After a tough eight win season, which is subpar for recent Wisconsin standards, the Badgers football team looks to bounce back entering 2019. The one area that the offense excelled in was running the football, a hallmark of the program since Barry Alvarez took over three decades ago.
While the running game averaged 273 yards per game, good for sixth nationally, the passing game only averaged 157 yards per game, 118th in the nation last year. Mash those numbers with placing 105th in the nation with 24 turnovers lost, the offense was not as efficient as it could have been a year ago. While Wisconsin will always be a run first team, a greater semblance of balance is needed heading into the new season, in addition to a heightened care for possessing the football.
Flash forward to 2019 and Wisconsin has now completed the portion of fall camp that is available to the media. After seeing seven practices Bucky’s 5th Quarter has a breakdown of the sights and sounds of camp, as well as what to possibly expect when the team heads down to open the season against South Florida on August 30th.
!!!Spoiler alert, you will have to wait until the very end to read about Quintez Cephus!!!
We will start with the position that everyone wants to read about. After watching seven practices it seems as though Jack Coan is QB1. The junior signal caller has had a good camp and has elevated his game from a year ago. He has done a great job of spreading the ball around to a lot of different targets, and his mobility has been evident. While he won’t necessarily wow you, he has been the frontrunner since the spring, and he showed no reason to question his abilities as the starter in fall camp.
Chryst still pretty tight lipped about QB competition. Likes the room, but with two full weeks of camp left before the opener in South Florida a lot can still happen depth chart wise. Also doesn’t sound like he’s going to officially announce a starter anytime soon.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 16, 2019
Behind him is where the real competition has been all of fall camp. Early in camp, redshirt freshman Chase Wolf came out firing, showing how his ability to scramble and create plays on the go could be an asset to the offense. While he still needs to work on improving his decision making, he has a strong arm and is not afraid to trust his instincts. He has done a great job this fall camp in growing from the spring, and he has positioned himself to play a role in 2019.
The last week of fall camp that was open to the media, however, was taken over by true freshman Graham Mertz. The highly touted recruit showed his teammates, coaches and those in attendance why he was a top-100 prospect coming out of high school. He struggled during the first week or so of fall practice while the offensive playbook was being installed, which is understandable for a kid who just graduated high school.
He tended to have happy feet in the pocket, and he did not look comfortable. Last Monday, while speaking with the media, quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr told reporters that Graham had settled in and looked better during the two weekend practices closed to the media. That momentum continued throughout the week, as Mertz put together his best practices showcasing the arm talent that made him an elite level prospect.
For your daily #MertzAlert he had a pair of long touchdown throws to Cruickshank and Dunn. He has had a very nice week of practice and looks to be playing a lot more comfortable out there.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 15, 2019
While I am unsure of who the exact backup quarterback will likely be to Coan, I think there is a strong chance that both players will see time on the field this season. With the new redshirt rule I think both players will get their chances in mop up time to gain experience during the year. In speaking with the coaches, both Wolf and Mertz have garnered the trust of their teammates, and I think the staff would be comfortable with either player on the field.
In the off chance of injuries or ineffectiveness, the coaching staff will have a difficult decision, but as things stand today I think Mertz may be the most talented player in the room, but a redshirt season with him playing in four games may be the most likely outcome. I think the depth chart is Coan, and then Wolf or Mertz.
Jonathan Taylor’s role will remain unchanged this year. He is still the headliner, but the ways in which he goes about his business in 2019 might be slightly different. I think he will still be tasked with carrying the ball 20+ times a game, but I think he will also be asked to catch the ball more often out of the backfield. Anyone who has watched him the past two seasons knows that he is supremely talented, and this fall camp did nothing to dissuade onlookers.
Lots of Groshek and Taylor both in the backfield together today at practice. The defensive players we had the chance to speak with all highlighted how they present match up problems individually, and when they are on the field together. pic.twitter.com/BDH0kisCi6— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 8, 2019
Garrett Groshek is likely the second back in the rotation. Groshek has improved steadily over his time at Wisconsin, and I think that his responsibilities will continue to grow as well. Last year he carried the ball 65 times for 425 yards. I think that he will see both of those numbers increase a bit this year, and the number of plays where he is on the field also go up.
Based on fall camp, Nakia Watson will most likely be the third running back called upon. While he is not the same player as Taiwan Deal, he brings a physicality to the position that should help the team. I think Watson will earn 50+ carries this year on his way to preparing himself to be called upon in a greater role next season when Taylor is potentially gone. Bradrick Shaw is another player who will probably see carries in the fall. He continues to break through hurdles on his recovery from a devastating knee injury that cost him all of last season.
Here is a video of the type of running ability Watson, who recently switched to number 14 can bring pic.twitter.com/dWYmHbl2FE— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 16, 2019
There are other players in the wings of the running back group, namely Isaac Guerendo, Brady Schipper and Hunter Johnson. But, due to injuries and the depth ahead of them I do not see them getting too much work outside of late game blowouts. Julius Davis is presumably going to redshirt after undergoing surgery recently.
