The Badgers beat the Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl to secure their first 13-win season in school history—and yet, it felt like a season with much left to be desired. After coming up a game-winning drive short of the College Football Playoff, Wisconsin is eager to prove that they belong this season—the schedule is harder, the offense is better, and the Big Ten is strong once again. Let’s take a look at how the position groups stack up for the 2018 Badgers.
The frustrating case of Alex Hornibrook—on one hand, you have a guy who has posted a 20-3 record, the best winning percentage in school history. On the other, he was usually good for one or two interceptions a game last season—however, we saw flashes of brilliance in the BYU and Miami games, and if we can see more of that play consistently this year, the quarterback grade will rise. Behind Hornibrook, Jack Coan and Danny Vanden Boom provide adequate backups, but likely won’t see any playing time unless Hornibrook should suffer an injury.
I was very close to giving this group a B+, but Jonathan Taylor is so good that he elevates this group an extra notch. The reason I say that is because the depth isn’t great—in 2012, the trio of Montee Ball, James White, and Melvin Gordon was nearly unstoppable. In 2010, James White, John Clay, and Montee Ball fell four yards short of three 1,000-yard rushers. These groups were elite—this one is not. And yet, Taylor has the best chance to bring the Heisman trophy to Madison since Gordon back in 2014. When Taylor’s not in the game, Hornibrook will lean on Chris James and Bradrick Shaw, who combined for 659 yards last season.
If you’re a Wisconsin fan, this should be the group you’re most excited about this season because I believe it’s the best group of receivers this school has ever seen—there’s no Lee Evans or Jared Abbrederis type of player (yet), but the depth of this group will be key for Alex Hornibrook this year. Quintez Cephus returns from a right leg injury that sidelined him last season, and he’ll rejoin a promising trio of A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis, and Kendric Pryor. The Badgers also welcome in freshman Aron Cruickshank, whose high school coach said “he’s got SEC speed coming to Wisconsin”—a lot to be hopeful for with this group. They will have to replace the production of Troy Fumagalli, but Chryst has two upperclassmen in Kyle Penniston and Zander Neuville who are more than up to the task.
The Badgers didn’t lose a single offensive lineman last season, and that’s bad news for the rest of the Big Ten. Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards anchor the line after earning All-American honorable mentions last season and will join Michael Dieter with the potential for three offensive linemen taken in the 2019 NFL Draft. Say what you will about the up-and-coming players in the skill positions, but, as it always has, Wisconsin’s success starts with the offensive line—they’ll pave the way for Jonathan Taylor’s Heisman campaign once again this season.
This group lost a lot of production this offseason in Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih, but get back the anchor in the middle, Olive Sagapolu. After that, Jim Leonhard will have to lean on youth and inexperience—Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk served as backups last season and should be inserted into starting roles next year—the two combined for 23 tackles in 2017. Wisconsin also welcomes early enrollee Bryson Williams, a nose tackle who should provide much-needed depth behind Sagapolu. This unit will once again be pivotal towards a defense that was second in the nation in yards allowed per game, trailing only the Crimson Tide—not bad company at all.
Wisconsin lost several key linebackers last season, but this group is still elite. The most important returns are T.J. Edwards, First-Team All American linebacker, and Ryan Connelly, who will join Edwards as the leaders of the defense. Andrew Van Ginkel, who only makes big plays (see the Big Ten Championship), as well as redshirt junior Tyler Johnson, should step into starting roles this season. I can only hope this is the year that Chris Orr gets back on track—an immense talent, Orr has seen his career derailed by an ACL tear in 2016 and missed five more games due to injury last season. If he can stay healthy this season, he will provide great depth to an already star-studded group.
No position group for the Badgers lost more than the secondary—the only returning starter is D’Cota Dixon, and they could bear a resemblance to the young Packers secondary this season—there are several three-star recruits that will likely push for starting spots in Scott Nelson, Dontye Carriere-Williams, and Madison Cone. It’s a brand new look for the back end of the defense this season, but there are two positives to take away from the current situation: Dixon will be a fantastic mentor for this young group, and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s specialty is secondary. It could be rough at the start, but there’s potential for this unit.