Around the Big Ten West: Wisconsin Badgers
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Around the B1G West: Wisconsin

A surprisingly regular season for the University of Wisconsin in 2019 led to a familiar final destination, but it ended with what has become a familiar heartbreaking result.

Picked third in the Big Ten West Division in the Cleveland.com preseason poll, the Badgers raced out to a 6-0 start and drew attention thanks to a defense that shut out four opponents and a dominant 35-14 home win over No.11 Michigan.

Consecutive October toe stubs on the road at Illinois and Ohio State stalled the momentum heading into its bye week, but Wisconsin won its four November games by two, 16, 21 and 21 points, the latter a 38-17 road victory at No.9 Minnesota to clinch a spot in the Big Ten title game.

Despite UW seeing a 21-7 halftime lead evaporate in a 34-21 loss to the Buckeyes in Indianapolis, the Badgers’ overall profile (eighth in the final CFP rankings) earned them their fourth trip to the Rose Bowl since 2011. However, UW’s four-turnover performance led to a 24-23 loss to Oregon, marking the Badgers’ fourth straight defeat in Pasadena, Calif., by a combined 16 points.

Wisconsin heads into 2020 with a defense of returning veterans who have championship aspirations, but an offense that has question marks at every skill position and on the interior of the offensive line.

Quarterback Jack Coan (17) is back but a lot of his offensive weapons, like tailback Jonathan Taylor (23) are not
Quarterback Jack Coan (17) is back but a lot of his offensive weapons, like tailback Jonathan Taylor (23) are not (Darren Lee/BadgerBlitz.com Photographer)

Three Prominent Storylines

Finding the Next Workhorse Tailback

There’s no secret to what the Badgers will need to replace in their backfield in the months to come.

The first player in FBS history to rush for 6,000 yards in just three seasons, Jonathan Taylor won a second straight Doak Walker Award with 2,003 rushing yards in 2019. He rightfully declared for the NFL Draft and left college as the No.2 rusher in Big Ten history and No.6 all-time in the NCAA with 6,174 yards.

Wisconsin must find out if senior Garrett Groshek and/or sophomore Nakia Watson can carry a larger workload. After all, the Badgers are losing a player who ranked No.2 all-time in the FBS with 12, 200-yard games and had 61 carries of at least 10 yards in all three of his seasons. Groshek/Watson have yet to record a 100-yard game.

However, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Groshek has proven himself as a reliable option in both the run and the pass. He has averaged 5.5 yards per carry over his 168 career carries and 8.6 yards per reception on his 43 catches. Last season Groshek had 10 games with at least one play of 10 yards and four chunk plays over 20, impacting UW in the pass game with the running back screen. UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph has heaped praised on Groshek for giving the staff options offensively, but can he be someone who can handle a heavier workload?

There will be a lot of focus on Watson, who has the look and build of tailback who can carry his own in the Big Ten. A former four-star recruit and a first-team all-state selection, Watson was impressive in his first collegiate games with 80 yards on 14 carries (5.7 yards per carry) at South Florida and, while he didn’t look as polished against some decent Big Ten defenses, gained experience that should help him moving forward.

A New Wide Receivers Coach Rebuilding Depth

Wisconsin will enter the season needing to replace leading receiver Quintez Cephus (59, 901, 7) and senior A.J. Taylor (23, 267, 2) this season, not to mention seeing its depth take a hit when junior-to-be Aron Cruickshank decided to transfer to Rutgers.

The Badgers listed 14 wide receivers on their spring roster, but only two players have any tangible experience in seniors Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, who are both coming off disappointing 2019 seasons, combining for 53 catches, 528 yards and one receiving touchdown. After that pair, it’s a crapshoot. Senior Jack Dunn is a good walk-on player who could provide in some areas but is otherwise limited, so the success will have to come from players fans haven’t seen yet.

