The Badgers open spring practice March 26 and there will be an awful lot for coach Paul Chryst and company to iron out.
Temperatures were below zero when most people across Madison woke up Monday, which doesn’t exactly scream that Wisconsin spring football is approaching. But there is, in fact, a light at the end of the frozen tunnel. In three weeks, the Badgers will be back on the field. And perhaps the sun will stick around long enough to melt the snow and winter blues.
Wisconsin is scheduled to begin practice after spring break on March 26, the first of 15 sessions that will help to shape what the Badgers can accomplish during the 2019 season. Wisconsin finished last season 8-5, a disappointment given the national title talk that surrounded the program before the year began.
This spring, the Badgers will start to put the pieces in place with an offense that returns Doak Walker Award-winning running back Jonathan Taylor, its top five pass catchers and a defense that boasts the majority of its defensive line and secondary intact.
Here are three things to watch when Wisconsin opens spring practice.
1. The most intriguing Badgers quarterback competition in years
This isn’t the first spring in which Wisconsin has needed to figure out its quarterback pecking order, and it won’t be the last. But it is the only time in recent memory when it felt as though a true freshman could have a legitimate chance to compete for the starting job. Given that the true freshman in question is Graham Mertz, the highest-rated quarterback Wisconsin has ever signed in the online recruiting ranking era, buzz about the positional battle is palpable.
Wisconsin fans have been asking me for months whether I thought Mertz could earn a starting spot in 2019. My response was that Mertz deserved the time, beginning in spring practice, to actually work with his teammates and coaches on the field before we made any type of determination. Fifteen spring practices aren’t likely to yield definitive results, but they will provide an important indication of how Mertz, an early enrollee, stacks up with the other three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster: Jack Coan, Danny Vanden Boom and Chase Wolf.
If I’m laying odds at this point, I would say Coan is the favorite based on his playing experience and the two years of knowledge he already has gained in Wisconsin’s system. At the very least, he’ll open spring practice taking snaps with the first-team offense. Coan and Mertz both played in shotgun-spread formations during high school, and Coan has said it took him about a year to grow completely comfortable with what Badgers coaches asked of him.
Coan appeared in five games last season, including four starts in place of Alex Hornibrook, and generally looked more confident the more he played. He won his last two starts against Purdue and Miami and threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns against the Boilermakers to help lead a triple-overtime comeback victory.
Mertz has all the tools to elevate Wisconsin at quarterback in a way we have rarely seen. He can thread passes into tight coverage, his arm strength is tremendous and his leadership skills are such that he was named a captain at a new high school his junior season before playing in a game there. His high school coach even told me last fall that he believed Wisconsin would play for a national championship with Mertz at quarterback. High praise, huh?
Still, it’s important to remember that a true freshman quarterback has not started at Wisconsin since Jay Macias in 1991. If anyone can break that streak, it’s Mertz. But there is a reason it doesn’t happen often. Learning the fine details and supplanting veteran players is not easy. Even if Mertz isn’t the starter when Wisconsin opens the season at South Florida on Aug. 30, that doesn’t mean he won’t eventually earn an opportunity, either this coming season or the next.
As for what to expect during spring practice, two more questions come to mind. First, how will coaches divvy up reps for the four quarterbacks to ensure they have an equal opportunity to showcase their talent? Vanden Boom and Wolf shouldn’t be forgotten simply because Mertz has generated more headlines. Vanden Boom appeared in three games last season and threw a touchdown pass late in a blowout against New Mexico. He was the Wisconsin Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior at Kimberly High and went 28-0 as a high school starting quarterback. Wolf was a first-team all-state quarterback in 2017 while playing at Ohio powerhouse St. Xavier in Cincinnati.
The second question is this: How much will the staff tailor the offense to fit its quarterbacks? This will be an ongoing point to watch into next season, although we could see the first signs of a shift take place during spring practice because of how well Coan and Mertz perform out of the shotgun. Wisconsin’s coaches clearly made a concerted effort to utilize Coan more out of the shotgun last season, which led to positive results.
According to Sports Info Solutions, 83 percent of Coan’s pass attempts last season came in shotgun sets. For comparison, 68 percent of Hornibrook’s pass attempts occurred out of the shotgun last season. From the shotgun, Coan completed 50 of 77 passes (64.9 percent) for 453 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions while averaging 5.9 yards per attempt. From under center, Coan completed 6 of 16 passes (37.5 percent) for 62 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He averaged 3.9 yards per pass attempt under center.
