Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Big Ten Football Previews – Part XI

Editor's Note: This is the eleventh and final in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Next up, postseason awards predictions, a recap of the previews and Get Gamm.

Team: Wisconsin Badgers

Tidbits … Today’s up and coming young football players see Wisconsin as a power in the Big Ten with perennial contender status. Wisconsin is one of just nine schools to win at least nine games in each of the last three seasons. The Badgers have won at least a share of three titles since 1993, 11 overall. Since 1993, Wisconsin is 9-3 in bowl games after not making a postseason berth since 1984. Prior to turning it around – permanently – in 1993, Wisconsin had a five year record of 14-41.

Past Predictions/Results:
2006 Prediction/actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-6th), Alamo / 12-1, 7-1 (T-2nd), Capital One
2005 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Alamo / 10-3, 5-3 (T-3rd), Capital One
2004 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Alamo / 9-3, 6-2 (3rd), Outback
2003 Prediction / actual: 10-2, 6-2 (T-2nd) / 7-6, 4-4 (T-7th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-5, 4-4 (T-6th) / 8-6, 2-6 (T-8th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 5-3 (4th) / 5-7, 3-5 (T-8th)

Returning Starters: 9 offense, 7 defense, 2 kickers

Key Returnees: RB P.J. Hill, TE Travis Beckum, TE Andy Crooks, WR Paul Hubbard, WR Luke Swan, C Marcus Coleman, RT Eric Vanden Heuvel, DT Nick Hayden, DE Matt Shaughnessy, LB DeAndre Levy, CB Jack Ikegwuonu, PK Taylor Mehlhaff, P Ken DeBauche

Key Losses: QB John Stocco, LT Joe Thomas, DE Joe Monty, LB Mark Zalewski, S Roderick Rogers, S Joe Stellmacher

Looking Back ... I promise you, no one saw coming what Wisconsin achieved in 2006. The Badgers had a lot coming back, no doubt, but had lost five NFL draft choices, returned receivers with a total of one catch between them, were starting a redshirt freshman at tailback and oh by the way, were replacing a coaching icon with the second youngest coach in D1 football. A winning season was never really in doubt, but a school record 12 wins, the lone loss coming at Michigan in the fourth game of the season? I’d say it was an unexpected, amazing campaign – one that sets the table quite nicely for 2007.

Maybe the biggest benefit in 2006 was the lower expectations. With the pressure off, teams can find something to rally around and in a way it makes it easier to achieve big things. So, with the pressure back on and the bar as high as it gets in 2007, where will the Badgers go? Most of the players from the 2006 team that may have had the most consistent offense and had the best total defense in the conference return, along with both kickers. Is a national title within reach? That may be a lot to ask for, but the momentum from last season is still strong and the Badgers have a chance to do something special again…

Outlook - Offense ... Hmm, 9.5 starters (co-starting tight ends) return to an offense that tied for second in points per game in the Big Ten last year (29.2), scored at least 30 points seven times last season, amassed 4,851 yards of total offense and boasted the Big Ten’s leading rusher. Wonder how this year’s version will fare? Well, the Badgers are certainly primed to be great again on offense with just two players departing, albeit the second pick of the NFL Draft (left tackle Joe Thomas) and steady-Eddie starting quarterback John Stocco. Don’t let those losses bother you. The ’06 version of the Wisconsin offense had to replace eight starters and look what they did. Pull that seat belt extra tight, this could be a wild ride…

Wisconsin is one of many around the league faced with replacing a starting quarterback. Thing is, one of the candidates did start a little last year when Stocco went down with an injury and don’t we wonder every time Wisconsin has to replace a steady, mistake-free, long-time starter how they will do it? Wonder we do, and at the end of the season, we wonder why we wondered! The good news for Wisconsin is that there is a battle over who will take on the starting duties. Why is that good news? Because it means there is quality depth in the coffers and a little competition keeps things sharp.

The inside track might belong to senior Tyler Donovan, who saw time in seven games last season and has plenty of experience on his fifth-year senior resume. Donovan is accurate and historically very efficient, giving him a leg up on his competitors. Junior Allan Evridge has more size than Donovan and also has D1 experience (transfer from Kansas State). While not as mobile, he has a better arm and will be right in the thick of things all season long. Don’t sleep on sophomore Dustin Sherer either. The 6-4, 216-pounder has all the tools to be the next long term starter in Madison. Whoever the job falls to (my money is on Donovan) all Wisconsin will ask of the signal caller is to be a leader in the huddle and to be solid with the pigskin. Make smart decisions, stay out of trouble, avoid bad plays and there is plenty of success to be had. The Badgers have won for the past 15 years with steady, heady play at quarterback, not spectacular, highlight-reel caliber play. Expect more of the same this fall in the frenzied environment at Camp-Randall.