Wisconsin has three fullbacks on scholarship for this upcoming season. The top two players throughout camp have been John Chenal and Mason Stokke, two high school running backs from within state lines. Both players have gone through reps with the first team offense, and figure to be players that are counted on this year.
Chenal is a big hulking blocker, who is getting better in being a receiver as well after playing mostly special teams as a freshman. I have seen him receive more of the reps than Stokke, playing both at fullback but also getting some time as a h-back/tight end. He can really bring something special as a blocker and he will be a playmaker at the position.
Mason Stokke (#34) got some more reps at fullback today with the first team. The 240 pound junior and sophomore John Chenal should be a nice combo at the position. #fullbackcity pic.twitter.com/QYNSic0SHZ— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 9, 2019
Stokke is now healthy after a sitting out a lot of spring practice. He is also a great blocker, but is a little smaller than Chenal. On a play against Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl he pancaked two defenders leading the way for Jonathan Taylor to run into the end zone, giving fans and the staff a glimpse of his talent. Both of the fullbacks will be called upon during the season, and have been seen on the field together on occasion.
True freshman Quan Easterling will likely redshirt after injuring his foot during off-season conditioning.
No position was hit harder with injuries in fall camp than the tight end group. While there are eight players listed on the official roster, there have been times in camp that there has been only three tight ends available to practice.
Sophomore TE Jake Ferguson was back at practice today with a yellow no contact jersey on. He was still sporting a splint and wrap on his injured thumb. That didn’t stop him from snagging a pretty one handed catch at the back of the end zone. pic.twitter.com/Fc8P4ItSZd— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 16, 2019
There is no doubt who the top player in the room is though after Jake Ferguson had a stellar redshirt freshman season with 456 yards receiving and four touchdowns. This fall camp he has battled injury after tearing a ligament in his left thumb, requiring surgery. He has played with a cast over his thumb, but that has not slowed him in making plays in practice. While the injury is not ideal, he is not expected to miss any time.
Behind Ferguson injuries have really hampered the group. Gabe Lloyd is out for the season, while Luke Benzschawel injured his leg during a scrimmage early in camp. While Lloyd will definitely not return this year, Benzschawel’s injury was also significant and it is not known if he will be back for the team in 2019. Coy Wanner is another tight end that has yet to be seen in fall camp as he nurses an injury of his own.
An already thin TE group was even lighter today for the #badgers with Rucci and Ferguson both out of practice with left arm injuries. This comes in addition to Benzschawel’s leg injury and Lloyd being out for the season.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 14, 2019
Luckily for Wisconsin, Zander Neuville was granted a sixth year of eligibility. He was the top run blocker last season as the in-line tight end, but missed the majority of the year after an injury derailed his season. He is not expected to be ready for the opener versus South Florida, but he could be a big addition as the season wears on.
In addition to Neuville, senior offensive lineman David Moorman has been taking snaps as a jumbo blocking tight end in wake of the injuries. While is not much of a threat in the passing game, he is an experienced blocker that can move players in his way.
The three players who could also make noise are a trio of freshman. Hayden Rucci and Clay Cundiff have both gotten time working with the first and second team offense, and will have a chance to see game action as true freshman. Both players are already 250 pounds, and are trying to get ready for a possible role. Both players have also battled injuries though, and it will be interesting to see if either is needed to exceed the four game threshold to keep your redshirt.
I think they will each play in four games at least, but in an ideal world one or both of them would redshirt. The last freshman is walk-on Jack Eschenbach. At 6-foot-6 and only 220 some odd pounds he doesn’t have the perfect size yet to be a great blocker, but he has shown the ability to excel in the passing game with his combination of length and speed. He has seen his reps increase due to injuries and he would likely see time if Ferguson were to be hurt again.
Saw a lot of reps for Hayden Rucci, Clay Cundiff, and Jack Eschenbach. The trio of freshman all had moments in practice that stood out. Rucci got multiple reps in first team situations as the #badgers seek to find a consistent third TE option. pic.twitter.com/U54WT7c0ST— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 8, 2019
One would think that losing four primary starters from a year ago would be cause for concern. After watching seven practices I feel a lot better about the group.
Center Tyler Biadasz is the vocal leader of the group who passed up NFL opportunities to return to Wisconsin for his junior season. The preseason first-team All-American has been limited for most of camp for precautionary reasons, but has looked good while on the field. During the time when he has not been on the field the centers have struggling with snapping errors, including backup center Jason Erdmann. After Erdmann there have been a couple different players who have seen time at the position as the staff seeks depth.
Van Lanen and Biadasz got the most work of fall camp today. With them back in the lineup we may have gotten a glimpse of the starting offensive line as of right now (LT to RT): Van Lanen, Erdmann, Biadasz, Seltzner, Bruss were the primary guys together.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 14, 2019
At left tackle Cole Van Lanen is the starter after splitting time with Jon Dietzen last year. Van Lanen is a former four-star recruit who graded out as one of the top tackles according to Pro Football Focus in his sophomore season. Like Biadasz he has been limited for large chunks of camp for precautionary reasons as he returns from injury, but he should have a great year. At the backup spot, sophomore Tyler Beach has benefitted from the extra work with Van Lanen taking it slow, and he has done a nice job.
