The Wisconsin Badgers are preparing ahead of their season opener against the Illinois State Redbirds after an offseason full of roster turnover and the hiring of new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram.
On Monday, head coach Paul Chryst addressed the media for his weekly presser, where he was initially asked about backup quarterback Chase Wolf, who reportedly suffered a torn meniscus, according to WISN 12 Sports Director Mario Melendez, likely ending his season.
“Chase did [suffer an injury in practice]. It’s one of those that [we] don’t quite know for how long, but he did, last week, suffer that [injury]. You feel terrible for him, because I really liked what he was doing in camp.”
With the Wolf injury, a hole has appeared behind starter Graham Mertz at quarterback, with redshirt freshman Deacon Hill and true freshman Myles Burkett having no experience at the collegiate level, although the former was a four-star recruit out of high school.
While Chryst did acknowledge that Wolf was out indefinitely, the Wisconsin head coach didn’t offer his thoughts on the current favorite to win the backup spot.
“Couldn’t sit here right now and tell you whose further ahead or not,” Chryst said. “Deacon certainly has had more overall reps and Myles had the spring and what he got in camp, and even camp’s hard because you’re focusing on getting ready. All of them have done a good job [in] preparing the mental side of it and now [they’re] gonna get some more reps.”
Along with the quarterback position, something to monitor will be the performance of the special teams unit, which struggled in 2021.
When asked about the progress of the group, Chryst noted that special teams require the capabilities of the entire team, while lauding the work of his assistants.
“I’ve appreciated what the [special teams assistants] have done. [Special teams] takes [effort from] everyone. There’s offensive players, defensive players. There’s guys that are starters and there’s guys where that is probably the way they’ll contribute on the team.”
One of the interesting developments of the Badgers’ offseason was the battle at right tackle between former five-star recruit Logan Brown and redshirt freshman Riley Mahlman, who was listed as the starter at the position on Monday’s depth chart.
Chryst praised Mahlman’s offseason performance, sharing his confidence in the new starting right tackle for the Badgers.
“I thought he had a really good spring. He’s continuing to work and improve with it. He’s extremely coachable. You see a coaching point being made and you see him correct it. [With] any young player, the more you do things the more comfortable you get and that builds confidence. I know guys are confident around him.”
On the defensive side, the Badgers surprisingly named Maema Njongmeta as their second starting interior linebacker next to Jordan Turner.
Speaking about the position group, Chryst conceded the lack of experience in the group, but believes in his group and that they’ve made the most of their opportunities.
“I think we’ve got a group [of inside linebackers] we feel really good about. Yeah, they’ve got to play and they don’t have a ton of experience. Maema [Njongmeta] doesn’t have a ton of experience at linebacker,” Chryst said. “[Jordan Turner] did a nice job coming in when he played. [Tatum] Grass has done a lot for this team, [and] he’s in a good job. Jake Chaney’s a young man we’re excited about. And I’ve liked the growth and development about Jack Sanborn.”
While the Badgers are starting two new linebackers, the safety room is arguably the defensive position with the most significant turnover, as Wisconsin is starting two new players: John Torchio and Hunter Wohler.
Despite his age, Chryst believes in Wohler to complement Torchio in the backend.
“I like our group of safeties. [Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard] likes them. [John Torchio] has played a lot of football [and] made big plays in his time and opportunities. Hunter, you loved how he came on the scene last year and saw him keep getting better and better. There’s a guy that’s always in control of his body and is really talented and doesn’t play like a young guy out there.”
While Torchio is the safety with the most game experience, Chryst thinks there are four contributors in the group for 2022.
“Torch[io] has the most game experience, but we feel like we got four really good safeties here.”
To end his press conference, Chryst spoke about quarterback Graham Mertz’s development, commending him for his approach and ability to learn.
“When there’s a coaching point made, I think it resonates immediately with him, [both] good and bad.”
Now, it’s up to Mertz to put his production off the practice field and to gamedays in order for Wisconsin to reach its potential. They'll get their first opportunity Saturday night when Wisconsin hits the field.