Confused as to why Wisconsin can win with just good (and not great) play at quarterback? Look no further than the Badgers’ ground game. Wisconsin has quietly churned out a bevy of 1,000 yard rushers over the past fifteen seasons and when you have a good rushing attack, you just need to have a passer that can hit the mark and keep opposing defenses’ honest. Why do you think Joe Tiller worked more running into his spread offense? No running game in the Big Ten means you go south in the standings. Just ask John L. Smith. On the other side of the coin, a great running game means the potential to contend each and every year.

A season ago, Wisconsin was faced with an offensive conundrum. It turned to P.J. Hill. Hill responded with 1,569 yards and 15 scores. The sophomore has been drawing comparisons to Ron Dayne already and – here’s a scary thought – should only get better as long as he can stay healthy. He’s been talking to former UW running backs like Brian Calhoun to explore ways to avoid big hits. As he continues to learn, he might just encounter – and surpass – some of Dayne’s lofty records. Also helping out in the ground game is fellow sophomore Lance Smith. Smith was a highly touted recruit that was average as a freshman and then got into some hot water in the off-season. He was reinstated to the team just hours before fall practice kicked off and as long as he keeps his nose clean offers a great change of pace to Hill. He’s more in the mold of Calhoun and Anthony Davis and might be the only thing standing between Hill and the record book (Dayne never shared the load). If Smith can’t stay out of trouble, John Clay and Zach Brown are two freshmen that are in line to be great backs for the Badger program. Clay wowed the nation as a high school junior but was dinged up much of last year and may fly under the radar just long enough for him to be pulled out as a big weapon off the bench.

A key to the sustained success of the UW running game is the fullback position. For the life of me, I can’t name any from the past without cheating and looking it up, but trust me, without great play at the lead blocking position, all of the glory shed upon Dayne, David, Calhoun and company would be a lot dimmer. The Badgers have the luxury of rotating two juniors with starting experience and near offensive lineman size. Bill Rentmeester stepped in last season when Chris Pressley was out with an injury and more than pulled his weight. Now that Pressley is back, the two will share time. Both are tremendous blockers with decent hands and will play vital roles in the success of the UW offense.

With all the talent at running back, who needs to worry about an aerial attack? Well, gone are the days of three yards and a cloud of dust. Don’t get me wrong, the Big Ten contenders are always going to be a little more run oriented but in today’s world it is all about offensive balance. A season ago, Wisconsin had to hang its hat strictly on the ground game with nothing coming back at receiver. It’s a whole new ballgame this fall. The top four receivers are back, two of them tight ends who went gangbusters last fall, and there is solid depth as well as a pair of super-recruits waiting to burst onto the scene as well.

Let’s start with the wideouts. A pair of seniors holds down the starting slots. Paul Hubbard is a 6-4, 215-pounder with track start speed. He has the potential to be the homerun-hitting deep threat that offensive coordinators crave and defensive coaches loathe. Luke Swan was just behind Hubbard in production a year ago. He has good speed and can take routes inside or out. With a season of experience under their belts, the duo should be even more consistent this fall. Behind them is plenty of depth with some decent game experience and that pair of head-turning newcomers. Marcus Randle El tore an ACL last season and is working hard to get back to game shape. If he can contribute, he adds fantastic athleticism to the mix. Meanwhile, sophomores Isaac Anderson, Xavier Harris, redshirt freshman Maurice Moore and senior Jarvis Minton are vying for time. That time, however, could immediately go to two of the top recruits in a small, highly successful recruiting class – Nick Toon and Kyle Jefferson. Toon is the son of Wisconsin and NFL alum Al Toon. Jefferson comes from the same high school that produced Ted Ginn Jr. I’ll go out on a limb now and say if not right away this season, this pair will be wreaking havoc on the Big Ten very, very soon.

The funny thing is, despite all of that talent and depth at wide receiver, the passing game starts with a pair of tight ends. Junior Travis Beckum caught 61 passes last season and is a nightmare to match-up against. He’s fast, strong and athletic with great hands. Once he improves his blocking, he’ll be among the best at his position in the country. Senior Andy Crooks returns as well. Crooks hauled in 19 passes last season and is more of a typical tight end, with a well-rounded game. Sophomore Mickey Turner is also in the mix, particularly because Crooks is getting over an issue with his shoulder. Any way you cut it, Wisconsin is in great shape in the receiving corps. Whether it is Donovan or Evridge getting the nod at quarterback, he will be able to rest assured that there is plenty of skill around him to help get the UW offense rolling this season.