UW is hoping that someone from a group of Texas juniors Cade Green and Emmett Perry and Michigan underclassmen A.J. Abbott, Stephan Bracey and Taj Mustapha emerge as threats. They will be evaluated and taught this season by Alvis Whitted, who was hired in early March to replace new Michigan State tight end coach Ted Gilmore

Whitted has spent most of his career coaching college receivers, most recently developing a trio of All-American receivers at Colorado State, but spent last season with the Green Bay Packers. In vetting Whitted, head coach Paul Chryst said he reached out to former Wisconsin players to get a sense of the players who Whitted helped mentor.

Rebuilding the linebackers corps

In returning all three defensive line starters and all its key contributors at cornerback and safety, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard could have one of the top units in the country in 2020; he just needs to replace a couple talented senior linebackers in outside linebacker Zack Baun and inside linebacker Chris Orr, who combined for 154 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss, 24 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries.

UW appears to have one solid starter at each position (senior Noah Burks at OLB and junior Jack Sanborn at ILB), but there will be an open competition for the other spots and a need to build some solid depth at both positions.

Three Biggest Departures

Quintez Cephus declared for the NFL Draft after a junior season in which he led Wisconsin in every receiving category
Quintez Cephus declared for the NFL Draft after a junior season in which he led Wisconsin in every receiving category (Dan Sanger/BadgerBlitz.com Photographer)

Wide Receiver Quintez Cephus

Losing Taylor is a tough loss for Wisconsin considering his production (and I’ve omitted him here from this list because his absence is too obvious) but seeing Cephus declare for the NFL Draft a year early hurts just as much.

Cephus was Wisconsin’s biggest deep-play threat, as he and quarterback Jack Coan found a groove. According to Pro Football Focus, there were 132 quarterbacks to attempt at least 10 passes outside the numbers and 20 yards downfield. Coan graded out with the sixth-highest passing grade, connecting on six big-time throws, four touchdowns and 243 yards on such attempts and five of those big-time throws were targeted to Cephus. Now, the Badgers need to replace that threat.

Center Tyler Biadasz

Wisconsin had to replace four starters entering last season but Biadasz was the reliable rock the group was built around. As a result, Wisconsin developed a unit that helped clear the way for 233.1 rushing yards per game (5.3 yards per attempt) and gave up a total of 20 sacks on the season.

Deciding to return for his junior year, Biadasz was terrific in keeping the waters calm. Although Pro Football Focus said he earned his lowest pass-blocking grade of his career last season, Biadasz allowed just one sack in 390 pass blocking snaps and continued to rank as one of the best run-blocking centers in the country. It was that trait (along with the success of tailback Jonathan Taylor) that helped Biadasz be a unanimous first-team All-American and give UW its first Rimington Award winner as the nation’s best center.

Outside Linebacker Zack Baun

Having high hopes for himself after finally getting through a season healthy, Baun recorded 12.5 sacks — third-most in a single season at UW —to go along with a team-best 19.5 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hurries. Throw in his 76 tackles, Baun earned consensus All-American honors and was a Butkus Award finalist.

Three Key Returners

Senior safety Eric Burrell will be one of the leaders of Wisconsin's loaded secondary
Senior safety Eric Burrell will be one of the leaders of Wisconsin's loaded secondary (Dan Sanger)

Safety Eric Burrell

Burrell came to Wisconsin known as a physical safety willing to throw his body around to make plays in the box at the line of scrimmage. He developed over the course of the last two seasons to being confident in pass coverage in the slot and over the middle of the field without losing that play-making ability at the line of scrimmage.

Ranked by Pro Football Focus as the No.8 returning player in the Big Ten and the No.25 player nationally, Burrell’s two-year PFF coverage grade is among the 10 best in the FBS, as he allowed just a 32.4 passer rating on his targets in that same time span. Burrell was targeted 25 times in coverage in 2019 and allowed just 10 to be caught while combining for nine interceptions and pass breakups.

Earning consensus honorable mention all-conference honors last season, Burrell finished fifth on the team in tackles (55) while also tying for the team lead in interceptions (three).