Left guard was a position that many people thought would end up with Kayden Lyles as the starter. While he has earned a lot of reps at that position, he seems to be slotted as the backup to senior Jason Erdmann. Only a sophomore, Lyles is still knocking off rust at the position after spending last season on the defensive line.
Erdmann is an absolute unit at 6-foot-6 and weighing over 320 pounds. He has played a lot of snaps all along the offensive line over the previous two seasons, and is a good run blocker. Even though Lyles is not the projected starter yet, I do feel as though he will play this season at left guard, and could potential be the starter by season end. Lyles brings a tremendous amount of strength and athleticism to the position, and he is a very good pull blocker due to his ability to move. As he settles back in, I think it is a matter of time before he gets his chance.
At the opposite guard spot Josh Seltzner has been the guy all through fall camp with the first team offense. Nicknamed “buffalo head”, due to the enormity of his dome, he is one of the strongest players on the team, and like Lyles is very good on the move. The former walk-on has worked his way up the depth chart, and is ready for his time now as a sophomore.
Behind him redshirt freshman Michael Furtney has been seeing most of the time. After injuring his hand early in camp he has been battling through it with a large wrap over it. In the event of an injury to Seltzner I could see Furtney hearing his named called upon, but I also would not be surprised to see Erdmann move over or senior David Moorman take his place.
Michael Furtney (#74) was back with a giant club on his left hand. He was immediately back with the second group working at guard. Also appeared that Joe Tippmann saw more time today at center with that second group. He’s still working on snapping, but he is physically ahead. pic.twitter.com/GtoEJ9Wt8K— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 12, 2019
At right tackle Logan Bruss was able to get his feet wet last season, starting in three games in place of David Edwards. He has had almost all of the reps at the position with the first team, and has looked great. He is an athletic tackle who is solid in both running and passing situations. The sophomore tackle has been roommates with Seltzner, and their bond off the field should help them with communication on the field. David Moorman would be the likely replacement if Bruss was injured, but Aaron Vopal has also seen a lot of time at the position. Vopal is a former defensive lineman who possesses the size and athleticism to play tackle, but he is still acclimating to his new role.
The two true freshman, Logan Brown and Joe Tippmann, will probably redshirt this year. While the two players are both very talented they are working to get caught up with the rest of the room.
The position that has stood out the most in fall camp in my opinion has been the receivers. Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor were the assumed top three, and all of them have shown flashes in practice so far. Taylor has been limited the past week or so, and Davis has missed a few practices as well, but the group is strong.
Davis has made some highlight catches, as has Pryor. Taylor led the team in receiving yards last season with 521 yards, while Davis led the team is receptions and touchdowns. Pryor also has been excellent in running the football in sweep and reverse plays.
One of the last plays of the day was a pretty post route that ended in a TD to Kendric Pryor from Coan. Pryor got behind the defense for the long completion. The #badgers need more big plays that stretch the field in 2019, and hopefully that is a sign of what is to come.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 9, 2019
While those three have had solid performances, the player that stood out the most has been junior Jack Dunn. Dunn has been all over the field in the seven practices I have seen, routinely making plays out of the slot in Taylor’s place. Dunn has shown tremendous quickness and ingenuity in and out of his breaks, and looks ready to help in a greater role this year if needed. Another player who has played well this fall is Adam Krumholz. He is a big target, and has been good in traffic.
Jack Dunn had a big day for the offense catching a couple long touchdown passes from Coan and Mertz. Dunn was all over the field, catching the ball well on a lot of intermediate crossing routes.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 15, 2019
While those five players were the perceived top group, some young players have made plays in camp as well. Taj Mustapha, A.J. Abbott and Aron Cruickshank are working to be more consistent, but have shown the ability at times. I really like the length that Abbott brings to the position, and the quickness that Cruickshank has. I don’t necessarily think Mustapha and Abbott will see extended time with the first team offense, but they could see an opportunity with injuries, or in blow out action. Cruickshank could see more time however as a player to get over the top of the defense on deep routes, or in sweep action similar to Pryor.
Yesterday Wisconsin got some huge news for the offense with Quintez Cephus returning to the team. The 6-foot-1, 207 pound target was the best pass catcher for the team in 2017 before sitting out last year amid suspension and stepping away from the team due to a sexual assault investigation. Now back, he possesses NFL traits and should leapfrog to the top of the depth chart when he is game ready this year.
His size makes him a great deep threat and allows him to be hard to cover in the red zone. In watching his film from 2017, Cephus has a game that is comparable to that of a young Davante Adams. The two are eerily similar in terms of size, and share a style of play with their ability to shield defenders on back shoulder throws, and control the ball mid-air. While he is far from that elite level of Adams now, the junior has a skill set that will help the offense in a big way when he is ready and able to contribute.