This will be the first spring that does not include Hornibrook since 2014. Hornibrook, who would have been a redshirt senior, announced last week that he would graduate from Wisconsin’s business school in May and then pursue a transfer to play his final season at a different school. Hornibrook went 26-6 as a starter at Wisconsin, and his .813 winning percentage is the best of any quarterback in program history. But he faced constant scrutiny from fans about his on-field decision making and high interception rate. He also dealt last season with a back injury and later an ongoing head injury that kept him out of 4 1/2 games.
In some ways, Hornibrook’s departure from the program could make the starting quarterback decision easier for coaches. It likely would have been difficult for the staff not to play a three-year starter entering his senior season, even if the competition was close. And if Hornibrook would have been benched, more questions would have followed about how it impacted the team. Now, Hornibrook can have a fresh start and so can Wisconsin at quarterback.
2. How does Joe Rudolph put together his offensive line?
Wisconsin’s offensive line won’t enter the fall with a Sports Illustrated cover and a boatload of hype, as it did last season. Gone are starters Michael Deiter, Jon Dietzen, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards, who combined to play in 175 career games at Wisconsin with 166 starts. Gone is reserve lineman Micah Kapoi, who appeared in 48 career games with 15 starts and used up his eligibility following last season.
But the new unit has the talent to continue the Badgers’ decades-long tradition of a stellar power running game, as well as the bookends at tackle to protect the quarterback. Three starting positions appear to be set in stone as spring practice approaches: left tackle, center and right tackle. The rest is for Badgers offensive coordinator and O-line coach Joe Rudolph to determine in the coming months.
Cole Van Lanen has appeared in 27 games with one start at left tackle the past two seasons, but he played the majority of snaps there last season while Dietzen battled injuries. According to Pro Football Focus, Van Lanen was the highest-graded offensive tackle in the FBS with a grade of 90.4. The two players that trailed him were Kansas State’s Dalton Risner (89.9) and Alabama’s Jonah Williams (89.2), both of whom will be early-round picks in the upcoming NFL Draft. PFF also determined that Van Lanen allowed just six quarterback pressures last season, the fewest among Big Ten tackles with a minimum of 220 pass blocking attempts. For a right-handed quarterback, that’s exactly who you want protecting your blind side.
Tyler Biadasz is locked in as Wisconsin’s starting center after bypassing the NFL Draft, which represented a huge victory for the Badgers. He is the only returning starter and has started all 27 games at center over the past two seasons. Last season, PFF rated him as the top center in the FBS with a grade of 88.7. He allowed just 10 pressures during the regular season and was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection. A proven player like Biadasz doesn’t need many reps in spring practice, which should allow for more opportunities at center for Kayden Lyles. Lyles’ best bet to earn consistent playing time will come at guard in what should be a particularly intriguing competition. More on that in a minute.
The other likely starter is Logan Bruss at right tackle. Bruss started the final three games last season in place of Edwards, who was injured, and started three other games as a blocking tight end in Wisconsin’s jumbo package. Tyler Beach enters the spring as the top reserve tackle and should also earn plenty of opportunities after appearing in all 13 games last season.
Back to Wisconsin at offensive guard. In addition to Lyles, the competition will include David Moorman and Jason Erdmann. Moorman has appeared in 41 career games and was listed as the backup left guard last season behind Deiter. Erdmann has played in 40 career games and earned his first career start as a blocking tight end in the jumbo package last season. It wouldn’t be a complete stunner if Moorman earned the starting left guard spot with Erdmann at right guard and Lyles taking guard reps in games as well. Another name to watch is Josh Seltzner, who was seen last week in a Twitter video power cleaning 355 pounds during the team’s max out day.
Seltzner, a former walk-on, earned a scholarship early last season and played in 12 games, so there is good depth on Wisconsin’s offensive line. Alex Fenton and Michael Furtney will be the other scholarship offensive linemen participating in spring practice who could use reps to boost their chances of playing.
