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Wisconsin Football: Examining the new-look Badgers offense

Position previews get underway this week, but first, a deep dive overview of the new Wisconsin offense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Nebraska at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers are experiencing a significant change offensively this offseason, with top pass-catchers Kendric Pryor, Danny Davis, and Jake Ferguson all moving onto the NFL after their redshirt-senior seasons.

Not only are the Badgers dealing with new position players at almost every major offensive position, but they also have a new offensive coordinator, hiring former Baltimore Ravens tight ends coach Bobby Engram, who could possibly take over playcalling duties from current head coach Paul Chryst.

Despite the significant turnover, the Badgers are still ranked as the 18th-best team in the nation, according to the AP Top 25 rankings, so let’s examine the new-look offense and the uncertainties that follow with the current team.

Lack of Experience

Davis, Ferguson, and Pryor were the top three receivers for the Badgers, respectively, a season ago.

With all three departed, junior Chimere Dike, who caught 19 passes for 272 yards in 2021, steps into the top receiver role, with redshirt freshmen Skylar Bell, who caught one pass for 15 yards in 2021, and Markus Allen, who caught three passes for 65 yards, vying for key roles opposite of Dike.

Other candidates for increased roles could be sophomore UCLA transfer Keontez Lewis and cornerback-turned-receiver Dean Engram, who is offensive coordinator Bobby Engram’s son. Engram profiles more in the slot with his 5’9, 170-pound frame, while Lewis’s 6’2, 185-pound frame could fit either in the slot or the outside.

Looking at tight end, there’s obviously a big hole filled by Jake Ferguson, which cannot be replicated by a single player currently on Wisconsin’s roster as of now. Jack Eschenbach and Clay Cundiff profile as the top tight ends on the roster, but have both faced durability issues, which caused them to miss the majority of the spring.

However, given that lack of a top tight end, as well as Wisconsin’s utilization of two tight-end sets, it’s likely that other names could rotate in, such as redshirt junior Hayden Ricci, who seems to be one of the best blockers on the team.

Remember, Engram was the tight ends coach in Baltimore from 2018-2021, which had a primary receiver in Mark Andrews, as well as a primary blocker in Nick Boyle while deploying two tight-end sets.

Now, with Wisconsin’s affinity to run the ball, and with the uncertainties around the receivers and tight ends, why place an extreme focus on the passing attack?

Balanced Attack

Over the past few seasons, it’s been no surprise that Wisconsin has been a run-dominant team, while serving as a middling passing attack without any standout quarterbacks.

Here are the Badgers’ rushing percentage and national rankings over the last five seasons:

2017: 64.40% of offensive plays(14th in NCAA)

2018: 63.52% of offensive plays(10th in NCAA)

2019: 62.09% of offensive plays(13th in NCAA)

2020: 57.79% of offensive plays(32nd in NCAA)

2021: 63.98% of offensive plays(5th in NCAA)

In 2022, it appears that the running game has gotten stronger with the returns of Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo, while the aerial attack has gotten weaker with the loss of the top three pass-catchers on the roster.

However, the Badgers are expected to become more of a balanced offense under Bobby Engram in 2022 after seeing its highest run-pass disparity since 2017 last season.

Running back Chez Mellusi indicated a similar outlook for the offense this offseason, understanding the importance of balance between the running game and the passing game.

“I think to a certain extent, that’s tradition here, you run the football,” Mellusi said. “But in order to be successful running the football, you have to bring balance. I think we’ve done a good job of honing in on that and trying to open up the playbook.”

When asked about Engram, tight end Clay Cundiff shared a similar sentiment, believing the offense will become closer to an air-raid attack compared to previous years.

“I think he can spread the field a little bit more,” Cundiff said. “He knows where to attack the defenses. I think it’ll be a little more air-raid.”

However, Engram certainly understands the current strengths of the team, assuring that the primary focus in the offense will still be running the football.

“Having a great, strong run game is always a good thing,” Engram told the media. “Number one, let’s keep that going.”

Much of the aerial attack focus will be on Junior Graham Mertz, as Wisconsin’s passing offense ranked 117th in passing yards per game, 104th in passer rating, and 87th in yards per attempt.

Mertz threw for 1,958 yards in 2021, passing for 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while sporting a completion percentage of 59.5% and a quarterback rating of just 56.1.

If Wisconsin is looking to maintain or improve their current ranking while also attempting to configure a more balanced offensive attack, Mertz will need to improve as a passer, otherwise; the Badgers may be primed for another season in which they end the year outside of the Top 25, especially with their 53rd-ranked strength-of-schedule, according to Football Outsiders.

Rushing Attack Improved

It’s ironic that the Badgers are looking to become more of a balanced attack, because the Wisconsin rushing attack appears as strong as ever, with reinforcements coming in the form of Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo to complement star running back Braelon Allen.

Allen, fresh off a 186-carry, 1,268-yard, and 12-touchdown campaign in 2021 during his age-17 season, spearheads the attack for the Badgers in 2022, looking to build off a strong 6.8 yards-per-carry mark.

Despite posting great numbers, Allen started just four games last season, where he averaged 23.3 carries for 151.8 yards. While the numbers are certainly great, lessening Allen’s load with a strong committee would prolong Wisconsin’s offensive success, while best keeping their young phenom healthy.

Mellusi has proven capable of taking a lead role, rushing for over 15 carries in eight of his nine appearances last season en route to a 173-carry, 815-yard, and 4-touchdown season prior to his injury.

Offensive Line experiencing change

The Badgers’ offensive line is somewhat revamped after the losses of right tackle Logan Bruss and left guard Josh Seltzer.

6’7, 310-pound redshirt sophomore Jack Nelson has moved over to left tackle from right guard, while last year’s blindside protector, redshirt senior Tyler Beach, will move over to the left guard spot, which suits him better at the professional level. The Badgers also return center Joe Tippmann, forming a strong left side of the offensive line.

However, there are uncertainties on the right side of the offensive line, with a string of unproven options competing at the two positions. It appears Michael Furtney is leading the way to take on the right guard spot. At right tackle, it seems it is a two-horse race between Riley Mahlman and Logan Brown, with Mahlman currently leading the way.

Wisconsin has an extremely young group at the offensive line behind their starters with five-star redshirt freshman Nolan Rucci and four-stars Trey Wedig, JP Benzschawel also in the fold. Overall, the offensive line has a number of proven starters, as well as some high-potential depth pieces, which should help in both the rushing and passing attack.