Wisconsin football opens its season at Camp Randall on September 3rd where they’ll take on the Illinois State Redbirds. The Badgers are finishing up Fall camp and transitioning into game week, which means it’s time to get you prepped for what you should expect to see from each position group this Fall.
Next up, the pass catchers at wideout and tight end!
DEPTH CHART PROJECTION:
Starting: Chimere Dike and Skyler Bell
In rotation: Markus Allen, Keontez Lewis, Dean Engram
Starting: Jack Eschenbach
In rotation: Clay Cundiff, Hayden Rucci, Jack Pugh
2022 Position Preview:
For the last several years, this preview generally would follow a predictable pattern. We’d talk about the receivers for a bit, and then would get into how good Jake Ferguson is (did you know he’s relate-). But now, for the first time in a long time, the central focus of this preview is not Jake Ferguson, who has since moved onto the NFL.
Instead, the Badger's receiving core will be centered around a cast of wideouts and tight ends looking to enjoy breakout seasons, hoping that larger roles in 2022 will lead to increased production.
Out wide, Chimere Dike has been something of a white whale since he arrived in Madison for Badger fans hoping for an improved aerial attack. He’s drawn rave reviews since he stepped on campus, wasting no time rising to WR3 in just a few months of training camp as a freshman in 2020.
After a solid but unspectacular rookie season, in 2021 Dike saw his role grow, but not to the levels of a true WR1, with Danny Davis and Jake Ferguson still being Graham Mertz’s primary targets. This season (somewhat by default, as he’s the only receiver on the roster with significant collegiate minutes under his belt), Dike is the undisputed top receiver on the Badger depth chart. He’ll draw the opposition’s top corner every week. If the buzz that’s been around him since his first practice reps will finally come to fruition through all-conference level production, this will be the year it happens.
Behind Dike on the depth chart is a long list of promise and inexperience. Skyler Bell and Markus Allen are both redshirt freshmen who flashed in limited opportunities last year. They should be placed into significant roles from the first snap against Illinois State. Bell in particular looked like a player who could start for Wisconsin in the reps he got in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Inexperienced WR crew outside of Chimere Dike. Skyler Bell looks like he’ll play a significant role. Will be interesting to see how pass game develops - needs to make strides for them to get back to Indy. Had its moments today - but up and down pic.twitter.com/txJN9ob6Ve— Dave Revsine (@BTNDaveRevsine) August 13, 2022
Keontez Lewis’ production was minimal at UCLA last season, but he possesses a large frame that makes it easy to see why the Badger staff saw potential and brought him in through the portal. Dean Engram, son of offensive coordinator Bobby Engram who made the switch over to wide receiver from cornerback, is another name to keep an eye on who could get chances to prove himself early on.
Engram doesn’t have the size of Lewis, but he could prove an interesting slot option with his speed. Wisconsin doesn’t have any proven quantities in the wide receiver room other than Dike. Chances to get into the rotation should abound, and expect Chryst to experiment with a bunch of different groups in some of the Badgers’ easier non-conference games.
At tight end, experience isn’t the issue. Jack Eschenbach is a redshirt senior who remained in the wings behind Ferguson for years waiting for his chance to be the Badger's primary tight end. Clay Cundiff has been with the program for years now as well as a redshirt junior. But an interesting question the Badgers do need to answer is how exactly Ferguson’s production will be replaced.
Will Eschenbach receive the lion’s share of the workload in line with his extra year of waiting? Or will it be something of a platoon between him and Cundiff that, in the words of Billy Beane, will attempt to replace Ferguson in the aggregate? Tight end production has never been a problem for the Badgers, and if the wide receivers can’t threaten opponents vertically (which wouldn’t be a shock for a room that lacks so much experience), working defenses underneath could prove the most effective way forward for Wisconsin’s passing attack.
No. 4 (didn’t count due to holding):— Ben Kenney (@benzkenney) September 13, 2021
Mertz delivers a good ball to Clay Cundiff coming over the middle (positive)
But am I questioning Paul Chryst putting Mertz in a 7-step drop after short drop, quick read, plant and throw is all we’ve seen succeed? Yea. pic.twitter.com/D2jw9zHUi6
All this to say, the tight-end room should be fine even if there’s not much in the way of stats from prior years to show it. Another name to keep an eye on is Hayden Rucci, an impressive blocker who could receive a decent share of work in running sets.
This is a difficult one to determine. What constitutes success for a group that has almost no statistical track record to base growth off of? For the receivers, the best scenario that’s still rooted in realism (sadly Markus Allen probably will not win the Biletnikoff) would likely include Dike breaking out as a true number one option, and two names in the cluster of players behind him in the pecking order establishing themselves as consistent starters.
If this happens, the Badgers should be able to field a reasonably solid passing attack, regardless of any Graham Mertz improvements. If by the end of the season the receiving depth chart is still just Dike on an island overmatched against elite cornerbacks and a rotating cast of experimental options, the Wisconsin passing attack will likely rely heavily on Mertz improving big time to be a threat.
For the tight ends, I think the bar of expectations is a little different. It’s unreasonable to expect Eschenbach or Cundiff to make up Ferguson’s production, the Grandson was one of the steadiest Chryst-era Badgers for a reason (and an NFL-level talent to boot). But the experience in that room compared to the wideouts should lend itself to an expectation of higher consistency, at the very least in the first weeks of the season.
Ferguson was often most valuable as a reliable safety valve when options downfield weren’t available, and I don’t expect such a role to be too much for Eschenbach or Cundiff to handle. And of course, above all else, when Mertz isn’t throwing the ball, the tight ends will be expected to clear the way for Braelon Allen as top-notch blockers.