clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Roundtable: How do the Badgers have a successful offseason?

We discuss the Badgers win over Nebraska in the latest roundtable installment.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Wisconsin Badgers finished off the regular season with a 28-14 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers, reclaiming the Axe Trophy and overcoming injuries for the victory.

There were several takeaways from the win, as well as the overall season and the offseason following the game.

For this roundtable, I combined with our football writer Scary Alvarez once again to answer some critical questions.

Q: Three game balls?

Rohan: Braelon Allen was the true difference maker in this one, as he created the Badgers rushing attack on a day where Wisconsin needed to play physical and move the chains on the ground. Allen finished with 165 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, the second-highest volume of his season, pushing through injuries in what appeared to be his final game with the Badgers. Allen earned 113 yards after contact, which is a testament to his physicality and toughness in a much-needed win. He was the star of Saturday’s game.

The offensive line earns my second game ball. They’ve been challenged all season, especially after Tanner Mordecai went down with an injury, and have seen their fair share of ups and downs. Penalties have been especially killer, as Jack Nelson has 12 on the season, while Riley Mahlman committed six of his own. But, the Badgers don’t win the game without the play of their offensive line. They were fantastic in pass protection, allowing just two (yes, two) pressures on the day, which allowed Tanner Mordecai to consistently find ways to extend plays. Then, in the run game, there were key holes created, leading to explosive plays for Braelon Allen that were difference-makers in this one. The Badgers likely have some changes along their offensive line for next season in adapting to the new scheme and responsibilities, but it was a strong end to the season for the unit.

Tanner Mordecai earns my final game ball of the weekend. For the second consecutive week, Mordecai didn’t have an amazing stat line, passing for 145 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception on a 63.6 percent completion rate. But, the Badgers needed Mordecai’s dual-threat ability, and the quarterback was able to find ways to move the chains with nine carries for 69 yards on the ground. Wisconsin left some opportunities on the board offensively, but Mordecai directly contributed to three of their four touchdown drives, aiding the Badgers in eclipsing the 25-point mark for the first time since September.

Scary: Braelon Allen: Saturday was a rare combination of execution and sheer will for the banged-up tailback against a solid Gophers Defense. While he’ll never be one to complain about injury (and he looked pretty spry), Allen was still playing through significant pain, and if there ever needed to be a calling card for his toughness for NFL teams, this game was it. His burst also appeared to be back, which bodes well for his draft status. Even being banged up for much of 2023, Allen still sits second in the Big Ten in Rushing yards at 984—one slot ahead of Blake Corum on over a half yard more per carry than the heralded Wolverine. He’s also third in the Conference in non-kicker scoring, behind only Corum and Marvin Harrison, Jr.

Hunter Wohler: Without speculating on the severity of his injury coming into the contest, Wohler again led an inspired and opportunistic Defense, which refused to let mediocre Minnesota QB Athan Kaliakmanis beat them for the second time in two seasons. As hard-hitting and assignment sound as ever, Wohler’s play embodied the entire Badger Defense on Saturday afternoon, which looked much more like the unit Tressel has been imagining it could be this season.

Ricardo Hallman: He secured his Big Ten leading 6th interception on the way to yet another solid game for the Freshman. It’s frightening to imagine what the Badger secondary would have looked like without Hallman stepping up, and he’ll be the unquestioned leader of that group in 2024 when it adds even more talent to the rotation, including transfer Michael Mack and Amare Snowden.

Q: Most underrated player on both sides this year?

Rohan: Offensively, the answer has to be Chez Mellusi for me. Last season, Braelon Allen earned double the carries of his counterpart, leading to questions of how the fifth-year senior would fit into the backfield.

But, early on, it became apparent that Mellusi was the better fit for the offense, and ultimately, the team’s Big Ten Championship hopes went down when Mellusi did. Allen was integral to the Badgers success when he was healthy, as seen by the last win, but the timeshare between him and Mellusi was Wisconsin’s most effective offensive approach, as it brought out the creativity with Phil Longo’s run schemes, which was one of the biggest positives in his first year.

Allen likely departs for the draft, but Mellusi could return for a sixth and final season, where he’d likely be the top back for the Badgers. If that’s the case, Wisconsin’s backfield looks much more secure in 2023.

Defensively, I’m going to go with Nyzier Fourqueran. Now, Fourqueran evolved into the rotation more as the season went along, but I thought he was the better fit for the defense with his 6’1 frame than Alexander Smith, who was the team’s best corner in 2022. On the season, Fourqueran allowed a catch rate of 64.4 percent, but only gave up 7.2 yards per reception, despite facing an average depth of target of 9.5 yards.

What does that mean? Well, Fourqueran mainly allowed the passes short of the sticks, which makes sense when understanding Wisconsin’s defensive philosophy.

Moreover, Fourqueran was a good tackler this season, and really made an impression in the final game with four stops at or behind the line of scrimmage against Minnesota.

