The transition from high school athlete to big time college football player can oftentimes be a difficult one. However, in the past few seasons more recruits have been able to see the field in their first year on campus for the Wisconsin Badgers than in years past. The redshirt rule put into place in 2018 is a big reason for this increase, as players are able to play in up to four games in a season and still preserve their freshman standing the following season.
However, this overall increase in first year contributors also coincides with an uptick in recruiting rankings for the program.
Who can forget the immediate impact that Jonathan Taylor, Danny Davis III and Adam Bay made in 2017? That trio played a vital role in the team’s success, and were key members of that No. 39 ranked recruiting class that comprise a large chunk of the redshirt juniors and seniors on the roster currently.
In 2018, the Badgers finished with the No. 46 class in the nation, while ten players saw action as true freshman. Fullback John Chenal, inside linebacker Jack Sanborn, wide receiver Aron Cruickshank, cornerback Rachad Wildgoose and nose tackle Bryson Williams participated in more than four games that year, and have each been significant contributors since.
A year later, in 2019, Wisconsin saw six true freshmen earn snaps as first-year players with ILB Leo Chenal and NT Keeanu Benton playing vital roles that season. Quarterback Graham Mertz only played in three games that year, but he was also the backup quarterback. That class ranked No. 29 in the nation.
After rewatch, it’s amazing how many true freshman (2020 class) played against Michigan:— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) November 16, 2020
- Thompson Jr.
- Van Dyke
Add in 8 RS freshmen also seeing the field, and young players were all over the field for UW.
COVID-19 has made 2020 a bit of an anomaly, with depth issues requiring younger players to see the field, but some of the No. 26 ranked recruiting class has appeared to jump up the depth chart ahead of some older players on campus.
So far this season, 12 freshman players have seen the field, with many taking on larger roles. RB Jalen Berger, OLB Nick Herbig and K Jack Van Dyke have emerged as true starters on the depth chart, while wide receivers Chimere Dike and Devin Chandler have also played pivotal roles this season.
Across each of those classes, early playing time is generally a positive indicator for future success and continued playing time moving forward. Given this steady improvement across Wisconsin recruiting, and the Badgers bringing in the No. 16 ranked recruiting class on early signing day this year, one would have to imagine that some of the newly official members of the 2021 class could potentially play early as well.
With that in mind, here are the five most likely 2021 recruits to see the field next year at Wisconsin...
No. 1: Markus Allen
Make no mistake, the Badgers need wide receiver help right away. Fifth-year seniors Jack Dunn and Adam Krumholz are likely going to move on after the season, and while it is not 100% guaranteed that Danny Davis and/or Kendric Pryor leave as well, this season has definitely highlighted some of the depth issues that Wisconsin has at the position.
Enter Markus Allen. One of the later additions to the class, Allen is a bigger receiver that is already physically capable of helping the team out. At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, the highly regarded pass catcher has strong hands and good body control for a high schooler, which should allow him to compete for playing time right away. Like Chimere Dike in 2020, I think Allen has the highest probability of any freshman to see the field.
Between his skills and the potential need at the position, he will be a player to watch right away when he gets on campus, especially with how much wide receivers coach Alvis Whitted likes bigger wide receivers.
https://t.co/mDXnpCOStP— Markus Allen☆ (@MarkusAllen19) October 27, 2020
60 rec/844 yards/14 TD’s in 8 games! Last year stats 51 rec/1,099 yards/15 TD’s in 11 games! Baller!
No. 2: Hunter Wohler
The player that may be most ready to contribute from day one for Wisconsin is Hunter Wohler. A four-year varsity starter, and two-time state champion, Hunter Wohler is one of the most decorated defensive players to ever come out of the Badger State.
Wohler is a hard hitting and rangy safety that fits the mold of a prototypical free safety in the Big Ten. With Eric Burrell set to move on to the NFL, Wohler could be a prime candidate to see the field as a freshman.
Scott Nelson’s return from injury this season has been a welcomed surprise, and he is likely a starter in 2021. Senior Collin Wilder has confirmed that he intends to come back as well, which could complete the starting spots. However, Jim Leonhard likes to rotate defensive backs and uses three safeties frequently.
With Titus Toler missing most of 2020 with an injury, there is a path for playing time for Wohler, and I would be very surprised if he isn’t on the field in 2021, even if it is as a reserve that helps out in special teams.
The wildcard here is the status of Reggie Pearson. After not being on the team in 2020, there still remains a chance that the former starting strong safety returns for next season. If Pearson is back, he would be a big time addition to the position, and could shift the level of playing time Wohler sees.
One last time. Check em out https://t.co/T3RKZ9XGmc— Hunter Wohler (@HunterWohler) November 29, 2020
No. 3: T.J. Bollers
Wisconsin has not been nearly as effective at rushing the quarterback this season when compared to previous years. T.J. Bollers is one of the highest rated recruits in the class, and he is already big enough for outside linebacker. Add in the fact that Bollers is used to playing as a standup rusher, and he could be a contributor right away to improve the pass rush.
With Noah Burks likely leaving, a spot opposite Nick Herbig will be available, and like Herbig did, Bollers will be enrolling early. That added time with the strength staff and hopefully spring practice, should give him a chance to see the field. He will be competing with some other young players such as Aaron Witt and Kaden Johnson, both of which have played sparingly in 2020, but Bollers is a versatile athlete at 250 pounds.
If Leonhard wants to improve the pass rush, and Bollers proves he can do that, whether it is at outside backer or with his hand in the dirt, he is a candidate for immediate action.
Another fella who just keeps on grinding! #SU_Posse— JC Moreau (@TheStrengthU) December 12, 2020
Wisconsin @BadgerFootball commit @tj35ballin TJ Bollers is never satisfied w/feet,accel,explosiveness, mov’mt efficiency #MakeItHappen #Badgers #OnWisconsin @Evan_Flood @McNamaraRivals pic.twitter.com/kvOE3tben2
No. 4: Loyal Crawford
Like the wide receiver position, running back was a position of need for the Badgers in 2021. Outside of Jalen Berger, Wisconsin has been unable to get much going on the ground this season. With Garrett Groshek set to move on after this year, and a lack of other young options seeing the field currently, Loyal Crawford could come in and play right away.
Wisconsin signed three players in this class who are listed as running backs for a reason. Jackson Acker could project to multiple positions, but Loyal Crawford is a pure tailback that is extremely shifty and would bring something different to the running back room. Antwan Roberts is another intriguing option, but his game more closely mirrors Nakia Watson as a bigger back. With there being a need for the position, I think that Crawford has the best chance of the group to see touches as a freshman.
No. 5: Skyler Bell
Juice Bell, like Markus Allen, will join a wide receiver room that under performed in 2020. Add in the fact that first-year assistant Alvis Whitted personally recruited him, and Bell has a good shot at seeing the field in some capacity in 2021 as well.
Bell was unable to play high school football as a senior due to COVID-19, so there is no telling where he is at developmentally, but as a junior he flashed on film. A different type of player than Allen, Bell could play outside or in the slot, and he also was a solid return man for his high school team. He is at his best with the ball in his hands after the catch, and could add an explosive element to the Wisconsin offense.
Bell playing in 2021 will likely hinge on if Davis or Pryor return, as well as the progress that Dike and Chandler make this off-season. Regardless, he is another play to keep an eye on with so much uncertainty at the wide receiver position.