(Editor’s note: we have reached out to UW about the team actually having their first practice today, but haven’t heard back yet. We will obviously keep y’all posted.)
While the actual playing of a college football season this fall is still up in the air, schools around the B1G have been slowly starting to open their fall camps. The Wisconsin Badgers open theirs on Monday (aka today) in Madison without pads, per B1G instructions, and it is time for us to look at the five most important things to watch leading up to the season opening game against the Indiana Hoosiers.
Who will assume the role of the No. 1 wide receiver?
The Badgers aren’t a team that is known for their aerial attack, but UW has produced some talented wideouts over the past decade with players like Nick Toon, Jared Abbrederis, Alex Erickson and Quintez Cephus getting shots in the NFL. The Badgers don’t always have an undisputed, top-dog No. 1 WR but replacing Cephus, who was that, this year will be of utmost importance for the Wisconsin attack.
There are two top candidates for the role of “No. 1 WR”: Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis III. To be frank, neither of them possess the natural ability that Cephus has, but they both bring important skills to the table.
Davis could develop into the deep threat that Cephus was last year. His ability to fight for the ball in traffic and make contested catches is notable and could make him a target for Jack Coan over the top. Pryor is fast, as you may have noticed on the end-arounds and jet sweeps he runs, and in an ideal world would slot into the, uh, slot receiver role. However, the Badgers don’t have the luxury of having three B1G starting caliber wideouts on the team right now.
By default, the role will fall to Davis, who did have a productive first two seasons, and then there will also be a “by committee” approach to fill in for the rest of Cephus’ statistics.
BONUS WIDE RECIEVER DISCUSSION: WHAT OTHER WRs WILL BE A FACTOR
Jack Dunn and Adam Krumholz will most likely be the top two backups for Pryor and Davis respectively but I’m excited to see what A.J. Abbott and Taj Mustapha can do. The both have great size and appear to be oozing with talent and potential. Mustapha may have assumed the mantle of Rob Wheelwright for me where I am irrationally excited about him before every season.
Does Mertz play much this year?
Everyone is always looking for the “next big thing” in college football and redshirt freshman backup quarterback Graham Mertz has been that for the Badgers for years, despite only being on the team for one. Starting QB Jack Coan more than proved himself last year and should be the starting quarterback for the Badgers from the jump. He’s one of those “high floor/low ceiling” type of QBs that Wisconsin has often thrived under.
Mertz saw action in a handful of games last season (just enough so he could keep his redshirt) and completed nine of his 10 pass attempts, which if he kept it going at that rate would set all sorts of records. However, I am of the opinion that Mertz should be more focused on winning his battle with Chase Wolf for the backup QB spot because there are very few scenarios where Paul Chryst starts someone other than Coan under center.
Mertz should see some more late-game mop up duty, although with no non-conference games there won’t be as much of that this year, but not much else unless there are injuries. Now, next year? Hooooooo baby are we having a different conversation.
Where will the pressure on the QB come from and who will provide it?
Linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun combined for 24 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss last season while also being the second and third leading tacklers on the team. Both are now in the NFL and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will be left searching for new ways to put pressure on the quarterback this season.
Leading tackler last season, ILB Jack Sanborn, had 5.5 sacks last year and seems liable to up that number in 2020. There are also a bevy of talented, unproven OLBs on the roster like Jaylan Franklin and Izayah Green-May who could pop in fall practice and join veteran Noah Burks as the other rusher off the edge.
An area that I think could produce some more sacks is the defensive line. Isaiahh Loudermilk had three sacks last year and reserve DE Matt Henningsen had four while true freshman NT Keeanu Benton had two in limited action and from a position that usually doesn’t get many sacks. The d-line may have to make up for a young, inexperienced linebacking corps at the beginning of the season and could see some more sacks added to their totals because of it.
BONUS PRESSURING THE QB DISCUSSION: WHAT ABOUT THE SAFETIES?
Leonhard has proven that he doesn’t mind putting three safeties on the field at the same time and has also proven that he’ll let the best player play in the secondary regardless of position. Could someone line Reggie Pearson make a living as a heat-seeking missile from the secondary into the backfield? What about a healthy Scott Nelson? What about Collin Wilder who had a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss in limited action?
Showing multiple looks on defense and having blitzers come from all over the place is a staple of a Rex Ryan defense, someone that Leonhard played under in the NFL. It’ll be exciting to see what Leonhard comes up with this year.
How will players returning from injuries fare?
Speaking of Scott Nelson, how will he look after missing almost all of last season with a left leg injury suffered in the season opening win against South Florida? What about NT Bryson Williams who struggled with a left knee injury throughout the year. His absence allowed Keeanu Benton to shine and the two of them could form a potent one-two punch in the middle of the defense. And lastly, what about OL Kayden Lyles who missed the Rose Bowl due to a leg injury suffered in practice? Where will he even play?
Well, I’m glad you asked!
Who is starting at LG and C this year?
The Badgers lost starting C Tyler Biadasz as well as two key guards, David Moorman and Jason Erdmann, from last year’s offensive line and there will be a reshuffling of some of the returning players to compensate. Lyles, who we mentioned above, was playing left guard last year but is likely to slide over to center to replace Biadasz but who will replace him at LG?
Ol’ Buffalo Head Josh Seltzner will get first crack. Besides having, allegedly, the largest head on the team, Seltzner has a little bit of starting experience and should be able to seamlessly integrate into the starting five for good.
BONUS OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART QUESTION: WHAT ABOUT JOE TIPPMANN?
Redshirt freshman Joe Tippmann is another, of the myriad, young and talented offensive linemen on Wisconsin’s roster. He didn’t come to Madison as a center, and at 6-foot-6 he’s a bit tall for the position, but he has transitioned there and taken to it quickly. If Lyles isn’t at 100%, there shouldn’t be too much of a drop off if Tippmann has to snap the ball to Coan.