Overall, Fourqueran had 10 defensive stops on passing plays, which led the team alongside linebacker Jordan Turner and is impressive for a cornerback. It’s yet to be seen how the depth chart shakes out at cornerback in 2024, but Fourqueran deserves some love in my eyes. The lone issue? Three penalties, including two in the final game.

Scary: On defense, I’ll go with Preston Zachman, who was sixth (!) on the team in tackles and also had two important interceptions, while stepping up big-time at safety due to injuries/ineffective play of others in the group. Assignment sound and a decent hitter in his own right, Zachman definitely solidified his role in the secondary going forward.

On Offense, I’ll say Hayden Rucci. Rucci is a workmanlike, heady leader who is also an exquisite blocker, and was always thinking a step ahead of the defense. While freshman Tucker Ashcraft has some tantalizing upside as a receiver, Rucci got so much playing time this season because of his mastery of the playbook and his effort. A true throwback tight end, he’ll be missed in 2024 even if fans don’t know it yet.

Q: Goals for the offseason?

Rohan: This will be a very important offseason in the Luke Fickell era and there’s much to figure out ahead of next season. It all begins with the transfer portal after the Badgers compiled together a strong 2024 recruiting class that could set the foundation for years to come.

For me, it begins at the top with the quarterback position. I’ve been a staunch proponent of hitting the portal for a veteran quarterback once again, as I’m not as confident that the incumbents would be ready to face the heightened competition in 2024.

Instead, it’d be better to get a proven option and allow their younger players to develop for another year before getting their opportunity. Reports have already surfaced sharing that this transfer quarterback class will likely be a talented crop, and the Badgers should take advantage. There are already a few talented throwers of the football in the portal, including Mississippi State’s Will Rogers, New Hampshire’s Max Brosmer, and more.

Elsewhere, the Badgers will look to attain talent at defensive line, which is one of the toughest positions to get talent at in the transfer portal. The Badgers are at a disadvantage geographically for the position, but they’ll need to shore up a unit that struggled to generate pressure and faced issues with their run defense in 2023.

Other positions to watch could be linebacker, where I wouldn’t be surprised by a transfer, as Mike Tressel looks to get players that better fit his system. Christian Alliegro seems like one of those guys and is primed for a bigger role in 2024, but he could serve in more of a versatile role.

While the Badgers do have numbers at the position, the results were unsatisfying at receiver and tight end outside of Will Pauling in 2023. It seemed later in the year that Wisconsin realized the value of a speed threat like Vinny Anthony on the outside, but they could hit the portal again in hopes of landing a more prominent name. The issue? I’m not sure how promising Wisconsin is as a destination for the position.

As for tight ends, the Badgers need depth and top-end talent. I’d expect Grant Stec to play as a freshman, while Tucker Ashcraft hopefully continues to develop and becomes a more dependable blocker. But, Wisconsin needs depth after losing a ton of players at the position this past season.

Scary: Luke Fickell’s primary goals will be: (1) keeping his 2024 recruiting class intact, (2) settling the quarterback situation, and (3) using the Transfer Portal to address weaknesses and add upgrades.

Wisconsin’s 2024 class is currently one of the program’s best ever as far as rankings (Rivals is the most bullish, ranking it #18 overall with a whopping ten 4 star guys), so it’s imperative for Fickell and his staff to keep this talented group committed to the Badgers. There are definitely some top programs sniffing around a number of these guys, so the Badgers will have their work cut out for them until early signing day and beyond. It’s also possible that Wisconsin could add to this class, as they have several more offers out.

The 2024 Badgers, as is, will have a room full of intriguing quarterbacks on the roster, including Braedyn Locke, Cole LaCrue, Nick Evers, Myles Burkett, and future early-enrollee 247 Composite 4 Star Mabrey Mettauer. While there are potential future Badger starters on next year’s roster (presuming they don’t transfer out), there is no clear 2024 guy and the position’s experience level is very low.

This is what leads me to believe that Fickell will again turn to the portal for an experienced QB. While this is no certainty, it’s hard to imagine the Badgers facing its absolute gauntlet of a 2024 schedule without a QB they can 100% count on. Waiting to see what develops in 2024 spring ball would greatly reduce the Badgers’ chances of landing a high end transfer.

I know that Fickell, upon being hired, noted that the transfer portal would be used somewhat sparingly with him as coach, and I believe that he meant it. But it seems pretty clear that he thought the squad he inherited had more talent/buy-in than it ended up with. So, I suspect that Fickell will lean heavily on the portal in advance of 2024 to both fill gaps and upgrade position groups.

As noted above, I think QB will be one of the primary positions he targets (it would not shock me if the program reaches out to Will Rogers from Mississippi State), as well as DL. Getting an impact edge rusher and run-stuffing DT will be huge needs. RB might also get a look, although the three-headed monster of RB recruits might yield a game one starter. Finally, be on the lookout for the staff bringing in another WR with experience, especially if Dike leaves.