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2013 Wisconsin football grades: A mixed bag in Gary Andersen's 1st year

Post-signing day, a look at where the Badgers succeeded and failed in 2013, and how they'll need to improve in 2014.

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

There are rumors of the NFL's interest in Gary Andersen, and soon a fresh class of recruits and spring practices will begin. Another quarterback battle will be at the heart of every and any conversation surrounding Badger football. The 2013 season has already starting to escape our minds.

But let's take one final look at a season that was both a satisfying debut for Gary Andersen and wildly frustrating. Two losses to close the season for a fanbase spoiled by three straight trips to the Rose Bowl tend to make stomachs churn.

Quarterbacks: B-

When Joel Stave won the starting job, we assumed he'd made a few significant leaps forward. Perhaps the deep balls were more regularly falling into the arms of receivers and the ill-conceived interceptions a thing of the past. After all, he edged Bart Houston and Tanner McEvoy, two intriguing choices under center.

Stave, however, showed only slight shades of improvement from his first season. His completion percentage climbed from 58.8 percent to 61.9 percent and he threw for 2,494 yards (compared to 1,104 last year) in his first complete season.

But the rookie mistakes still surfaced, as evidenced by the 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. For every beautiful bomb to Jared Abbrederis there was a head-scratching interception, and he had at least one pick in 10 of 13 games. This was not the smarter, second-year Stave I dreamed of in September.

Has he plateaued or is he a true four-year starter? I'd like to see Houston, McEvoy and possibly early-enrollee D.J. Gillins get a shot.

Newcomers: Freshman D.J. Gillins
Gone from last year: Curt Phillips (graduation)

Running backs: A

This was, almost without question, the best backfield the Badgers fielded since 2010. Melvin Gordon, James White and even Corey Clement were each brilliant in their own way, all three working in harmony.

Gordon and White combined for 3,053 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns and averaged 7.8 and 6.5 yards per carry, respectively. That's not just outstanding production, but also supreme efficiency. Gordon's speed and White's ability to cut and slide his way around defenders made them one of the best duos in the nation.

Even though he will play copilot to Gordon, Clement looks to have an immensely bright future. He posted 8.2 yards per carry with 547 yards and seven touchdowns (though his numbers were inflated by big games against UMass, Tennessee Tech and Indiana) and seems set to break the thousand-yard mark as a sophomore. Gordon should be not just a Heisman contender, but indeed a favorite, as well as the motor that makes this offense tick in 2014.

Newcomers: Freshmen Taiwan DealCaleb Kinlaw
Gone from last year: James White (graduation), Vonte Jackson (moving to safety)

Wide receivers: B

Opposing Big Ten defenses didn't exactly need to master the Rubik's Cube to slow the Badgers' passing attack. It was simple: keep all eyes on Abbrederis.

The senior almost singlehandedly carried this group with 78 receptions for 1,081 yards and seven touchdowns; the next closest was Jeff Duckworth with 176 yards, fewer than Abbrederis' 207 against Ohio State. His final year was his finest, but he had little company.

Wisconsin will count on Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Kenzel Doe to be difference-makers this year. Each has potential, but not one has proven capable of becoming a go-to receiver.

Newcomers: Freshmen Dareian WatkinsKrenwick SandersChris JonesGeorge RushingNatrell Jamerson
Gone from last year: Jared Abbrederis (graduation), Jeff Duckworth (graduation, Brett Arnold (graduation)

Offensive line: A-

A relatively anonymous group in the de facto incubator of future NFL offensive linemen, last year's crop fared well. To start, a team doesn't rush for 283.8 yards per game (eight-best in the country) without some serious room up front. White and Gordon are premier talents, but the offensive line helped turn them from good to great.

Rob Havenstein struggled at times to protect the right edge, but Ryan Groy was as good as expected. The future is bright, as Groy is the only departing starter, and talent like four-star tackle Jaden Gault three-star guard George Panos is coming in.

Newcomers: Freshmen Jaden GaultGeorge PanosMichael DeiterBeau BenzschawelJake MaxwellMicah Kapoi
Gone from last year: Ryan Groy (graduation), Zac Matthias (graduation), Chris Gill (graduation)

Tight ends: B-

Jacob Pedersen's breakout season was supposed to arrive in 2012. Perhaps, many thought, he could mold himself into a second coming of Lance Kendricks, with the build and athleticism to be a consistent threat over the middle and deep down the sideline.

