Paul Chryst (“Coach Dad”) has perfected the art of stringing together rambling press conference answers that communicate nothing of substance. He provides absolutely no bulleting board material to opposing teams. This is not a man who likes significant change.
But change has come for Paul Chryst.
Offensive Coordinator—2021: Joe Rudolph; 2022: Bobby Engram
OL coach—2021: Joe Rudolph; 2022: Bob Bostad
RB coach—2021: Gary Brown; 2022: Al Johnson
TE coach—2021: Mickey Turner; 2022: Chris Haering
Special teams coach—2021; Chris Haering; 2022: committee (?!)
ILB coach—2021: Bob Bostad; 2022: Mark D’Onofrio
Besides Gary Brown—who passed away after becoming seriously ill early in his first year with the Badgers—and Joe Rudolph, who left for Virginia Tech in a move that everybody seemed to like, a lot of the changes are more of the “shuffling coaches around” variety than the “complete overhaul” variety. Still this is a lot of change for such a staid program. What do you make of it all?
MC ClapYoHandz: It seems generally positive overall, with Gary Brown’s passing a glaring exception. I liked the pickup of Brown; a guy with solid NFL experience and an obvious energizing presence that was perhaps a welcome shift from his predecessor John Settle, who was a great teacher but didn’t seem to have that same spark on the recruiting trail. Brown’s group certainly had a productive season last year and most of all he seemed like a really good guy. He will be missed regardless of context. As for the rest of the changes, I guess you’ll just have to scroll further down the goddang article.
Kind of...: Yeah, Brown’s death sucks on its own terms and because of what he seemed to bring to the role. UW hasn’t struggled running the ball, obviously, but he seemed to inspire a lot of admiration and loyalty in a short time. I do think moving on from Rudolph is notable given how much Chryst seems to value loyalty. From the outside, hiring Bobby Engram as OC really does seem like a big deal, which brings us to...
The biggest change was clearly bringing in Engram as the new OC. All the talk is that he’s supposed to “modernize” the passing game without changing UW’s fundamental identity. Is this possible? Is this just happy talk? Is a more modern game better for Graham Mertz than a third playcaller in three years is bad?
MC: I’m not sure there is all that much to this hire because Wisconsin’s DNA isn’t going to change here. I like the idea of finding areas to tinker with while keeping the identity the same, because when things are humming it’s still a winning formula but anyone watching this offense in recent years can tell you that there’s more than ample room to get more creative. That being said, he inherits a nice position. He has an excellent RB duo, his receivers room as young and talented (foreshadowing, and the linemen are stacked with talent and ready to emerge (foreshadowing). If he can find modest gains in Mertz’s game and mix it up a little bit with playcalling it’s a good group to have.
Kind of...: Agree that you shouldn’t expect a bunch of 5 WR sets this year, but there was just no pop out of the offense last year against any defense of any quality (154 yards passing, combined, in the two biggest wins: Purdue and Iowa). And, honestly, Quintez Cephus is the only WR in the last few years who could get separation downfield. Maybe Chimere Dike makes a leap this year (or Skyler Bell or Markus Allen or...), maybe not. I just want to see some attempts at stretching the field. At the same time, if the goal is getting Mertz into rhythm and building his confidence, then maybe this change will just mean more bubble screens. Call me hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic.
Follow up, and we can pursue this further tomorrow, the WRs corps are VERY young. How many names do you honestly recognize? Is this a blessing in disguise given the coaching change? Or is the just further evidence that come November, UW will be running 70% of the time and throwing short outs the other 30%?
MC: Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis are certainly big losses to a group that was top heavy to begin with, but this unit might be the eye opener of the fall. Most of us got our first legitimate looks at Skyler Bell and Markus Allen during the bowl game, and small sample size aside they more than passed the eye test and look to be potential game changers as they develop. Saddle them up next to the presumed #1 in Chimere Dike and that’s some nice returning talent. Wisconsin also nabbed UCLA transfer Keontez Lewis, who based on spring ball looks like an instant impact pickup as both a size and speed mismatch on the outside. It’s a young group, but if Wisconsin can find a tight end with some value catching the ball they are more than capable of running sets with 4 WRs or 3WR/1TE with RB Chez Mellusi and give Mertz five guys that can get open.
