It’s been an up-and-down year for the Badgers, who re-shuffled their roster last offseason after the arrival of new head coach Luke Fickell.
Now, they face an important offseason ahead of them, where the transfer portal has already been active, and the Badgers should be players once again.
What are the Badgers biggest needs in the transfer portal?
1. Defensive Line
Without a question, the Badgers’ biggest need is at defensive line.
After losing Keeanu Benton and Nick Herbig t po the NFL Draft last offseason, the Badgers were left without elite-level replacements, and their defensive line wasn’t able to stop the run as well as in 2022.
Now, the Badgers are expected to lose Isaiah Mullens, Gio Paez, and Rodas Johnson, creating additional spots to for snaps at the defensive line.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Badgers take multiple players at the position to shore up depth and competition, but there is one inherent problem: the limited availability in the portal.
Defensive line is one of the scarcest positions in college football, as there is a limited amount of good players that become available.
Wisconsin isn’t a great geographical reach either for the position, and players may be less inclined to come after seeing Darian Varner’s unproductive season, just one year after he earned 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.
The Badgers likely won’t pick up many frontline starters at the position, but they need depth and developable talent, while hoping their younger players begin to fill in at the position.
I’ve said it since the beginning of last season: I believe the Badgers are going to the portal for a quarterback this offseason. And given how it unfolded, I don’t see the reason not to.
With redshirt freshman Myles Burkett announcing his intentions to transfer, the Badgers opened up a scholarship spot at quarterback, and could look to carry five at the position once again.
While injuries and some offensive inconsistencies caused for struggles along the way, Tanner Mordecai was Wisconsin’s best quarterback in a while, and he was the reason that the team won certain games.
Additionally, in the time that Mordecai missed, we saw a glimpse of Braedyn Locke, who failed to complete over 50 percent of his passes during his three starts.
While Locke doesn’t possess Mordecai’s athleticism, something that offensive coordinator Phil Longo covets, he could still develop to be Wisconsin’s quarterback of the future.
But, the current issue is that we don’t know how quickly that’ll evolve, and the Badgers need strong quarterback play next season with a much tougher schedule.
I believe the Badgers should explore the transfer portal and look to at least acquire some veteran competition, with the opportunity of becoming a starter, especially with the talent available at the position currently.
Locke and fellow redshirt freshman Nick Evers are unlikely to transfer, given they’d have to sit out an entire year at their next destination as a second-time transfer, which is why it’d be beneficial to bring in competition and allow the young quarterbacks to develop before taking over the reigns in 2025 when they’re ready if they don’t win the battle.
Coming into the year, the Badgers linebackers were seen as one of the team’s strengths, as Wisconsin returned its starters in Jordan Turner and Maema Njongmeta, while Jake Chaney was set to take a bigger role.
However, it didn’t take long to realize that the starters weren’t great fits for Mike Tressel’s 3-3-5 defense, which relies on more athletic players to fill the roles and fit in gaps.
Add in the number of missed tackles, poor angles, and issues in zone coverage and the linebacker unit turned from a strength to an area of need.
Christian Alliegro seems like an intriguing player that should fit seamlessly into Tressel’s defense next season, but the Badgers need to sort out the remainder of their linebacker room.
The Badgers blitzed their linebacker trio at a 24 percent rate in 2023, which could carry over to next season, but they could look to improve with a piece at the position.
An option could be looking for a safety/linebacker hybrid to fill the third linebacker role, which Mike Tressel used Deshawn Pace in when the two were at Cincinnati in 2022.
At outside linebackers, the Badgers didn’t get much production from their starters on the pass-rushing front, as C.J. Goetz and Darryl Peterson combined for 8.5 sacks.
Goetz will be gone in 2024, but the Badgers will need to shore up depth regardless after outside linebacker Jeff Pietrowski didn’t have a very impactful season in 2023 after transferring in from Michigan State.
Pietrowski will look to work with Peterson to get things going in 2024, but there needs to be more pieces in the mix, which Wisconsin could get from the portal.
4. Tight Ends
The Badgers got virtually zero production from their tight ends in 2023, leading them to see less and less snaps as the season went on.
Hayden Rucci and Tucker Ashcraft were seventh and eighth, respectively, on the team in receiving yards, while third-stringer Riley Nowakowski was tenth.
Now, while the production wasn’t necessarily there, the impact was still present, as Hayden Rucci was a solid blocker, while Riley Nowakowski got integrated more as the season went on.
But, the Badgers entered the season with minimal depth and that was reflected with their 2023 results.
While four-star tight end Grant Stec is coming in with the 2024 class, the Badgers should look to add depth in the portal to complement their younger players with hopes of re-invigorating the position in Phil Longo’s offense.
5. Running Backs
This position group is solely dependent on the return of Chez Mellusi, as that move would significantly change up the Badgers’ running back room.