In much the same way that we’ve come to expect a great running back to emerge for the red and white each season, we’ve also come to expect a collection of five behemoths protecting the passer and opening gapping holes for said running back. Despite losing all-world left tackle Joe Thomas to the NFL, Wisconsin again brings back a wealth of size and talent in the front five. Let’s start with Thomas’ heir apparent. Sophomore Jake Bscherer has all the tools to be the next great left tackle to come out of Madison. At 6-7, 297 pounds, he certainly has the size. And credit the coaching staff for some foresight a season ago, as Bscherer saw some time in each game a season ago. He doesn’t need to be Thomas, he just needs to be consistent, especially with his pass blocking. He has the luxury of playing around four returning starters. Senior center Marcus Coleman is an all-star in the making. He has the tools and quickness to play about anywhere on the line and anchors the group. He is flanked by junior guards Andy Kemp and Kraig Urbik, a pair of 6-6, 320-plus pounders with unbelievable run blocking skills. Rounding out the starting lineup is junior right tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel, another giant with All Big Ten ability.

Perhaps the only “concern” is that the depth chart is young – really young. With the exception of senior Danny Kaye, Wisconsin is looking at four redshirt freshman and a true freshman to fill the depth chart. Everyone of course has incredible size – as it seems to be a prerequisite that lineman at UW are at least 295 pounds and 6-4 – but the lack of experience is something the staff will want to address early in the season, when and where possible. Look for a full rotation early and then for three or so to settle in as regulars. The most likely to get long looks include the star line recruit of the class – Josh Oglesby, an amazing 6-7, 320-pounds – as well as John Moffitt (guard), Bill Nagy (guard), Gabe Carimi (tackle) and Brad Thorson (center). It’s lock and load along the offensive line at Wisconsin. The size of the younger players is astounding and as they develop, this will be a deep unit that is among the best in college football, let alone tops in the Big Ten…

There you have it, perhaps the most complete offense in the Big Ten. There are better quarterbacks and receivers, some tailbacks that are as good and some good linemen, but this collection of offensive talent is phenomenal with depth too boot. If Donovan or Evridge can simply guide the offense and not make mistakes, there is no reason that this cannot be the best all-around attack in the league. And just think, last year, faced with replacing EIGHT starters on this side of the ball, the Badgers managed to rack up yards and points at a break-neck pace. What will the O do this year? It’s downright scary to consider how good UW might be…

Outlook - Defense ... Sometimes, as they say, the best offense is a great defense. Well, we already know Wisconsin has the actual offense to get points on the board, but how does the defense look? To answer that, first let’s look back. Last year’s UW defense led the Big Ten and was second nationally in scoring defense. It was second nationally in passing yards per game, fourth in third down efficiency and did not allow five of its opponents to score a touchdown. Now, consider that seven starters return along with a load of talented young players. The defense might not be quite as good as last year, but it can certainly take some chances given what the offense will be capable of.

The Badgers only need to replace one starter on what was a very good, if not great, defensive line last year. There was no single head-turner, per se, but the collective group was solid. The strength lies up the middle where junior Jason Chapman and senior Nick Hayden hold down the fort. Both are very good against the run and have the potential to make plays behind the line of scrimmage as well. What aides them in their duties is the presence of end Matt Shaughnessy. The junior was very good last year, racking up 35 tackles, 4 sacks and six TFLs and he should be even better this go around. Replacing Joe Monty on the other end is Kurt Ware. He’s been a bit of an underachiever in his career and gets a chance to go out with a bang.

The starting four is very good and the depth is strong. Junior Mike Newkirk is smallish for a tackle, but he will definitely see quality time in the rotation. He has sneaky power and can get into the backfield. Kirk DeCremer is a promising redshirt freshman end that brings solid pass rushing potential to the outside. Brandon Kelly is a senior who has yet to have a major breakthrough, but provides talent and athleticism at end as well. He’ll likely battle fellow senior Jamil Walker for time in the playing group. Joining Newkirk on the inside are sophomore Jeff Stehle and second year freshman Brandon Hoey. Both have a ton of upside potential and give the tackle spot some nice depth. All in all, the starting four and backups make for a good Big Ten defensive front. It isn’t made up of any real stars but has the sort of lunch-pail guys that can anchor a very good all-around defense.

Arguably the biggest loss on the defensive side of the ball comes at middle linebacker, where leading tackler Mark Zalewski has departed. Don’t fret for the Badgers’ linebacking corps however, because he may be quickly forgotten if sophomore Elijah Hodge lives up to expectations. The strong, smart, athletic middle linebacker has football in his genes – his brother is former Iowa all-star Abdul Hodge. Helping the transition is the fact that two starters return. Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy are the leading returning tacklers from 2006. Casillas is a playmaker on the weakside and Levy a fantastic pass rusher from the strong side. Both have speed and a nose for the ball and combined with Hodge should make this the strength of a very good defense.