OC Bobby Engram bringing new eyes may prove valuable here as previous playcallers have been hesitant to open it up; hopefully he sees what he has there. The million dollar question is whether or not Mertz will be able to get them the ball (I get it, cue all the comments saying “he won’t”). But I’ll say it now, if Mertz is struggling again this season, it’s not because nobody is getting open.
Kind of...: You almost have me convinced. There is a lot of potential in the WR corps, but, personally, I feel like I’m trying to talk myself into this. If Dike looks like a WR1 (by UW standards) and one of the other guys is a solid WR2, I’ll take it. Odd as it sounds, it might not be the worst thing that Jake Ferguson is out of eligibility. Mertz really leaned on him after the bad start, and if you’re going to bring in a new OC, it will be easier to give the new(-ish) scheme a chance if the security blanket has been taken away. Like that Lewis is 6’2”.
While not quite as heavily reported outside of Wisconsin, there are plenty of Badger fans who believe putting Bob Bostad in charge of the OL will make that unit significantly better. Thoughts?
MC: I actually think this will end up being the biggest assistant coaching move since Dave Aranda (or Jim Leonhard, depending on how you view their respective performances) took over the defense. Joe Rudolph was a pretty good coach, a great recruiter, and a fantastic personality, but all in all his lines did not perform as well as the talent available would infer. Part of what has made Jonathan Taylor’s career and Braelon Allen’s debut campaign so impressive is that their lines were not exactly bona fide road graders. Good players with good performances, but not as much nastiness. Not like years prior, when Wisconsin trotted out three 1,000 yard rushers in the same season and the Russell Wilson offense could do whatever it wanted. The OL makes everything go, which is true everywhere but at Wisconsin more than most anywhere, and those lines were full of developed, NFL-ready talent. Bostad was the architect then and returns to do the same now. If he brings early returns, and early word is exactly that, Braelon Allen is about to generate a lot of hype.
Kind of...: 100% agree here. The last few years haven’t been vintage, including (maybe even especially) with the pass protection. Mertz made plenty of mistakes, but he also got hit a bunch. My previous lament about no downfield threats in the passing game might simply be a function of a coaching staff that knew there was unlikely to be time to throw downfield much. Which is really unfortunate for a team built on establishing the run and utilizing play-action. So, yeah, I think the best-case scenario for UW is that improved OL play is the skeleton key that opens everything else up.
LB has traditionally been the strongest group on a traditionally very strong defense, but D’Onofrio was a late hire and hasn’t coached for a few years. Are you worried at all?
MC: Without really knowing anything about Mark D’onofrio at this point, there has to be some worry just considering the context of the hire. Wisconsin originally filled this inside linebackers vacancy with Bill Sheridan, who boasted a lengthy resume in both the college and pro game and most recently worked with the Air Force defensive line. Sheridan ended up resigning in May after reports of potential recruiting violations while at Air Force, leading to this hire of D’onofrio. May is months too late to fill a coaching vacancy with what would be your first choice candidates so just by virtue of that the assumed ceiling isn’t too high until proven otherwise. That said, even though D’onofrio has been out of the game for a few years he has plenty of experience both coaching linebackers and as a defensive coordinator, so he’s not exactly going to be lost out there. He also still has his predecessor in the building in Bostad, so there’s not much of a loss of institutional knowledge so to speak. Time will tell.
Kind of...: Not for nothing, but Gary Brown, Bobby Engram, and Mark D’Onofrio all played their college ball at PSU. Not sure what’s up with that. Agree that there has to be some worry, but, if you tell me that Nick Herbig is healthy all year, I’ll take my chances. And, yeah, Bostad hasn’t gone anywhere (nor has Jim Leonhard).