Badgers eying another Big Ten title in 2015
With spring practices finally all wrapping up around the country, HuskerOnline.com continues our look at where each of Nebraska's 12 opponents in 2015 currently stand coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer. Today, we check in on the Wisconsin Badgers, who come to Lincoln on Oct. 10 for NU's Big Ten Conference home opener.
To get a feel for where the Badgers stand heading into their first season under new head coach Paul Chryst, we spoke with John Veldhuis of BadgerBlitz.com to get his thoughts and perspective on the team and what to expect once the season gets underway in a few months.
Unlike most every other coaching change, Wisconsin's spring was almost a return to the past than a complete overhaul. Chryst, who spent the past three seasons as head coach at Pitt, replaced Gary Andersen as the head man in Madison after previously coaching eight seasons at UW under Bret Bielema. The former Badger offensive coordinator then brought several other previous Wisconsin assistants onto his staff, including Joe Rudolph (OC) and John Settle (running backs).
As for the players, even with a new staff and a number of young guys returning this season, Veldhuis said there weren't very many heated position battles during spring practice. In particular, the quarterback position looks to be as settled as it's been for some time, with Joel Stave being regarded as the clear No. 1 after sharing snaps last season with Tanner McEvoy, who is now a safety.
Obviously the Badgers have a major void to fill in replacing Heisman Trophy runner-up and Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon at running back. Wisconsin feels good about the potential of Corey Clement as its next star back, but plenty of questions still remain regarding the rest of the backfield depth as well as the situation up front on the offensive line.
With Stave and Clement leading the way for Wisconsin's offense, the focus for Chryst and his staff this spring went mostly to the players around them, particularly on an offensive line that has long been one of UW's most consistently productive units. The Badgers must replace three starters on the o-line, but the passing game should be improved despite once again UW not featuring a big name wide receiver.
On defense, the biggest concerns are at the two inside linebacker spots, as three of the four players in last year's two-deep are gone and only junior Leon Jacobs returns to a group otherwise consisting of true and redshirt freshmen. The competition should sort out the depth chart at the three defensive line spots, which lost two versatile starters but return end Chikwe Obasih. Safeties McEvoy and senior Michael Caputo will anchor an experienced secondary, which should be the strength of the defense.
Offensive star: RB Corey Clement
Wisconsin's embarrassment of riches at the running back position continues this season, with Clement taking the reigns as the new No. 1 feature back. After rushing for more than 500 yards on 8.2 yards per carry as a freshman in 2013, Clement nearly cracked the 1,000-yard mark last season as a sophomore with 949 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground despite playing behind such a productive player like Gordon.
This year will be Clement's turn in the spotlight, and while at 5-11, 217, he's certainly capable of doing work between the tackles, he's also expected to give the Badgers an impact as a receiver out of the backfield, something Gordon struggled with at times. Clement will likely open the year as one of the higher profile backs in the Big Ten, and based on his production as just a backup thus far, the hype is definitely warranted.
Defensive star: CB Sojourn Shelton
After being named preseason first-team All-Big Ten going into 2014, cornerback Sojourn Shelton didn't have a terrible year but certainly didn't live up to his lofty expectations. Shelton started 12 games and nabbed four interceptions as a true freshman in 2012, but offenses adjusted to his aggressive coverage style last season and he gave up some costly big plays and didn't pick off a single pass.
It appears the junior has learned how to better walk the line of when to gamble in coverage and when to be more conservative, which should help get him back to the all-conference status expected from him a year ago.
Spring surprise: QB Alex Hornibrook
Stave may be the guy at quarterback for Wisconsin this season, but the Badgers may have gotten a glimpse of their QB of the future this spring with the arrival of true freshman Alex Hornibrook. Rated as a three-star prospect coming out of Malvern (Pa.) Prep, Hornibrook took full advantage of his head start of enrolling early for spring ball by making everyone take notice with nearly every rep he took.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Hornibrook originally committed to Pitt, but followed Chryst to Madison after the coaching change. His arm strength and touch on his passes were things UW hasn't seen from a true freshman quarterback in a while, and the Badgers are hoping he only continues to develop under Chryst's tutelage.
Best spring position battle: Backup running back
Clement is clearly the face of Wisconsin's offense this season, but who makes up the depth chart behind him is still very much to be determined. Because the Badgers' run the ball enough for potentially two players to reach 1,000 yards in a season, the No. 2 running back role is as important at UW as it is for any school in the country.
The main backs in contention for that role this spring were junior Dare Ogunbowale (a converted cornerback) and redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal, but two four-star true freshmen will join the mix in the fall in Jordan Stevenson and Bradrick Shaw. Needless to say, that competition has only just begun.
Biggest question: Rebuilding year for offensive line?
While Wisconsin's running backs may get the bulk of the glory, few would argue that the play of the Badgers' offensive line has been just as important for the success of the running game over the past several years as anyone carrying the ball. Unlike recent seasons, though, UW is facing a true rebuilding process this spring and fall after a number of longtime starters moved on and some recruiting misses up front are now starting to catch up.
It wasn't as if Wisconsin wasn't landing highly-rated offensive linemen under Andersen, but the issue was not being able to keep them on campus while playing behind more veteran, solidified starters. The Badgers do return senior left tackle Tyler Marz and junior center Dan Voltz, but the other three spots will all be filled by first-year starters.
Early outlook on Wisconsin vs. Nebraska
Veldhuis: "That's a tough question, because with Wisconsin, everything really keys off of the offensive line, and for the first time in a long time, it seems like there are some big questions that need to be answered there. It's not something that I think people need to panic about yet, because they've had young guys step into these positions before, but it is a weird feeling to have three question marks on the offensive line. If they can get their offensive line situation figured out, I think they could be pretty competitive in that game, even though I know it's hard obviously to go into Lincoln and take out the Cornhuskers on the road. But if they can't, I think that's a real tricky game for them, especially because so much depends on that position group."
Overall 2015 win-loss expectations
Veldhuis: "I guess the expectation this year should probably be pretty close to what it was last year. Obviously going up against Alabama (in the season opener) is a pretty tough task, but they had to play LSU last year. They have three other games in the non-conference that look pretty easy: you've got Miami of Ohio, Troy and Hawaii all coming to Camp Randall. They've got a tough game at Nebraska, but your cross-division teams this year are Rutgers and Maryland. I think winning the division is definitely a reasonable expectation, and it's something that I really think they need to try and shoot for, because their cross-divisional opponents get much harder after we move on from the 2015 season and we start to see Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State rotate back in. This is a big year where a divisional title is definitely within reach."
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