Currently, Wisconsin will return Jackson Acker, Cade Yacamelli, and Nate White as scholarship options, while bringing in Darrion Dupree, Dilin Jones, and Gideon Ituka as heralded freshmen.
I actually expect to see the freshmen running backs to compete for playing time immediately, but the Badgers should acquire veteran depth if Mellusi doesn’t return.
If the veteran does come back for a sixth season, the Badgers have a proven option that is a strong fit in Phil Longo’s offense to lead the way, while having a plethora of options that could complement Mellusi.
But, we saw the struggles that Wisconsin faced at running back without the likes of Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi this season, and Acker isn’t the best fit for Longo’s run scheme.
I’m very intrigued by Longo’s run concepts and actually thought it was one of, if not the, best part of his offensive approach in 2023, but Wisconsin needs at least one established runner to lead the charge, while having the incumbents compete with the incoming freshmen for the remaining opportunities.
6. Wide Receivers
Last offseason, the Badgers landed four transfers at receivers following the coaching change, leading many, including myself, to set higher expectations for the passing game, as Wisconsin brought in a highly-successful quarterback in Tanner Mordecai.
Unfortunately, the wide receiver room disappointed, and one could argue that it was the biggest drop from expectations to reality out of any position.
Now, Will Pauling is a budding star, and I mentioned his talent from the first day of spring ball, but the remainder of the room underwhelmed.
Bryson Green was second on the team with 25 catches and 375 receiving yards, while Chimere Dike had 19 catches and 328 yards.
Drops were a significant issue, as the Badgers had 30 on the season.
Skyler Bell and Will Pauling had seven a piece, while Chimere Dike had four and the highest drop rate of any receiver.
While Bryson Green dropped just one pass, the Badgers could never get him going consistently, as his contested catch rate dropped significantly to 8.3 percent this season.
The Badgers should see some shakeup in this room, but also have a number of options that will still be competing.
But, if the opportunity presents itself to add competition to the room, Wisconsin needs to take it to help out whoever their next quarterback will be. There’s a ton of portal talent at receiver. The only question is whether a player would come to Madison after seeing what transpired with receivers this season.
7. Offensive Line
The offensive line is one of the most intriguing positions on the roster enter the offseason, as there are several key decisions to be made.
At the top, the Badgers have two players who are in draft considerations: Tanor Bortolini and Jack Nelson.
Bortolini was one of the team’s most underrated players in 2023, as he actually compiled another strong year as a blocker, but his snapping woes were visibly present.
Nelson saw his fair share of ups-and-downs while transitioning to a new scheme, as he was penalized a team-high 12 times, as his hand placement was extremely inconsistent.
I do think Bortolini should seriously test the NFL waters, as he has two strong years of blocking in both aspects on tape, while presenting a variety of versatility over his career.
On the other hand, I think Nelson would benefit from a better season in 2024, but NFL teams like his prototypical size and athleticism. His versatility and traits as a tackle could appeal to certain teams.
Those two decisions could alter the remainder of the Badgers’ plans, as they have a bevy of underclassmen ready for a step up, such as tackle Nolan Rucci and guard Joe Brunner.
There could be portal movement if players want bigger opportunities elsewhere, but Wisconsin could also lose a few players to the draft, which could change plans. Lots to monitor here.
The Badgers cornerback room saw a breakout season from Ricardo Hallman, who recorded a Big Ten-high six interceptions this year.
Playing primarily from the field position as an outside corner, Hallman bounced back, despite possessing a smaller frame at 5’9.
While I don’t know if Hallman is the best fit for Tressel’s defense, which has incorporated bigger cornerbacks in the past, the Badgers seem to be confident in his play, and also have those bigger players on the roster.
Even with the departure of Alexander Smith and Jason Maitre, the Badgers have ample depth at the position with a plethora of young players who are willing to contribute, plus returning starters and the addition of Michael Mack.
The one area I could see change is the nickel position, as the Badgers have gone to the portal in two consecutive years to fill the void. The Badgers didn’t have much depth at all at nickel, as safety Owen Arnett was the backup.
Perhaps one of the young players steps up into that role like a Jonas Duclona, but the Badgers could look for depth there, if anywhere.
The deepest position entering the 2023 season for the Badgers, Wisconsin seems set at safety, as they’re only losing Travian Blaylock from the senior class.
Now, Hunter Wohler should test the NFL waters, and there could be some movement out due to playing time reasons, but the Badgers have a young, improving group, and could implement their dollar package more that allows for more safeties to see the field.
The Badgers are expected to bring back all four of their top players in Wohler, Preston Zachman, Austin Brown, and Kamo’i Latu, while younger players could step up into bigger roles as well.
I expect a handy amount of portal movement in and out, but I’m not sure that the safety room is one that’s expected to change too much at the top with incoming talent.