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Wisconsin football: five fall camp takeaways

A look at five storylines that emerged from fall camp.

Every year some players make “the leap”, there are coaches in new roles and position battles emerge that dominate the fall camp news cycle. This year was no different for the Wisconsin Badgers, who hope to bounce back in 2021 after a let-down season in 2020.

With just over a week until the season opener against Penn State and practices now blocked off from media access, let’s look at some takeaways from fall camp.

Defensive depth

The Wisconsin defense was strong last year. The group surrendered only 17 points per game and did enough to win games in the Big Ten. After seeing a couple of practices this fall, I think the defense could be even better in 2021. A big reason for my optimism is depth.

When we had the chance to speak with Jim Leonhard earlier in camp, he mentioned that he feels as though they have improved depth and talent at outside linebacker and along the defensive line. For a group that struggled to get home for sacks last season, that is a positive development.

The defensive line is much farther along than most expected, with key reserves such as Rodas Johnson and Bryson Williams putting together stellar camps. James Thompson Jr. is also healthy, and I think he can help out as well.

At outside linebacker, the development of Spencer Lytle adds a starter quality playmaker to a room that already has two established starters that should be able to stay fresh by rotating in and out of the lineup in Noah Burks and Nick Herbig.

I think Lytle, Izayah Green-May, CJ Goetz, and even freshman Darryl Peterson should give Bobby April more confidence in his group.

The front seven is very strong this season for the Badgers, and I would imagine that a new attacking approach from the defensive line should only help Jim Leonhard’s defense get to the quarterback and make more splash plays as we saw in the bowl game against Wake Forest.

Offensive line shakeups

Joe Rudolph was transparent in the spring, going on record that his starting offensive line at the time, was Tyler Beach at left tackle, Josh Seltzner at left guard, Kayden Lyles at center, Jack Nelson at right guard and Logan Bruss at right tackle. Most assumed that by the end of camp that same group would emerge for Penn State, with left guard being the lone spot up for grabs.

After a couple of weeks of fall camp, Joe Tippmann may wind up being the starting center over Lyles. Tippmann has taken the majority of first-team reps at the position recently and is finally putting it all together after an injury-plagued start to his career. Lyles has had his injury troubles after being a heralded four-star recruit out of high school, but days after being added to the Rimington Watch List he was unseated by Tippmann, who was also a 4-star prospect as a recruit.

The emergence of Tippmann is notable, in my opinion, for multiple reasons.

  1. This was not a situation where Lyles was playing poorly. Tippmann just proved to be too good based on what we have seen. Which in turn raises the ceiling for the o-line.
  2. Lyles is/was a multi-year starter.
  3. The Wisconsin offensive line is going to be much taller in 2021.

Running back committee

At this point, none of the running backs have emerged as THE guy. Jalen Berger and Chez Mellusi have earned most of the first-team reps this fall and have shown flashes, but so has Isaac Guerendo. I think it is fair to assume that the Badgers will rely on those three backs for the opener and distribute carries based on production. Gary Brown mentioned when we had the chance to speak with him, that he will ride the hot hand, but I think the season will start with a committee approach.

Mellusi seemed to get most of the reps in obvious passing situations, while Guerendo is extremely fast. Berger displayed a smooth running style in limited carries last season, leading the team in rushing yards while only playing in four games.

Mellusi could be the tailback in on passing downs this season.
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With a little over a week before the first game, there is still time for Julius Davis and true freshman Braelon Allen to get involved as well, but there is talent and depth in the running back room that was not present in 2020 when the Badgers struggled at times to generate much of a rushing attack.

Offense progressing

At the end of the first week of practice, the offense was vastly outplayed by the defense. Part of that was due to some injuries along the offensive line, but the offense wasn’t in a rhythm.

As fall camp has progressed though, the offense has steadily improved. The defense will still be very good, but the offense has put together better practices recently, both through the air and on the ground.

Assuming Danny Davis can come back healthy before the opener, the offense should be much better than in 2020.

I think having a trio of capable running backs should go a long way in helping take the burden off of Graham Mertz, who had to throw the ball nearly 38 times per game on average in their three losses last season.

Emerging players

  • John Torchio - the reserve safety was all over the field this fall camp and was constantly making plays. Jim Leonhard was highly complimentary of the junior our of California, and I would expect that he’s used as a third safety in the defense.
  • Spencer Lytle - I mentioned his name earlier, but I loved the progress that he made from 2020. He saw limited playing time late last year, and he has added size and athleticism this off-season. He should be the third outside linebacker to rotate.
  • Markus Allen - freshman wide receiver Markus Allen saw increased reps as camp rolled on, and I think he is pushing for a role this season. There are established players ahead of him on the depth chart, but the fact that he has seen first-team reps is potentially telling for his future.
  • Jack Eschenbach - after adding a bunch of weight this off-season Eschenbach seems ready to see the field more in 2021. He worked with the first team a ton and displayed an ability to make plays as a pass catcher and has taken strides as a blocker.
  • Cormac Sampson - I could have easily focused on Jack Nelson or Joe Tippmann, each of whom is poised to make their first starts potentially against Penn State, but I think the play of Cormac Sampson is notable. He nearly overtook Josh Seltzner at left guard and has played all over the line when needed. I think Sampson will be a swing reserve for the Badgers this season and will be capable if called on.
  • Rodas Johnson - I briefly touched on the fact that Johnson will likely be a key rotational player on the defensive line this season, but he has had a good camp. He has a tremendous motor and energy that he plays with that make him a player that could be valuable in pass-rushing situations.