Before Sweater Vest Armageddon caused web servers the world over to short circuit, most pundits had tabbed the Badgers of Wisconsin to finish as the runner-up in the newly created yet stupidly named Leaders Division (some magazines did predict Penn State to grab second). With Ohio State facing a probable post-season ban (which, if similar to the USC sanctions, will include the inaugural B1G Championship Game), Wisconsin now finds itself soaking in the pre-season love to the point where some have speculated whether or not Bucky is a national title contender-the first time anyone has done so since Sportsline anointed UW #1 in its last preseason ranking in 2000 (and we all know how that season turned out…).
Before we stuff a backpack full of Schlitz and parade around State Street like it's Halloween 2002 we need to answer an important question: How will the Badgers replace a handful of all-Americans and a bunch of other difference-makers? The process of thinking through this answer will afford us an opportunity to look closely at the Badger roster and what kinds of schemes they might use this year.
Point: Ignore for a moment the fact that the Badgers stink whenever people drink the cardinal and white kool-aid in the preseason. Wisconsin loses far too many playmakers on either side of the ball. Believing Bucky has any chance of repeating last year’s performance means you’re either a homer or on a hallucinogen (or, in the case of those residing in the Lakeshore dorms, both).
J.J. Watt. Gabe Carimi. John Clay. Scott Tolzien. John Moffitt. Lance Kendricks. David Gilreath. Isaac Anderson. Blake Sorensen. Niles Brinkley. Jay Valai. Culmer St. Jean. By the time you read ‘Carimi’ you likely understood this was a list of Badgers who either started or made significant contributions to the team over the last few years, but are now gone. And a fairly impressive list: Watt, Carimi, Clay, Moffitt, and Kendricks each garnered some kind of all-American accolades, with Watt, Kendricks, and Carimi racking up post-season awards and Clay having earned a fairly prestigious conference award of his own in 2009. Gilreath, Sorensen, Brinkley, Valai, and St. Jean proved steady players who did whatever the coaching staff asked of them. And Tolzien pretty much ran offensive coordinator Paul Chryst’s offense to perfection.
The departures to graduation or the NFL, combined with changes on the coaching staff, leaves Bucky hamstrung. Too many units (offensive line, linebacking, defensive secondary) have been stripped of depth and experience and too much post-season hardware plundered that the Badgers should worry more about rebuilding and hoping for a January 2 bowl game (yes, all January 1 games have been bumped this year) against a middling squad from the ACC or SEC. An offense bereft proven playmakers and a defense that loses its leadership (in the form of both coordinator Dave Doeren and emotional leader J.J. Watt) spells Insight Bowl. Or Champs Sports Bowl. But forget about Indianapolis in December, and don’t dare have any illusions about Pasadena.
Counterpoint: What, me worry?
Let’s break this down unit-by-unit and sprinkle in some context.
Offensive line. Yes, Wisconsin must replace two all-Americans. But this is freaking Wisconsin! The likelihood of the Badgers NOT having a top-caliber offensive line is about as likely as there not being a 45-minute wait for creampuffs at the State Fair in August. Whether you like it or not, it’s happening. Wisconsin’s offensive line is so good a guy who didn’t even crack the starting five was drafted in April (Bill Nagy). They open holes so big that even OTE’s editorial staff would average 4.5 ypc in conference play.
Hyperbole aside, LT Carimi will be replaced by Ricky Wagner (who flips over from the right side where he started a year ago). Peter Konz returns at center, as does Zeitler at RG. Josh Ogelsby, a senior who started before suffering a rash of injuries, is projected at RT. If he can’t go mammoth freshman Rob Haverstein (as in Aaron Gibson big) might fill in. The only real unknown is Travis Frederick, a sophomore. To recap, despite losing two starters Bucky manages to bring back four starters. Konz is still the straw that stirs the drink. They might not pave the way for an offense that averages 67 ppg over its last three regular season contests, but they’ll be pretty damned good.
Receivers. Wisconsin does lose the aforementioned Isaac Anderson, David Gilreath, and Lance Kendricks. Cause for concern? Not really. Gilreath certainly made his fair share of plays (especially on the reverse), but his value was as a returner. Isaac Anderson disappointed. The Badgers return Jared Abbrederis, an underrated possession receiver ala the Fennimore Flash (Luke Swan, short guy that used to wear #1), and Nick Toon.