As with every position, it helps to have quality depth in your pocket as well. Wisconsin has that at linebacker. Each of the second stringers and one key newcomer has his own strengths and weaknesses, but the good news is, all of them can step in and make plays when called upon. The two players I have my money on to make some real noise are Culmer St. Jean and Kevin Rouse. Both are in the 220-pound range with great speed and athleticism. St. Jean plugs in on the strongside, which makes him a little small for the spot but he can make a bang with his pass rush ability. Rouse is a fast, big hitter who should also find a spot on the outside. Jaevery McFadden should see quality time behind Casillas, if Rouse doesn’t supplant him and Josh Neal needs to emerge from his special teams role to be a steady backup to Hodge in the middle. This unit reminds me a lot of the linebacking corps that Iowa has fielded of late and we all know how good the Hawkeyes have been in the middle of the defense.

The biggest gaps to fill come in the secondary. While both starting corners return, and should anchor some of the best pass coverage in the country, UW must replace the starting safeties. Joe Stellmacher was the second leading tackler last season and Roderick Rogers was also a sound playmaker. The Badgers were among the very best in the nation in passing defense last season and could be right there again this year. How, in the face of losing two starters? Jack Ikegwuonu and Allen Langford, that’s how. Ikegwuonu is a big, fast, physical corner that can lock down an opponent’s number one threat. Langford is a quick junior with a nose for the ball. Having two firmly entrenched cornerbacks should make the transition for new starters at safety that much easier. Who will take on that task? Sophomores Aubrey Pleasant (SS) and Shane Carter (FS) are the prime candidates. Pleasant has good size and range while Carter, like Hodge, has football genes. His brother is Cris Carter, one of the best receivers to play the game. It will be learn on the job for the pair, but the unit should gel nicely as the season wears on to be a strength of the defense.

The depth chart consists mostly of young players but there is one senior who can be relied upon to get the job done when called upon and to perhaps be the tie that binds the entire secondary together. That senior is Ben Strickland. He’ll play behind Ikegwuonu and is a good, all-around player. Behind Langford is sophomore Josh Nettles who is a little on the small side, but is a rising star that is biding his time learning the system. At strong safety, sophomore Kim Royston is right in the thick of things. He is small for a safety but he has experience and has had a good off-season. Finally, redshirt freshman Jay Valai is an interesting prospect. He has the size of a strong, the speed of a free but needs to get consistent or he could be the odd man out. Top to bottom, this is a solid, if not spectacular secondary. The starting corners are excellent but don’t look for the Badgers to be quite as good against the pass this year as in 2006.

Overall, I really like what I see on paper. A few good players departed but for the most part, the replacements should be as good, in some cases, maybe better. The defensive front should be a nice blue collar group that gets the dirty work done. The linebackers are set up to make plays. The corners will help the safeties adjust and when it all comes together, watch out. There may only be one or two “household” names at the onset, but look for many to contend for postseason honors when it is all said and done.

Outlook - Special Teams ... Right up there with the Buckeyes in terms of the best special teams units in the conference. Tyler Mehlhaff has a big leg and has improved every single year. He is a nice weapon in cases where the offense stalls in that dead zone of not quite go for it, but in range for a long field goal try. Something to not be overlooked is his ability to bang it deep on kickoffs. That will be at a premium with the rule change this year. Fellow senior Ken DeBauche could emerge into one of the nation’s top punters if he can get some consistency. He had a solid average in 2006 and pinned teams deep on occasion but he should be a better weapon this year. The only weakness is in the return game but with the influx of speedy new talent, look for that to be handled and turned into a positive.

9/8 – at UNLV
9/22 – IOWA
10/6 – at Illinois
10/13 – at Penn State
10/27 – INDIANA
11/3 – at Ohio State
11/10 – MICHIGAN
11/17 – at Minnesota

Key Games: 9/1 – Washington State, 9/22 – Iowa, 10/13 – at Penn State, 11/3 – at Ohio State, 11/10 - Michigan

Prediction ... Wisconsin has a fair test in out of conference play, at least early on and misses Purdue and Northwestern on the league side. The Badgers might start slow as they plug the vacancies, but will get by Wazzou and UNLV before pasting The Citadel. Opening up with four of five at home is helpful too. The meat of the schedule occurs the first two weekends in November with a toughie at Penn State in mid-October as well. I look for the sole slip up to happen as the Badgers lick their chops in anticipation of a rematch with Michigan. The Wolverines are paid back as Wisconsin goes 7-0 at home for the second straight year and ups the run to 30 wins in 34 tries at home. Can you smell the Roses? The Badgers can…

OOC: 4-0
B10: 7-1 (losses at Ohio State)
Overall: 11-1, T-1st in the conference, Rose Bowl berth

No comments: