Since at least 1990 or so, Wisconsin has been known for having an excellent tandem of backs. It has never been about stopping just one guy. However, with the departure of Melvin Gordon III to the NFL, the only guaranteed playmaker the Badgers seem to have is Corey Clement, who had a fantastic season in '14. So, who's in the bullpen presently on the roster? Or is Wisconsin counting on freshman production, much like Alabama must?
JK: Clement will be a workhorse this year unless the Badgers develop that No. 2 running back. The current candidates on the roster are converted cornerback Dare Ogunbowale and redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal. Ogunbowale, a former walk-on who just received his scholarship , was the No. 3 running back after changing positions last season when Deal was injured. Gordon mentioned in interviews last season how he felt Ogunbowale could grow into a threat at the position with more seasoning. If the junior can continue learning and build upon the flashes he showed with his agility and speed in garbage time last season (5.7 yards per carry). Deal stepped up in a larger role during spring to challenge for the No. 2 spot. Both can complement Clement, and each played well in the spring game.
There was a buzz about true freshman Jordan Stevenson from fans about the possibilities the four-star recruit could bring to the offense, but then he was denied admissions last week by the university (link: http://wisconsin.
The passing game never clicked last year with the duo of Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy. Yes, McEvoy (a converted safety) started five games owing to Stave's injuries, but even given a healthy Stave, going into fall camp what makes you more confident in the passing game this season?
JK: It's the presence of head coach Paul Chryst and his pro-style offense that really gives an aura of confidence, if you can call it that. Chryst was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin from 2005-2011 before jumping to Pitt as the head coach for the last three seasons. In 2010 and 2011, you saw Scott Tolzien and Russell Wilson at quarterback, respectively, take the Badgers' offense to new heights in terms of scoring offense (41.5 and 44.1 points per game) and 49 combined touchdown passes between the two in those seasons (Wilson threw 33 of them in '11).
The presence of Chryst as a "quarterback guru" should help Stave as senior, who studied under Chryst as a redshirt freshman in 2011. Last year was rough for the former walk-on, as the dual-threat in McEvoy was announced the starter though it appeared to the media Stave played better -- then the "yips" controversy was released after the LSU game. Though his total numbers for the season were mediocre after getting back on track and replacing McEvoy as starter (53 percent completion percentage with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions), his first six starts were better with completing 61 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and only one interception. The year before in 2013, he was criticized for some bad passes and his 13 interceptions, but he still threw 22 touchdowns that year, second in school history in a single season.
No one expects Stave to put up Tolzien-like completion percentage (72 percent in 2010) or Russell Wilson-type numbers in general by any stretch of the imagination, but he was named starter at the start of spring practice instead of having to compete for a third straight year -- which allowed him to work on chemistry with his receivers. He'll have some viable receiving targets in senior Alex Erickson and junior Rob Wheelwright as wide outs, along with tight ends Austin Traylor and Troy Fumagalli. Fumagalli gained praise from one Melvin Gordon last year.
With Gordon and his 2,587 yards -- nearly 42 percent of the offense last season -- gone to the NFL, however, it's not a matter of being confident in the passing game. The passing game needs to complement Clement, or else the offense will be in trouble.
Are there any Day One starters you see from NSD 2015?
JK: Not really. Oddly enough, most starting positions are already locked down, at least presumably. One player that could receive playing time is inside linebacker Nick Thomas from IMG Academy down in Florida. Wisconsin's inside linebacking corp is very young, with five of the eight players listed at the position being true freshmen. If junior Leon Jacobs or redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards (more on him later) are injured, Thomas enrolled early in the spring, so he knows the defense to an extent already.
For playing time in general, the Badgers could see tight end Kyle Penniston on the field if he continues to progress, but tight end is pretty stacked with Fumagalli, Traylor, T.J. Watt (youngest brother of J.J.) and Eric Steffes. Other future starters down the line that are intriguing include outside linebacker Arrington Farrar, defensive lineman Olive Sagapolu and outside linebacker Zack Baun.
So, about that very, very young DL...
JK: Though Wisconsin lost Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski on the defensive line, the Badgers bring back players who started and had some significant playing experience last season, though they will still be young at the position. Both Herring and Zagzebski missed some time last year with injuries. Junior Arthur Goldberg, at 295 pounds, can play at nose guard and at defensive end. He started six games while playing in all 14 in 2014. Sophomore Chikwe Obasih started seven games last season, and improved drastically between his first and redshirt freshman year. Many expect he'll continue to progress as both a run-stopping and pass-rushing threat.
