Five position groups with question marks after spring practice

Five position groups with question marks after spring practice

USA News

Wisconsin’s 15 practice spring evaluation period concluded a few weeks ago, which allowed the Badgers coaching staff their first look at the roster as currently constructed.

UW’s long-standing track record of recruiting and developing talent has consistently put them in position to reload at positions rather than face a full scale rebuild.

This upcoming season, the program will look to replace a total of 14 preferred starters, eight of which come on the defensive side of the ball – creating competition within seemingly every position group.

With new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram now in place, the offense will have their work cut out installing their new system with so many new faces expected to see the field in 2022.

Now that spring practice has concluded, here are, in no particular order, five position groups that still have some question marks entering the fall:

Quarterback

Oct 2, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) throws a pass during warmups prior to the game against the Michigan Wolverines at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I may be in the minority here, but I believe Graham Mertz and the offense as a whole are going to take a step in the right direction under new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram.

However, if Mertz doesn’t take better care of the football in 2022, there doesn’t appear to be another QB on the roster capable of giving the Badgers a realistic shot at winning the Big Ten West.

Chase Wolf has some play-making ability, but he is who he is at this point. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound QB hasn’t been able to take care of the ball in the limited snaps he’s received, so I don’t see him being a real threat to push for time under center.

Deacon Hill has a live arm and I firmly believe he’ll be the starter at UW at some point in his career, but there’s no denying that he has some work to do before that happens. Incoming freshman Myles Burkett is an intriguing prospect but to expect him to play as a true freshman just doesn’t seem realistic.

I’m of the opinion that Wisconsin not bringing in an experienced arm in the transfer portal as an insurance policy was a mistake.

Tight End

Sep 25, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers tight end Clay Cundiff (85) receives a pass during the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Losing a four-year contributor like Jake Ferguson is tough enough on its own, but replacing that production is even harder when you don’t have enough healthy bodies to truly evaluate your in-house options.

This spring, UW worked without their presumed top two options Jack Eschenbach and Clay Cundiff during their 15 practice installation period. Leaving the coaching staff to rotate in whomever was healthy enough to practice.

The Badgers should be set when it comes to their blocking tight end role, with Hayden Rucci and Cole Dakovich appearing to be the top options there.

It’s the pass-catching role that’s still up in the air. There are more than enough talented options when everyone is healthy, they’re just unproven.

I believe the tandem of Eschenbach and Cundiff will be adequate in the passing game, but if they’re not back to full health I have serious questions about the production UW will get from the TE’s in the passing game.

Running Back

Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Chez Mellusi (6) rushes with the football as Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (9) defends during the first quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I would like to preface this level of concern as relatively low, however, it’s entirely contingent on the health of running backs Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo as they recover from season ending injuries.

If Wisconsin’s full stable of running backs are healthy and available, I have no concerns whatsoever. A three-headed monster of Allen, Mellusi, and Guerendo would make a formidable trio that would help keep their workhorse (Allen) fresh.

If Mellusi and Guerendo struggle to return from their respective injuries, I’m not in love with the remaining depth behind Allen. To keep their sophomore workhorse from wearing down, UW needs three backs capable of sharing the load.

Julius Davis is still unproven at this point but has shown signs of improvement, and Brady Schipper is a nice third-down back but isn’t someone that should garner a ton of carries – so my concern only exists if injuries persist in the RB room.

Nose Guard

Wisconsin Badgers nose tackle Keeanu Benton (95) reacts after the defense recovered a fumble near the goal line. Credit: Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin-Imagn Content Services, LLC

Keeanu Benton is someone that consistently wins at the point of attack, offers pass rush, and excels at creating opportunities for his teammates. I’d argue that he’s one of the most important pieces on the Badgers defense, and possibly even the entire program entering next season. My concern however, is not with Benton, it’s with who is behind him.

Converted offensive lineman Ben Barten ran with the second-team all spring, and by all accounts held his own – while presumed backup nose guard Gio Paez missed the entire spring due to injury.

It’s also worth mentioning that incoming freshman Curtis Neal is still recovering from an ACL injury suffered in high school and likely won’t be pushing for snaps right away.

Keeping a player like Benton fresh, and more importantly healthy is going to be critical to the Badgers success on defense this upcoming season.

Who steps in when he needs a breather has yet to be determined, and could be a potential issue if the team isn’t able to establish quality depth at nose guard.

Inside Linebacker

Nov 6, 2021; Piscataway, New Jersey, USA; Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Jordan Turner (54) returns the ball during an interception during the second half against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at SHI Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

UW will be tasked with replacing Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal, who were arguably the best inside backer tandem in the entire country last season.

Both players combined for 206 tackles, 34.5 tackles for loss, and 13 sacks in the heart of Jim Leonhard’s defense.

The top three insider backers in 2021 (Sanborn, Chenal, Maskalunas) accounted for over 90% percent of the team’s overall snaps at the position last season, all of which are now gone.

Jordan Turner and Tatum Grass are well positioned to enter fall camp as the favorites to start at inside linebacker. Personally, between Turner’s star potential, and Grass’ consistent approach, I believe ILB play will be just fine in 2022.

Maema Njongmeta, Jake Chaney, Spencer Lytle, and Jake Ratzlaff are all young and talented options that figure to push for a spot in the two-deep.

The only question here is who steps up and attempts to replace the gaudy amount of production left behind at inside backer.

It’s a room with plenty of talent, and the competition for snaps will only help the cream rise to the top.

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