For as much as Wisconsin is nationally known as a developmental program, its recent history shows players stepping up and competing for player time early on.
Last season, UW’s five mid-year enrollees found time on the field. Two—nose tackle Bryson Williams and wide receiver/returner Aron Cruickshank—played in all 13 games and had significant roles on the team. The other three—defensive backs Donte Burton and Reggie Pearson, along with wide receiver Taj Mustapha—saw action in four games each but still kept their redshirt. For that matter, Burton and Pearson also started one game each, and Mustapha caught his first career reception for a touchdown in mop up time against New Mexico.
According to UW’s records, 13 freshmen actually saw game time last year, so though enrolling for the spring semester can help adjust to the college life and game, it does not mean others who start during summer conditioning cannot contribute. Last season, inside linebacker Jack Sanborn, cornerback Rachad Wildgoose and walk-on fullback John Chenal all burned their redshirts and found ways to make an impact on the team.
Of course during the 2017 season, running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Danny Davis both emerged during fall camp as well after not enrolling early.
After spring ball and the Badgers’ performances, along with other questions remaining about the position groups, it is worth looking at which first-year players could emerge to help the team starting in fall camp.
QB Graham Mertz
B5Q has already laid out the prep accolades, so those need no further introduction for the young signal caller. In adjusting to the college game and being thrown into the fire of a four-man race to be the starting quarterback this upcoming season, he often showed glimpses of potential with the ability to lead touchdown drives, throw strong, accurate passes and make plays from the position in general.
Mertz also experienced the growing pains any true freshman would as well, but I predict he will be in the running for reps in fall camp based on his play this spring.
ILB Leo Chenal
Perhaps the pleasant surprise of fall camp, and one that has been noted many times here at B5Q (including the feature seen below), the Gatorade state player of the year and WFCA small school offensive and defensive player of the year stepped up as part of the second duo of inside linebackers alongside walk-on Mike Maskalunas.
He flashed physicality in his tackling ability while combining that with the ability to make plays in coverage with hauling in interceptions in the sessions open to the media.
For fall camp, I expect him to maintain that status, and I believe he very well may find time on the field this season—more than just the four games to keep the redshirt.
OLB Spencer Lytle
Lytle appeared to work mostly as a third-team reserve though Jim Leonhard’s defense often jumbled players together, especially towards the end of practices. For a first-year player who’s playing at the position at a listed 204 pounds, he still finished spring ball with an interception on the final snap of the April 26th session.
I’m not sure if Lytle will break the two-deep this season, with those like Noah Burks, Tyler Johnson, Izayah Green-May, Christian Bell and Jaylan Franklin potentially in front of him. However, he has the football IQ and the talent to potentially make something happen, and the seasoning he experienced these past 15 sessions make me high on his prospects.
“I think the biggest thing is just getting in the playbook, knowing your responsibility. They always tell us if you don’t know what you’re doing, we can't put you on the field, but I was really impressed with his football knowledge when he got here,” Burks said on April 26. “He was way ahead of me, and I even know some other guys in the room when we were freshmen, like with the terminology and the coverages and all that. So coming in I thought he was ahead football knowledge-wise, but now it’s just hitting the weight room, getting stronger and as you get more comfortable with the defense, starting to make plays.”
Rest of 2019 class
OT Logan Brown
This fall camp will be interesting in terms of how the five-star true freshman picks up on the offensive scheme and develops further. Maybe even more interesting will be where he lies on the depth chart after fall ball and on the regular season’s depth chart.
Wisconsin will have Cole Van Lanen, Logan Bruss, Tyler Beach and David Moorman being available to play at the tackle spots. If Moorman—a versatile lineman who can play all three positions in the group—contends for a starting spot on the interior line, that could be an opening for Brown if newly minted lineman Aaron Vopal (previously a defensive lineman) or Cormac Sampson (tight end) do not fill the void.
As offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph previously stated, it is possible for a freshman to make the two-deep.
“Tyler Biadasz was one who came in, and he was about to play as we traveled to Iowa as a true freshman,” Rudolph said. “We got ‘Dietz’ back off of [injury], he goes, ‘I can play.’ ‘Dietz’ is the best, I miss him. He played and kind of saved Tyler’s redshirt, but he was easily in the two-deep that year, so absolutely someone could compete and get into the two-deep.”
DL Rodas Johnson, Gio Paez and Keeanu Benton
One of my main questions currently revolves around the defensive line and who backs up Williams at nose tackle. Gunnar Roberge ended the spring on a high note with two sacks on consecutive plays. Can the redshirt senior lock down that slot, or could some of the 2019 signees fit the bill if Williams is injured and cannot play?
TEs Hayden Rucci and Clay Cundiff
The depth at the position appeared cut in half during the spring with Jake Ferguson, Luke Benzschawel and Coy Wanner all out for the final part of practice. While Ferguson and Wanner’s injuries occurred during spring ball, Benzschawel did not participate at all while rehabbing.
Gabe Lloyd and Jack Eschenbach received plenty of reps—and there is absolutely no insider info here—but I’m also wondering if the two incoming freshmen could make a splash if injuries hit the group again. Without Kyle Penniston, a viable backup with experience who left the program before the spring, an injury or two to this position could make a huge impact on the offense.
S Titus Toler
I touted my positive impressions of this position group here on B5Q and also on WOZN’s The Camp in their spring roundtable episode. The two-deep appears solid, but behind that, if injuries hit, Wisconsin has two walk-ons in John Torchio and Tyler Mais. Can the St. John Bosco product, a teammate of Lytle’s in their prep days, step up if needed?
RB Julius Davis
I definitely feel more comfortable with the running back group with the spring, as I saw potential from Garrett Groshek (especially), Nakia Watson, Brady Schipper and Isaac Guerendo. You cannot forget Bradrick Shaw as well, who continues to work back from injury—and either he or Watson could fill that Taiwan Deal-esque mold to complement Taylor in the backfield.
It may be a longer of a shot than some, in my opinion, but we will see how the in-state running back performs when he steps on to campus in the summer.