Sophomore Conor Sheehy will probably get some starts or first-team reps at nose guard if they want to go with a heavier line with Goldberg at end. The 275-pound linemen had a solid spring after becoming the third-string nose guard last season. Sophomore defensive end Alec James is intriguing as a defensive linemen during pass rushing situations as shown last year, though at 258 pounds, he'll need to prove he can defend the run.
Outside of those four, you'll see some possible playing time from seniors Jake Keefer and James Adeyanju, but if injuries add up on this line, untested players like nose guard Jeremy Patterson, Billy Hirschfield and maybe even Sagapolu will need to step up quickly.
What got solved in the Spring, if anything?
JK: I would say inside linebacker next to junior Leon Jacobs. Redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards, a converted high-school quarterback, proved he was up to the task of being the "rover" inside linebacker. It seemed like after every practice, the media would boast about something Edwards did -- whether it was a series of tackles for loss, a couple of sacks, or some interceptions. He's very athletic, and with Jacobs and outside linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel, it could be the most dynamic set of linebackers Wisconsin's ever seen.
It was the spring, however, and Edwards' probable first start will be in a stadium capable of seating 100,000 people against a powerhouse in Alabama. Talk about baptism through fire.
What is the biggest remaining question going into Fall camp on both sides of the ball?
JK: On offense, the offensive line is the most worrisome. The Badgers have to replace three starters from last season, including right tackle Rob Havenstein, the St. Louis Rams' second-round draft pick. Senior Ray Ball slides into the left guard spot, while redshirt freshman Michael Dieter bumps up to first-team right guard. Sophomore Hayden Biegel (Vince's younger brother) appears to be the heir apparent at right tackle though junior Walker Williams is battling for that spot as well. Center Dan Voltz and left tackle Tyler Marz will have to anchor this line in 2014. Voltz, a Rimington Trophy watch list candidate, suffered injuries last season and this spring that kept him out at times. If there are significant issues with Voltz or others, expect Dieter to slide over to play center, but the depth of the offensive line would be heavily tested.
On defense, it's probably who emerges as the starters on the defensive line and builds depth on that front. With Wisconsin facing spread offenses this season, you've seen defensive coordinator Dave Aranda switch to a 2-4-5 alignment with only two defensive linemen but Biegel and Schobert acting as pseudo-defensive ends, so it may not matter as much depending upon each week's opponent.
What did you see from Paul Chryst's offense in the Spring game? Was it reminiscent of his salad days as Bret Bielema's OC, or was there the lingering effect of Gary Andersen's (often-forced) balanced offense?
JK: Spring games are hard to diagnose because you'll see just the basics of the offense -- nothing flashy from years past. That, and Stave only had one true series (the first, where he was 2-for-2 with a touchdown pass). From what I saw, you saw the staples of his pro-style offense: Two tight-end sets, a fullback, and more passing (with success). I'd actually argue Wisconsin was more balanced during Chryst's tenure, at least towards the end of his tenure -- 3298 yards rushing/3280 yards passing in 2011, and the passing game accounted for 45 percent of the Badgers' offense in 2010. In 2013, the passing offense dropped to 41 percent of the total offense, and last year, the running game accounted for over 68 percent of the offensive output.
You did not see anything of a read-option look in the spring game that you saw from former offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig's scheme; thus, no McEvoy in the shotgun look. It wouldn't put it past them to integrate McEvoy back in here and there for some special looks to throw off an opponent, but not sure we're going to see much of it.
Wisconsin will always try to run the ball -- it's what the staple of the program the past 25 years -- and with Clement, the Badgers have the next great UW back. However, the advent of a potent passing game has taken it to the next level in the past five years. The questions are, how much will Stave progress and can his offensive line keep him upright?
You going to the game?
JK: Sadly, no. I will be watching the game at home here in Madison, enjoying a couple of Spotted Cow beers and a match-up featuring two of the best defenses in the nation -- though I do know one or two B5Q contributors that are making the trek south to *clap clap clap* deep in the heart of Texas. Sorry, had to do that.
Jake Kocorowski is an Editor at our Wisconsin sister site, Bucky's 5th Quarter. You can follow him at @JakeKocoB5Q, and check out Wisconsin news leading up the the game at @B5Q.