent at wide receiver and the southpaw is now in his third season under the helm. Wisconsin will need him to continue to improve and hope that his Orange Bowl performance was not a flue, as its title aspirations will rest on the left arm of Hornibrook.
Tyler Hunt: I think the biggest question is the cornerback position. Replacing both sides is tough for any program. I really like the skill set on Dontye Carriere-Williams, and I believe her will solidify himself as a true number one corner but the other CB spot gives me a little more concern. Madison Cone, Faion Hicks, and Donte Burton all appear to have a great set of skills on them from what I have seen, but until we see it live in game I think some concern is reasonable. This group won’t get a real test until Iowa, unless BYU shows some flashes in the passing game. Jim Leonhard really seems to like the group he has, and obviously can coach a secondary as good as anyone. Despite that, cornerback isn’t a position that Wisconsin has been able to just plug and play in the past like running back or offensive line.
Bob Wiedenhoeft: My biggest question mark is Hornibrook. I completely agree with my peers above about the uncertainty at defense due to turnover, but I trust Leonhard to figure those all out. I am not a Hornibrook hater at all; quite the opposite, I’m more of an apologist. He is a very good quarterback. As with almost any craft, it is a much easier progression from “good” to “very good” than from “very good” to “excellent.” Hornibrook made that first jump last year with the Orange Bowl serving as his capstone, but can he make that second jump?
It’s going to take some time for the defense to settle. The unit is going to make some mistakes that it did not make last year, and may not bail out Hornibrook if he makes mistakes. To me, there’s no question about that. The question is if he will be able to bail out the defense and win a shootout or two on the road and perhaps in Indianapolis should he get that opportunity.
If this team is to have expectations placed at its feet, Hornibrook must be excellent. That might be the tallest individual task for any player on this team.