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Three things we learned...special Early Signing Day edition

What did we learn from the Early Signing period?

Big Ten Football Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

While the 2019 iteration of the Wisconsin Badgers (10-3 overall) football team is preparing for the Rose Bowl on the first of January, the coaching staff has been hard on the recruiting trail attempting to secure the signatures of 2020 prospects.

On Early Signing Day, December 18, Wisconsin signed a total of 21 players that will be on the team next season, 19 of which are on scholarship. The class overall marks as one of the best classes in school history, and has many fans eager for their arrival.

In this weekly installment during football season, here are three items that I think we learned about the Badgers, now and in the future, after the dust settled on Early Signing Day.

Early enrollees

Every spring there are usually a few recruits who will forego the remainder of their high school experience to enroll early in college. The decision generally allows the prospect to get acclimated with the rigors of college life and the delicate balance of mixing collegiate athletics with a collegiate class load.

Enrolling early is particularly helpful for athletes when it comes to football, as they can partake in winter conditioning and spring practice in order to get a head start on the playbook for the fall. It has not been uncommon for these players to use this time as a springboard to help them earn playing time come games seven or eight months later.

For example, in 2017 Jack Coan, Izayah Green-May, and Faion Hicks all enrolled early. Coan would go on to be the backup quarterback as a true freshman, and ultimately take a hold of the position during the latter half of his sophomore season. Hicks would go on to redshirt as a freshman due to injury, but he would then receive the bulk of starter reps the last two seasons since. Green-May would get a jump start on adding weight and necessary strength to eventually see time as a sophomore.

In 2018, Wisconsin would welcome four early enrollees. Aron Cruickshank would use that time to breakout on his way to earning the kickoff return job as a freshman. Bryson Williams would get stronger and learn the nose tackle position in order to backup Olive Sagapolu in the fall. Williams was called upon to play in all 13 games that year as a freshman, including three starts. Reggie Pearson would battle injuries during his freshman season following enrolling early, but he started a game at safety against Michigan, and he would ultimately take hold of the starting spot as a redshirt freshman. Taj Mustapha would catch a touchdown pass as a freshman before redshirting due to the log jam of talented pass catchers in front of him.

This year, Wisconsin had three players join early for spring practice. Four-star quarterback Graham Mertz would learn the playbook and speed of the position on his way to earn the backup quarterback job and play in multiple games while preserving his redshirt. Spencer Lytle would learn the ropes of the outside linebacker position, but was hampered by injuries during fall camp leading to his redshirt. Leo Chenal, on the other hand, came in and made a splash. The inside linebacker would end up cracking the two-deep, and played in every game this season both in sub-packages and on special teams. He appears primed to take over the starting position next to Jack Sanborn next season.

Given the potential benefits afforded with enrolling early, Wisconsin is excited to see five players destined to be there for spring practices:

These five members will no doubt make tremendous gains from this expedited jump into college both on the gridiron and in the classroom. Oftentimes it is easiest to predict which players will not redshirt, or will play a larger role than most freshman, based on spring practice participation. It would not be surprising to see any number of these players find a niche next season given the extra time that they will be on campus.

One player in particular, Nick Herbig, a four-star outside linebacker out of Hawaii, may have the best odds to see the field with Zack Baun and Tyler Johnson each poised to exhaust their eligibility at the position.

Either way, having such a large pool of talented prospects joining early is a nice surprise for the staff and fans alike.

Making a splash

Since the dawn of the Early Signing period in 2018, Wisconsin has rarely had any fireworks or drama on signing day. In a way it is fitting given the program’s approach, and the staff is more than content with that.

In 2018, Wisconsin had all of their commits that were signing early committed by the first of October. In 2019, Wisconsin received an exciting verbals from Titus Toler four days before, and Quan Easterling nine days prior, but there was no drama that ensued on the actual day in which players could sign.

This year was a bit different.

Wisconsin closed on four-star standout outside linebacker Kaden Johnson, and three-star wide receiver Devin Chandler on signing day, receiving their public announcements and letters of intent on the same day.

While Johnson had committed a week prior to the staff during an in-home visit, fans and media members were unsure of his plan until right before his hat ceremony.

Chandler followed suit similarly, announcing publicly with a hat ceremony at his high school as well.

The announcements on signing day will unlikely become the norm for Wisconsin, but for the Badgers to finish off the class with an exclamation mark like Kaden Johnson is noteworthy. Not only is he a supremely talented player, he marks a feather in the cap for Paul Chryst by signing the top player in the state of Wisconsin — Trey Wedig — and Minnesota, in Johnson.

Room to grow

One glaring spot that was not addressed in the early part of the recruiting calendar is the running back position. With Jonathan Taylor presumably declaring for the NFL Draft, and Bradrick Shaw graduating, the tailback position is still definitely a need for this season.

Garrett Groshek will likely continue to handle the third-down load, and redshirt freshman Nakia Watson is the most likely candidate to garner the majority of carries after seeing action this year. Isaac Guerendo, now finally healthy, is another holdover with a chance to get carries as well.

The wildcard, though, is Julius Davis. A big-time recruiting win from in the state, he was forced to redshirt because of a core injury. If he is healthy he could also push for playing time.

Bottom line, however, is that outside of Groshek and Watson, there is a good amount of uncertainty at the position still. With a month and a half remaining until National Signing Day, the primary focus of the staff according to Joe Rudolph will be finding a 2020 running back recruit to bring in to bolster that competition more.

The two chief players to watch are four-star targets Jalen Berger out of New Jersey and Kevontre Bradford of Texas. Both players are top-15 players at their position, and would be huge additions to the class.

Berger recently took an official visit to Wisconsin back on November 9, and sat down with the staff during a home visit on December 11. The caveat in his recruitment is the recent hiring of Greg Schiano at Rutgers. He has a previous relationship there, so they are the presumed favorite.

Bradford on the other hand has played his recruitment very close to the vest. After taking an official visit to Wisconsin back in the summer, his only other visit has been to Ohio State in early October. Ohio State is likely out of contention for his services after picking up two running backs already.

The “Crystal Ball” on 247Sports and the “FutureCast” forecasts on Rivals all lean Wisconsin, but only time will tell as his recruitment progresses down the stretch.

No matter which running back Wisconsin brings in, they will have a chance to earn playing time early with Jonathan Taylor gone. If either of these dynamic play makers were to join, the chances are much higher in my opinion.

Rest assured, running backs coach John Settle is working to bring in the next great Wisconsin back, it will just be a few more weeks until we see who it is.