Quarterback Jack Coan

With all the new pieces of the offense that need to replace, Wisconsin having a senior under center is a security blanket.

Winning the starting quarterback position coming out of fall camp, Coan brought something to the quarterback position that was sorely missing in 2018: stability. He started all 14 games, averaged nearly 195 passing yards per game, threw for 18 touchdowns against five interceptions and added four rushing touchdowns. Coan is 12-6 as a starter and ranked seventh in the country with a 69.6 completion percentage and 19th in the nation with a 151.80 pass efficiency rating (no Badgers QB had finished in the top 20 nationally in that latter category since Russell Wilson in 2011).

UW was looking at a possible quarterback competition between Coan and highly touted redshirt freshman Graham Mertz, but the cancelation of spring practices makes it unlikely Chryst will upset the apple cart.

Cornerback Caesar Williams

Wisconsin finished 12th in passing yards allowed nationally, as opponents threw for just 187.4 yards against the Badgers defense, breaking down to 6.32 yards per attempt and 12.26 yards per completion. UW finished the season with 79 passes defended, second in the nation behind national-champion LSU. UW’s cornerbacks had 28 of those with Williams having a team-high 11. Five of those came in his breakthrough performance against Minnesota and receiver Tyler Johnson, recording an interception and four pass breakups (two on consecutive plays inside the 5-yard line). Starting the final seven games of the season (he played all 14), Williams’ 35 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss were both seventh best on the team.

Three Big Additions

Four-star tailback Jalen Berger will arrive at Wisconsin in June.
Four-star tailback Jalen Berger will arrive at Wisconsin in June. (Photo by Brandon Brown)

Running Back Jalen Berger

The only scholarship player Wisconsin signed during the February signing period was a big one, as Berger gave the Badgers a fifth four-star prospect in a 2020 class that ranked No.27 nationally. Selected for the 2020 All-American Bowl, Berger rushed for 840 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 111 carries last season for Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey. More importantly, he is confident in the passing game, bringing in 27 catches for 357 yards. With Taylor’s departure, there is opportunity for early playing time for the 6-0 tailback.

Linebacker Nick Herbig

A four-star prospect by Rivals.com and the No.18 outside linebacker in the country, Herbig was courted by multiple high-profile schools before settling on the Badgers. Not only was he a huge recruiting score for the program out of Hawaii, having him in spring could set him up a contributing role this fall. Described as a “phenomenal edge rusher, surprisingly powerful against offensive tackles and plays with a wild aggression to disrupt in the backfield” by Rivals.com recruiting analyst Adam Gorney, Herbig possesses a strong frame that looks to be able to handle more muscle once he gets into Wisconsin’s strength program. Having some speed to his game, as well, Herbig has a chance to make an early impact on the two-deep depth chart or on special teams in the fall.

Tight End Cam Large

There isn’t any proven depth behind junior Jake Ferguson at the Wisconsin tight end position, so Large has a chance to crack the depth chart. UW beat out a top four of Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State for the natural pass catcher, who looks strong enough to contribute in UW’s two tight end sets or haul in contested catches.

Expectations for 2020

Assuming we have football this fall, Wisconsin should be considered one of the favorites, if not the favorite to win the Big Ten West Division. After all, since the Big Ten went to divisions in 2011, the Badgers have won their division six out of nine times. However, UW hasn’t won a Big Ten championship since 2012, a point of emphasis for the program which has struggled to get over the Ohio State hurdle.

Fortunately for them, the Badgers won’t see the Buckeyes during the regular season, or Michigan State or Penn State, for that matter. UW’s crossover games are Indiana in the season opener, at Michigan in late September and at Maryland in late October. In addition to opening the season against a Big Ten opponent for the first time since 1982, the Badgers will play in an NFL stadium (vs. Notre Dame Oct.3), an MLB stadium (vs. Northwestern Nov.7) and a sneaky-tough non-conference home game against Appalachian State to add to the uniqueness of 2020.