But rarely do things such a linear path, and Pedersen's NFL potential finally flashed in his final season. His 39 catches and 551 receiving yards were both career-highs, and he was the top threat behind Abbrederis.

The Badgers will also lose Brian Wozniak (six catches), but rising senior Sam Arneson looks to have the tools to post numbers similar to Pedersen in his final year.

Newcomers: None
Gone from last year: Jacob Pedersen (graduation), Brian Wozniak (graduation), Brock DeCicco (graduation)

Play-calling: B-

In a word, it was static. I don't mean offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig didn't mix up the play-calls enough, but rather that things didn't change much in year 1 P.B. (Post-Bielema).

It included, of course, a heavy dose of runs and play-action. Ludwig seemed a little more willing to roll the dice with trick plays and early-down deep tries (usually off the mark; Stave strikes again). I certainly expected more of a shake-up than what unfolded, though the old recipe brought more than its fair measure of success.

That said, there were times when I felt like there was too much comfort in keeping with the status quo.

Defensive line: B+

Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon and Ethan Hemer all seemed to embrace one of the biggest schematic changes under Andersen: switching to a base 3-4 defense. All three consistently clogged the middle and got occasional pressure on the passer.

The biggest revelation, however, was 300-pound nose tackle Warren Herring. The redshirt junior had six tackles for a loss and four sacks -- both best among defensive linemen -- and fully played the part of human wrecking ball. Expect Herring to anchor the line and close his career as an All-Big Ten-caliber player. Sophomore Alec James will also play a hybrid defensive end role after beginning his UW career at outside linebacker.

Newcomers: Freshmen Conor SheehyBilly HirschfeldJeremy Patterson
Gone from last year: Beau Allen (graduation), Pat Muldoon (graduation), Ethan Hemer (graduation), Tyler Dippel (graduation)

Linebackers: A

How could any conversation about the Badgers' defense not start with Chris Borland? The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year had a truly spectacular season, finishing with 112 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

Borland was the heart and soul of this defense, seemingly floating to the ball on every run play and screen pass.

Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly also closed notable careers with strong seasons, and Derek Landisch showed promise as a starter. Borland's absence alone will force a recasting of roles, and Kelly and Armstrong won't be easy to replace. Vince Biegel and Marcus Trotter should help the cause. Michael Caputo will also drop down to field-side linebacker from safety, though that switch isn't entirely concrete. One other switch: Joe Schobert will move inside from outside linebacker.

Newcomers: Freshman T.J. Edwards
Gone from last year: Chris Borland (graduation), Ethan Armstrong (graduation), Brendan Kelly (graduation)

Secondary: B-

The gut reaction is to remember a disastrous game against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl and aggressively lash out. But there were significant, if minor, improvements from a group that's perennially been UW's weakest over the last several years.

Sojourn Shelton, a true freshman, shone with a team-high four interceptions, 11 passes defended and seven break-ups. At free safety, Caputo also had a strong sophomore season, his 63 tackles second only to Borland.

Dezmen Southward didn't have the stellar year any anticipated after a breakout 2012, and Darius Hillary has ... plenty of film to review this offseason. Luckily, there is time for that, because everyone except Southward has at least two years of eligibility left.

Newcomers: Freshmen D'Cota DixonDerrick TindalLubern FigaroAustin Hudson
Gone from last year: Dezmen Southward (graduation), Jerry Ponio (graduation), Kyle Zuleger (graduation), Isaiah Wiliams (left the program)

Special teams: C

Jack Russell and Kyle French were both awfully shaky, going 5-of-7 and 2-of-4, respectively, on kicks from 30-39 yards. You wouldn't really trust either guy to line up for the game-winner from, say, 38 yards, and that makes for some tough calls from the coaches in tight games.

Punter Drew Meyer also quietly regressed after an admirable (reasonable descriptor for a punter?) freshman campaign.

Doe's only return for a touchdown came in the Capitol One Bowl, but Abbrederis will be missed on punt returns.