Wisconsin’s two O-line signees in the 2019 class, Logan Brown and Joe Tippmann, won’t arrive until the summer. It’s probably pushing it to expect them to earn snaps as true freshmen, but the fact that Brown is the program’s first five-star signee in 12 years means his progress will be monitored by fans even more closely.
3. Two early enrollees vying for playing time at linebacker
Mertz isn’t the only member of Wisconsin’s 2019 recruiting class who is on campus for the spring semester. He’s joined by inside linebacker Leo Chenal, outside linebacker Spencer Lytle and wide receiver Cam Phillips, who enters the program as a walk-on. Phillips tore the ACL and meniscus in his left knee while at IMG Academy in Florida last April and will continue to rehab this spring. But Chenal and Lytle have the makings of players capable of contributing immediately for the Badgers.
Chenal is one of the most physically imposing specimens you will see from a true freshman and is a natural playmaker. I wrote in January about his accomplishments while at Grantsburg (Wis.) High School, which included a spectacular playoff performance against Eau Claire Regis when he rushed 42 times for 233 yards, caught three passes for 40 yards, threw an 8-yard touchdown pass and registered 22 tackles at linebacker.
The transition from small-class high school football to Big Ten football is significant. But he could crack the playing rotation as a reserve, presumably behind Chris Orr and Jack Sanborn. Mike Maskalunas and Griffin Grady are veterans who have played in a combined 43 games at Wisconsin and enter the spring seeking bigger roles. If Chenal is to make inroads, he’ll need to use the spring to adjust to the speed of the game.
“He’s got the toughness that I think the Badgers represent,” Grantsburg coach Adam Hale said. “He’s got that intensity and that nonstop motor and work ethic. He’ll be a great fit that way. He’s a high-character kid. You think of the Badgers, you think about a program of integrity with that coaching staff. He just kind of fits that mold. He’s a blue-collar, Wisconsin kid that is ready to go out there and try to make a name for himself.”
Lytle, meanwhile, is probably as college-ready as any linebacker the Badgers have recruited in recent seasons. He excelled last season at St. John Bosco in Bellflower, Calif., which was considered by several outlets to be the No. 1 prep team in the nation for much of the year. Lytle led the competitive Trinity League with 108 tackles and picked Wisconsin over Clemson, as well as more than 40 other scholarship offers.
“I think his football IQ is kind of off the charts,” St. John Bosco coach Jason Negro told me in January. “He’s incredible in terms of understanding the scheme, kind of what puts him a step ahead. Every time the ball is snapped, he has a snapshot of what’s going to happen before the play even begins. In a game where it gets faster and faster as you move up the ladder of level of play, that factors in as a critical component of being a really good football player, and he has that.”
Wisconsin’s lone returning starter at any of the linebacker positions is outside linebacker Zack Baun. Tyler Johnson, who played in 10 games, helped to spell senior Andrew Van Ginkel last season and could have the inside track on the other starting outside linebacker spot, although Christian Bell and Noah Burks also are in the mix. Lytle, the fourth-highest-rated outside linebacker for Wisconsin during the online recruiting ranking era, can state his case for snaps with a strong spring.
Wisconsin loses Van Ginkel, as well as inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, and could really use quality depth at those positions. Edwards and Connelly ranked 1-2 in total tackles last season and combined for 202 tackles with 21.5 tackles for loss. Van Ginkel ranked fourth on the team with 60 tackles and led the Badgers with 5.5 sacks despite battling a high-ankle sprain for weeks during the season.
The value of enrolling early for those who seek playing time as true freshmen can’t be overstated because of the roughly six-month head start it provides. Last year, Wisconsin had five early enrollees participate in spring practice: cornerback Donte Burton, safety Reggie Pearson, nose guard Bryson Williams, receiver Taj Mustapha and receiver Aron Cruickshank.
Williams and Cruickshank each played in all 13 games. Cruickshank was the star of spring practice a year ago and showcased his speed and playmaking ability. While he didn’t see many snaps at receiver in the fall, he was Wisconsin’s primary kick return man. Mustapha, Burton and Pearson all appeared in the maximum four games allowable under NCAA rules to retain their redshirt seasons. Pearson likely would have played more had he not sustained a left leg injury out of fall camp. We’ll soon find out how much Mertz, Chenal and Lytle learn during the spring and whether they’ll make an impact in their rookie seasons.