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Wisconsin football: three questions on offense heading into spring practice

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The Badgers start training for the next season on Tuesday. Here is what we are hoping to have answered by the offense.

Northwestern v Wisconsin Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

It may have seemed like just yesterday that the Wisconsin Badgers football team was celebrating their Las Vegas Bowl win over the Arizona State Sun Devils, but that was actually all the way back on Dec. 30. A bunch of stuff has happened since then! The Badgers have a new offensive coordinator and a number of other new assistants, the men’s basketball team won the Big Ten regular season title, and we all never got mad online about sports or anything!

Now, however, it is officially spring and the Badgers are getting ready to take the field on Tuesday morning for the first day of spring practice! I’m sure we all have a bunch of questions about how the team will look, but here are three of the most pressing ones for the offense.

What does new OC Bobby Engram bring to the table?

Let’s just keep it a buck for a moment here, ok? The Wisconsin offense wasn’t the most impressive unit last season and changes clearly needed to be made. So with that being said, long-time Paul Chryst assistant Joe Rudolph “left” for Virginia Tech this offseason and Chryst brought in former Baltimore Ravens tight ends coach Bobby Engram to be offensive coordinator.

What exactly will Engram bring to Wisconsin’s offense?

“Running the football well is important, using the play-action pass, being multiple and doing a lot of different things offensively, but doing them well. For me, it’s bringing a fresh look and my own sense of creativity to what’s already been proven successful here. I’ve been fortunate to be around some great coaches and players in the NFL, and I want to bring the best of what I’ve learned to the Badgers,” Engram said.

That doesn’t really say much of anything, but is excellent Coach Speak and allows us to put whatever spin we want on it to fit our narrative. Chryst will still be heavily involved in the offense and will probably (we don’t know for sure) still call plays on Saturdays, but Engram wasn’t hired to just stand around on the sideline. He will surely have some input in how the offense is run and what sort of schemes they’ll be enacting.

Talking about running the ball in your introductory press conference is delicious red meat for the fans, but how he plans on doing that is going to be interesting. One could argue that UW’s rushing attack is a bit staid and could use an infusion of new ideas. There is also great intrigue around what the passing game will look like. Presumably Chryst will still be involved there, but starting QB Graham Mertz did not improve last year and the passing game in general was...not good.

Does Engram bring new, exciting ideas that are different than what UW has done in the past and, if he does, will they be accepted by Chryst and implemented into the game plan? We won’t learn a TON about this during spring ball, but we’ll definitely get some clues.

Will Graham Mertz make a leap or is he just what he is?

Going hand in hand with “what Engram brings as the new offensive coordinator” is “what does it all MEAN for Mertz.” As one of the most ballyhooed recruits in school history, especially one at the most important position on the field, Mertz is constantly under a microscope.

Last year, Mertz had an average season (at best), throwing for 1,958 yards on 169-of-284 passes (59.5%) in 13 games with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Those are, uh, not great numbers and they need to be improved upon if Wisconsin wants to compete for a Big Ten West title.

Wisconsin v Minnesota Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The only familiar target that Mertz will have back this season is junior WR Chimere Dike, so a rapport will have to be built from scratch with new players. Spring practice is a perfect time for that! Mertz is the best quarterback on the roster, regardless of what people want to say about Chase Wolf or Deacon Hill, and this season is the time to show it.

With Chryst having fewer responsibilities on offense, since Engram is on staff now, will he be able to nurture Mertz along? Can Engram bring some new ideas and help Mertz become more decisive in the pocket? Will another offseason of learning and training boost Mertz into the top tier of Big Ten signal callers? That journey starts on Tuesday.

Who is going to be the top receiving target with Jake Ferguson gone?

Record setting grandson Jake Ferguson is on to the NFL Draft and Mertz will need to develop a brand new security blanket for this season. Wide receivers Kendric Pryor, Danny Davis and Jack Dunn are also gone so there will be a whole host of new faces catching passes from Mertz this season.

Michigan v Wisconsin
Clay Cundiff making a TD catch against Michigan.
Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

As mentioned, Dike should be the No. 1 WR listed on the depth chart, but that doesn’t always mean he’ll be Mertz’s favorite target. Could UCLA transfer Keontez Lewis make a quick connection with Mertz? Will Jack Eschenbach slide right into Ferguson’s tight end spot and be the guy Mertz looks to when plays break down?

What about Clay Cundiff and Cam Large, a pair of tight ends who suffered season ending injuries last year? How about converted cornerback Dean Engram?

It’s really hard to say who it will be, but it will be something worth watching through the spring and summer to see who Mertz really connects with.