The Wisconsin Badgers (2-3 overall, 2-3 B1G) might be in the process of preparing to retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe against Minnesota this weekend, but that didn’t stop them from signing their best recruiting class ever in the rankings era.
In a special edition of our weekly “three things that stood out” feature, we take a look back at the major takeaways from Early Signing Day.
Oftentimes there are a select few players from each high school recruiting class that opt to forego the rest of their senior season, and enroll early in the college of their choice for the spring semester. This decision can not only allow students to get acclimated to the rigors and responsibilities of college life, but can also give these players a chance to get a head start in the weight room and learn the playbook in the spring.
Wisconsin, like most Power Five schools, traditionally adds a handful of freshmen who take this path each season. In the 2021 class, the Badgers anticipate six of the 21 signees (a hair over 28%) of the class to already be on campus this spring.
The six players who made it known this week are:
That group of players is a solid list, and having them on campus early can only pay dividends down the road. For example, last season Nick Herbig and Chimere Dike both participated in the spring. The decision to do so not only helped them be better prepared for playing time this season in terms of conditioning and adding weight, but also allowed the coaching staff more time to work with them and refine technique. Both players have gone on to become vital members of the team in their first season on campus, something that is not out of the question for a couple of the players from the 2021 group.
I believe @BadgerFootball fans will enjoy this short video of6’3 251 #WisconsinFootball signee @tj35ballin TJ Bollers— JC Moreau (@TheStrengthU) December 17, 2020
It’s been fun 2 watch him develop.#Badger fans R Gettin a good one! ⚪️ #OnWisconsin #SU_Posse @Evan_Flood @McNamaraRivals #GarageTough #Badgers pic.twitter.com/1o8I2mZOYk
The player that potentially has the most to gain from the spring is edge rusher TJ Bollers. The Badgers have had a hard time getting to the quarterback in 2020, and that is his specialty. With experience standing up as an edge rusher, Bollers should be acquainted with some of the technique needed to be an outside linebacker at the next level, but he will definitely need to refine and learn coverages. At his size he also has the ability to potentially add weight and shift to the defensive line. Regardless, his athletic ability and versatility in the front seven make him an interesting player to watch this spring.
Frequently the position a player competes at in high school is not the role that he is projected to play at the next level. Wisconsin in particular has made it customary to bring in athletes and develop them at different spots. Everyone has heard the story ad nauseum by now about how players like Zack Baun and T.J. Edwards played quarterback in high school before shifting to defense.
On Early Signing Day we got our first glimpse of where the staff tentatively has each player slotted to start out their playing career at:
Quarterback —> Deacon Hill
Running back —> Jackson Acker, Loyal Crawford, Antwan Roberts
Wide receiver —> Markus Allen, Skyler Bell
Tight end —> Jack Pugh
Offensive tackles —> Nolan Rucci, Riley Mahlman
Offensive guard —> JP Benzschawel
Defensive line —> Mike Jarvis
Outside linebacker —> Ayo Adebogun, TJ Bollers, Darryl Peterson
Inside linebacker —> Jake Chaney, Jake Ratzlaff, Bryan Sanborn
Cornerback —> Al Ashford III, Ricardo Hallman
Safety —> Braelon Allen, Hunter Wohler
While many of these designations were not a surprise, there were some projections that were noteworthy and/or could still change.
2021 Early Signing Day: Instant Impact— Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) December 16, 2020
Which players from Wisconsin’s best ever recruiting class are likely to see the field as freshmen? We have a list of five that we think you should get to know now.#Badgers #NSD21 https://t.co/ge0yBXzYBI pic.twitter.com/KqI5PUCfJs
- Offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph noted that Riley Mahlman and Nolan Rucci are likely to stay at tackle, which makes a ton of sense considering that they are both pushing 6-foot-8 inches tall, awfully tall for an interior lineman. He also confirmed that JP Benzschawel is the most likely candidate to move inside, a move his brother Beau made during his career in Madison.
- Rudolph also highlighted that while Jackson Acker is listed as a running back, he has a ton of position flexibility. Reading between the tea leaves, don’t be surprised to see him as a fullback down the line. I think he could have a really nice future there if that is indeed the move.
- Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard stated that the staff views Jake Ratzlaff as a linebacker that could play inside or outside in the 3-4, but that he will initially start inside. I think that Ratzlaff is athletic and skilled enough to play either spot, and that he could see the field early because of his flexibility to play wherever.
- TJ Bollers is listed as an outside linebacker, but Leonhard mentioned that he is an outside linebacker plus. I think how Bollers develops this spring as an early enrollee will be crucial to deciding his eventual position. He has a frame that gives him a lot of versatility, and that is something that can be very beneficial in Leonhard’s system.
- Braelon Allen is listed as a safety to start. 247 Sports recently changed his projected to position to inside linebacker, something that Allen took umbrage with, but it appears as though Wisconsin plans to see what he can do as a strong safety when he gets on campus.
With multiple current seniors stating their intention to come back for another go-round in Madison next year, taking advantage of the NCAA’s decision to freeze the eligibility clock for all student-athletes, Wisconsin appears all set with their 21 signees.
Last season the Badgers were able to bring in Jalen Berger late in the cycle on National Signing Day, but according to Director of Player Personnel Saeed Khalif this class might be completely done for 2021.
"We don't feel like we're full, we ARE full." - Khalif on if the #Badgers will be looking for anyone else in the 2021 class. He noted that if some amazing player came out of the woodwork, they'll make room, especially a defensive lineman.— Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) December 16, 2020
Khalif left the door open to possibly adding a defensive lineman if opportunity presents itself, but that appears to be a longshot at this juncture. With things all buttoned up, the Badgers will likely coast into National Signing Day with their 21 pledges, and that no drama approach appears to be working for the staff the past few seasons.
Wisconsin can now turn their attention to a loaded 2022 class that should be one of the weirder cycles after many players were unable to put together junior film and visit schools due to the pandemic. There is really no telling how many spots there will be available in the class of ‘22 given the uncertainty surrounding eligibility timelines after this season, but another standard group in the 18 to 20 range would be a good place to start.