Tight end is where there should be a noticeable dip in production, but not as great as one would expect. Lance Kendricks made some important plays over the course of the season. But we have to remember that Wisconsin has actually enjoyed a fairly pronounced run of success at the position. We can go back to Owen Daniels, but let’s focus on 2008 when former Badger Joe Rudolph took over the tight ends job (yes, Nebraska fans, same Joe Rudolph). Rudolph inherited playmaker Travis Beckum, whom he lost to injury and then graduation in his first year on the job. All he did after that was coach up Garrett Graham (2009) and Lance Kendricks (2010) into all-conference performers (and then some). Does this mean projected replacements Jacob Pedersen or Jack Byrne are guaranteed success? Of course not. Just don’t be surprised if they’re plenty competent and maybe crack the conference’s second team.
Running back. Losing the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year will hurt, but Bucky will retain the inside-outside combo in Montee Ball and James White that helps keep defensive fronts from stacking the box between the tackles (think back to what Brooks Bollinger and Mike Samuel did for Ron Dayne in 1998 and 1999, but what Michael Bennett could not do with Bollinger in 2000). While the loss of Clay will hurt the team’s depth more than anything else, the Badgers retain a veritable stable full of horses. In addition to the Ball and White combo, do not be shocked if true freshman Melvin Gordon (who played high school ball in the same division as Clay and might be the first Kenosha Bradford back to play at Wisconsin since Alan Ameche) makes the rotation. With the offensive line and returning runners the ground game will be just fine.
Quarterback. See yesterday’s article.
Defense. Line coach Charlie Patridge and defensive backs coach Chris Ash take over as co-coordinators for the departed (and not missed) Dave Doeren, who picks up Jerry Kill’s old job at Northern Illinois. With Ash calling the shots on game day, the in-house promotions ensure no major schematic changes. The only likely change will be more aggressive corner play, which should hopefully knock out a problem that killed the Badgers in their two losses (converting third-and-long).
Secondary. Wisconsin returns safety Aaron Henry (who recorded three defensive scores last season) and all-conference corner Antonio Fenelus, as well as former nickel back Devin Smith. Strong safety Shelton Johnson presents the only question mark as Jay Valai’s replacement. Valai was outstanding in run support but a liability in coverage. Like the move to playing more press coverage, this might help address the Achilles’ heel that was third-and-long defense in 2010. Josh Peprah and Marcus Cromartie, both the younger brothers of NFL defensive backs, will also figure in.
Linebackers. Gone are Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorensen, two solid if unspectacular linebackers who did their jobs and little else. Rising star Mike Taylor comes back, as does senior Kevin Claxton. Claxton garnered plenty of playing time last season and is anything but inexperienced. The key is Chris Borland, the 2009 B1G Freshman of the Year. Borland comes off of knee surgery, but if he brings back any of the playmaking ability he showed that year we may very well be talking about a kid who will be all-conference and possibly on some pundits’ second or third team all-America lists. This unit will rise above its typical stuff-the-run responsibilities and be a real difference maker.
Defensive line. All-American J.J. Watt takes his 21 TFLs, leadership, and 22,000 Twitter followers to the NFL, leaving numerous holes in his wake. In 2010 only Watt regularly harassed the opponents’ quarterbacks. This coming season returns Louis Nzegwu at right end, with David Gilbert and Pat Muldoon competing for Watt’s old job. Gilbert has more experience and will likely start, but Muldoon probably possesses more playmaking ability. On the inside Jordan Kohout, a sophomore who started his freshman year, returns as does senior Patrick Butrym. Coaches expect Kohout and backup Beau Allen to impress. This unit is deep, has a history of being stout against the run (God knows they practice against it every single day), and is poised to dominate the line of scrimmage again.
But without Watt where’s the leadership? Where’s the pass rush? Expect the leadership to come from one of two places: Aaron Henry or Chris Borland. Both are responsible, hard-working, and man the middle of the defense. You want a pass rush? Borland proved himself a capable blitzer in 2009, able to get home when the coaches called his number. His absence last year did not allow Bucky to get into their "Badger package" (a 3-3-5 that masks where the pressure is coming from) as much as they would have liked. They will this year. Kohout and Allen have the chance to give UW its first legitimate inside pass rush since Anttaj Hawthorne patrolled the middle. With depth and experience, the defense will be a strength in 2011.
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