Wisconsin averaged 25.4 PPG last year, “good” for 85th of 130 FBS teams. Other than 52 points against Rutgers, 35 was the season high. And they turned the ball over 23 times, often putting an elite defense in a tough spot. You could argue it was the worst UW offense since 2004, another season where a promising year led by an elite defense ended with a thud, i.e., a lifeless loss to a rival on the road. Fortunately (???) plenty of players return and there have been well-regarded coaching changes. Let’s get to it!
Graham Mertz (JR). What more is there to say? The highly-touted recruit has yet to come close to fulfilling the press clippings (and the first game performance against a lifeless Illinois in 2020). Best case is that better line play and a new OC (Bobby Engram) will set Mertz up to succeed and a fairly light non-conference schedule will let him build rapport with a talented, but young, group of WRs.
The worst case is basically that all of the above are just this year’s excuses and they are dwarfed by what we’ve all seen with our eyes the last couple of years.
Backup Chase Wolf (SR) managed to register a lower rating than Mertz last year in very limited mop up duty. The 98 yard (!) pick six he threw against Eastern Michigan cost the Badger D a shutout, and there’s no reason to think he’s better than Mertz (*takes long swig of liquor*), so Badger fans are left to pine for Deacon Hill (rsFR, who weighs no less than 260 lbs) or Myles Burkett (FR).
Braelon Allen (SOPH) racked up 1268 yds and 12 TD in effectively 9 games, averaging 6.8 ypc. He’s very good, very young, and very strong. He’s not much of a receiving threat, but the Badgers haven’t really had a smooth-catching RB since James White, and they’ve still won some games.
A healthy Chez Mellusi (SR) would really help take some of the load off of Allen. Mellusi, a Clemson transfer, had 173 carries for 815 yards last year (4.7 ypc) before a torn ACL ended his season early. Given that Mellusi was already banged up (hamstring) and that a lot of his carries were against UW’s best competition, it was a more impressive performance than the stats show. He could be in line for an excellent 2022 if/when totally recovered.
Oft-injured Isaac Guerendo (SR) could be an excellent speed/change-of-pace back (see his 82 yard TD vs. Eastern Michigan last year). Oft-injured Julius Davis (JR) oozes potential. Occasionally-injured Brady Schipper (SR) is the Swiss Army knife in the mold of Garrett Groshek and will see the field plenty on 3rd down.
Since this is Wisconsin, you should know that Jackson Acker may be in line to start at fullback (rsFR) and that he could be pretty good pretty quick.
Chimere Dike (JR), Markus Allen (rsFR), and Skyler Bell (rsFR) combined for 23 catches for 352 yards last year, and those three, plus UCLA transfer Keontez Lewis (SOPH), seem likely to get the bulk of the targets among the WR corps. Dean Engram (JR, and son of OC Bobby Engram) switched from the secondary and will get an opportunity to earn some reps as well. There was plenty of positive coverage during spring practice, especially of Lewis’s speed and Bell’s physicality. Stephen Bracey (JR) could see the field some too, especially if there are any injuries above him.
It’s hard to know what to expect, but there’s talent present. Will it lift Mertz? Will Mertz drag it down? Can somebody get open quick enough to make teams pay for blitzing? Odds are there will be plenty of promising moments during non-conference play, but that the Ohio State secondary isn’t sweating the season opener too much. But even a moderate improvement as a group could provide big returns in the key divisional games. Look for Dike to break out and Allen, Bell, and Lewis to each show flashes, but we’re not talking Purdue or 2019 Minnesota here.
Barry Alvarez’s grandson has run out of eligibility, so announcers will need a new factoid. The Badgers have recruited this position really well, so there are good options, but right now, nobody is proven. Jack Eschenbach (SR) has the most experience, but Clay Cundiff (JR) is probably the best receiving threat, and you’ll want to keep an eye out for him on 3rd down. Hayden Rucci (JR) was a bit of a recruiting coup, basically plucked out of PSU’s backyard, and should get an opportunity to emerge this year as well. Each of these players has dealt with injury (Cundiff only played four games last year) and each missed some or all of spring practice. As you look even further down the depth chart, you will see more impressive recruits (Cam Large, Jack Pugh) who have yet to have stayed injury-free long enough to offer anything more than potential. So, either the Badgers need some better luck or a new training staff. Let’s assume the unit is a bit healthier and that while nobody fully replaces Ferguson, Cundiff gives UW solid production. Don’t be surprised if announcers fall in love with Rucci’s blocking, too.
This likely depth chart seems to be:
- LT: Jack Nelson (SOPH)
- LG: Tyler Beach (SR)
- C: Joe Tippmann (JR)
- RG: Tanor Bortolini (SOPH)
- RT: Logan Brown (JR)
Key backups: LT/RT Riley Mahlman (SOPH), LG/RG Dylan Barrett (SOPH), LG/RG Michael Furtney, RT Nolan Rucci (rsFR)
Nelson played RG last year, and did fine, but he’s a natural tackle and could really shine this year. Beach played LT last year and didn’t miss a snap despite being banged up all year, and moves to LG, which is probably a better fit for him. [If you’re wondering why UW had both a guard and a tackle playing out of their natural position last year, have I mentioned that Bob Bostad just took over OL coaching duties, and that most people are excited about that?] Tippmann was honorable mention all-B1G last year, and, if healthy, should really solidify the line. Bortolini is not a walk-on, but he wasn’t as highly rated as many other guys in the room. However, the coaching staff raves about him, and he looked pretty solid in cameos at every spot except LT last year (he’s still likely the backup C). Brown was a 5-star recruit from out of state and this is a make-or-break year for him as he’s been moved from LT to RT. Rucci, a 5-star recruit (and Hayden Rucci’s young brother) is waiting in the wings and could win the job.
If Bob Bostad is half as good of an OL coach as some fans are expecting, the line could be up to traditional UW standards this year. And UW has recruited very well, even by their own standards, the last couple of years.