Each fall there are generally a few true freshman that are able to navigate the transition from high school athletics to big time college football in a way that affords them playing time. This transition is often expedited by positional need, but Wisconsin has traditionally been a developmental program in which this occurrence is fairly sporadic. However, given an uptick in recruitment the Badgers have had a couple prospects each year produce in their first season on campus.
With the additional layer of the new(ish) redshirt rule that allows a player the ability to play in up to four game while retaining their redshirt status, more and more players are seeing the field at an earlier rate.
Two seasons ago, in 2018, ten players played as true freshman. Five of the players (John Chenal, Aron Cruickshank, Jack Sanborn, Rachad Wildgoose, and Bryson Williams) all exceeding that four-game threshold, thus propelling them to sophomore status the following season after seeing the field often as freshman.
Last year, in 2019, six players saw snaps as first-year players, with two players taking significant roles. Keeanu Benton played in 13 games at nose tackle, and had two sacks in place of injured Bryson Williams. Leo Chenal went on to play at inside linebacker in specific packages, and also made an impact in special teams. Lastly, while he only played in three games, Graham Mertz was the backup quarterback as a true freshman.
All of the players listed above used that freshman season experience to move them towards extended roles as sophomores. Benton will see a greater amount of playing time next season, while Leo Chenal looks to follow the same path as Sanborn, who went on to start as a sophomore at inside linebacker.
Given this trend, a couple newly minted signees could be in store for an instant impact next year. Without further ado, here are the five most likely 2020 recruits to see the field this year at Wisconsin:
No. 1: Chimere Dike
Chimere Dike is one of the most explosive athletes to come out of the state of Wisconsin in some time. A four-sport athlete out of Waukesha North, his best playing days are still ahead of him, and he is already on campus in preparation for spring practice.
With the attrition at wide receiver this off-season, the Badgers will need people to replace the production of Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor and Cruickshank. While Wisconsin has key players returning with Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor, there are opportunities behind them. Given the fact that Davis is also a senior this fall, Wisconsin will be pushing to get some of their young targets game action in preparation for larger roles moving forward.
Dike represents one of three wide receivers in the 2020 class, but he is the most likely to contribute early on campus given his early enrollment.
No. 2: Jordan Turner
Already a physical specimen at 6-foot-1 and 222 pounds, Jordan Turner has all the makings of a great inside linebacker at Wisconsin. Pair his physical traits with his ability to come down hill quick with his speed and instincts, and there is a recipe for success.
Another early-enrollee, Turner is already on campus for winter conditioning, a decision that should help him be ahead of the curve for camp next fall. With Chris Orr exhausting his eligibility, there is an opening behind Sanborn, and either Leo Chenal or Mike Maskalunas in the two-deep.
Like in the case of Dike, there are other young scholarship players who will also be fighting for those spots, but Turner was a highly sought after recruit who 247Sports Midwest recruiting analyst Allen Trieu said on Bucky’s 5th Podcast could be a multi-year starter at Wisconsin down the line.
No. 3: Jalen Berger
The crown jewel of the 2020 class, Jalen Berger was the last scholarship addition to the #BadgerBoiz20. Another four-star tailback out of a New Jersey, Berger hopes to follow in the footsteps of Jonathan Taylor who burst onto the scene as a true freshman three years ago.
At 6-foot and 205 pounds, Berger is an all-purpose back in the mold of James White or Brian Calhoun, but larger. He will be joining the team this summer, but with carries up for grabs, he should not be counted out given his skillset.
Berger was a huge get on the recruiting trail, holding offers from all across the country. Can the Badgers strike again on the New Jersey pipeline? The last two New Jersey running backs Wisconsin has landed — Jonathan Taylor and Corey Clement — have each played right away and done well. I’m just saying...
No. 4: Nick Herbig
Another heralded four-star prospect, Nick Herbig is a player who is going through a greater transition than the three listed above him, but his film doesn’t lie. At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Herbig will need to add strength and weight this winter as an early entrant, but there are openings in the two-deep at outside linebacker after Zack Baun and Tyler Johnson both graduated.
Herbig is also transitioning from Hawaii to Wisconsin, but he has pass rushing skills that could be utilized right away. It is not out of the question for Herbig to see time on the field as a situational pass rusher because of his quickness and bendability around the edge. After choosing the Badgers over most of the west coast, Herbig is already in the strength program and that should help him immensely come spring practice. Now it is just a matter of time before he finds his footing and potentially becomes another great outside linebacker at Wisconsin.
No. 5: Kaden Johnson
One of the bigger recruiting wins for the Badgers in the 2020 cycle, Kaden Johnson is a supremely gifted athlete that excels not only on the gridiron, but also the hardwood. Wisconsin has had a reputation for strong outside linebacker play, and at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, Johnson already has the size and athleticism to play.
Johnson will not have the advantage of spring practices — which is why he is lower than Herbig on this list — but his ability and measurables give him a fighting chance. Needing to replace two outside linebackers, practice reps will be available, and Johnson was a highly sought after four-star recruit a reason.
In each recruiting cycle there is a player or two who join during the summer and wow the coaching staff. Maybe, just maybe, it will be Kaden Johnson’s turn.
Honorable Mention: Jack Nelson
Ok. So hear me out.
Offensive linemen rarely see the field as freshman, especially in Madison. The position generally requires a blend of physical and technical skill that needs to be developed over the course of a few years. Because of that, it is unlikely that Nelson sees the field as a true freshman in a large capacity.
However, Nelson is just the second five-star recruit that the Badgers have signed in the past decade. He possesses elite athleticism, and has shown the ability to play against top level competition at the Army All-American Bowl at both the guard and tackle spots. While Nelson is currently leaner at pushing 280 pounds, this off-season it is not out of the question for him to add 20+ pounds of good weight.
The Wisconsin offensive line is in a state of flux given the loss of three starters in Tyler Biadasz, Jason Erdmann, and David Moorman. All three players were interior lineman, making room for a number of possible shifts to occur along the front. Jack Nelson is the type of offensive lineman that has first-round potential, something that some of the other options in front of him may not have. Logan Brown is also looming in the wings, who has similar traits though.
Can Jack Nelson break the mold and find his way into the two-deep right away?
At this point, it is unlikely, for many of the reasons highlighted earlier; nevertheless, if there is an offensive lineman to do it, Nelson is the type of caliber player to make it happen.