Amongst all the change we've already talked about this week while previewing Wisconsin football there will remain one constant - THEY WILL RUN THE FOOTBALL. Head coach Gary Andersen has made it about as abundantly clear as possible that he isn't about to fix a formula that wasn't broken at Wisconsin.
However, he does plan on building off of that foundation with a few principles he truly believes in. Things such as a few QB read options and having the wide receivers play a bigger role in a deep passing game. So, when you turn on your TV to watch a Badger game this fall, expect to see an offense you recognize on many levels, but also expect it to be an offense that will be more aggressive against defenses too.
In order for that to happen though they'll need to solve the question that wasn't solved last season and put them at 7-5 during the regular season. That question? Who will start at quarterback.
That's where we'll start our look at what the Badgers bring to the table offensively as they head into 2013 looking for a fourth straight Big Ten championship.
So last season was a bit of a disaster at QB.... Well, sort of. The Danny O'Brien experiment got off to a terrible start and lasted all of two and a half games as starter. He was pulled at half against Utah State with the Badgers down 9-3 to the visiting Aggies in favor of former walk-on and redshirt freshman Joel Stave. Stave broke his collar bone against the Spartans and the next week Wisconsin started it's 3rd QB of the season in the oft-injured Curt Phillips.
O'Brien is no longer a Badger following what took place in the spring and the signing of JUCO Tanner McEvoy to the 2013 recruiting class. Wisconsin and O'Brien were just not a good fit, especially since O'Brien had slid down to the 5th spot on the depth chart.
However, that still doesn't solve the problem of not having a true starter going into camp. Unlike last year though, the options available to the Badgers are experienced in game action and have inspired a ton more confidence than a season ago. Stave emerged from the spring as the front runner to challenge McEvoy, who is easily the most athletic of the QB's in the Wisconsin stable and will be given the same chances as Stave and Phillips to win the job according to every public statement that head coach Gary Andersen has made.
If you had to nail down my pick at this point in time I'd go with McEvoy, if only because what he may lack for in the passing game he more than makes up for in his ability to make plays with his feet. If Stave can show he's adaptable to the running portion of being the QB at UW and is at least competent then he could win it, but the read-option is not exactly what he's built for. Either way this camp is going to be fun to watch because this battle is so wide open.
They also have a great option in former four-star recruit Bart Houston who appears to have the arm and the legs for the position that Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig want to use, but needs to catch up mentally. Stash him in your mental bank for a season from now as a real player at this position - he's got all the talent in the world.
Good thing we didn't have this team up last week as things changed big time for this group. Jeff Lewis, the likely 4th option at running back, was moved to the safety position to help the massive hole there in depth. Additionally it's been widely rumored and reported that Vonte Jackson has suffered a 3rd ACL tear and is out for the 2nd straight year. What that means is incoming freshman Corey Clement ain't redshirting anytime soon. He may not have to begin with but with just three steady running backs on the depth chart that has to happen.
Don't worry though, it's not as if he's the only option because the two guys in front of him just so happen to be potential All-Big Ten selections in senior James White and redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon. White has the 2nd most career yards of any returning running back in the country and hasn't started a game since his freshman season, just to give you an idea of how talented he is. For his career White has 2,571 yards, averages 6.1 yards per carry, and has 32 career touchdowns - and he's been behind the great Montee Ball for the past two years.
As for Gordon, well... We haven't seen him even begin to scratch the surface and that's scary considering what he did to Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game. He needed all of 9 carries to go over the 200 yard mark in that game, with most of it coming on a play, the jet sweep, that everyone in the building and sitting at home watching knew was coming. That's a sign of someone with a lot of talent and this year it could be even more scary with his role as a regular running back and not just some gimmick.
Don't be surprised if both of these two go for over 1,000 yards this season. It wouldn't be the first time in the past half a decade it's happened.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:
There are two names you should know in this group and that's wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (a 1st team All-Big Ten pick by coaches and media) and reigning Big Ten Tight End of the Year Jacob Pedersen. But outside of that good luck knowing who's going to step up. Abbrederis has 124 career receptions for 2,059 yards and 16 touchdowns - it's safe to say he's the biggest weapon the Badgers have in the passing game.
In spring it appeared Wisconsin was figuring out how best to use short, but extremely fast, Kenzel Doe. If he shows what he did in the spring he'll be a major weapon for this offense. The other option that even made a slight impression at WR this spring was Jordan Fredrick. The question for him is if he can consistently hang on to the ball. He's got all the size (6'3", 210lbs.) and he did have 17 receptions for 193 yards and 1 touchdown last season.
There are two other names I'd recommend keeping an eye on as options that could contribute a lot this season in preparation for massive roles in 2014 and those two are sophomore Reggie Love and incoming freshman Rob Wheelwright. Wheelwright has a lot of the tools needed to be a good wide receiver at the collegiate level already and UW stole him right out from under the Buckeyes' nose in Columbus. It wouldn't be a surprise to this writer if Wheelwright became a major force by the end of this season.
As for the tight end spot things are completely the opposite. Pedersen and Wozniack are great options for different reasons. Pedersen because he's a great pass catcher and Wozniack because he's a traditional option at TE. They are deep at this position group as well with Brock DeCicco and Sam Arneson providing veteran experience and youngster Austin Maly providing some exciting athletic options ala Pedersen. Point is this group is going to be stacked for the foreseeable future - as it should be with 4 former TE's in the NFL as we speak.
So this feels strange to write... This group is a bit shaky. Not because they don't have things on lock for the starting five, but because they've become incredibly thin in terms of depth. Wisconsin has lost a few players in the offseason and are down to just 11 healthy bodies currently on the roster before they add two more incoming freshman. Safe to say UW can't afford a further rash of injuries.
Wisconsin is also dealing with the loss of two offensive lineman to the NFL, but that's nothing new for a school that has put lineman into the NFL on a nearly annual basis for the better part of the past 20 years or more. Replacing center Travis Frederick will be huge and the task will fall on the shoulders of talented but extremely green Dan Voltz, who is just a redshirt freshman. Wisconsin was lucky enough to find a way to stash him on the roster last season, but by every indication and by his performance in the spring game this guy is going to be a future All-Big Ten caliber center and it may be sooner than later.
Replacing Rick Wagner at left tackle is likely to be Ryan Groy, who's Mr. Versatile in this group, having started at every position except right tackle already in his career (earning 2nd team All-Big Ten by coaches and HM from media last year). Speaking of right tackle, the Badgers have a massive one in Rob Havenstein, who could be poised for All-Big Ten honors in his junior season.
Joining Voltz in the middle should be Kyle Costigan and Dallas Lewellan, who are both solid but a bit unheralded lineman. As for depth, look out for the names Tyler Marz at tackle and Ray Ball and Riki Kodanko on the inside.
Overall, there's a lot of returning talent and a lot of experience everywhere on the line except at center and barring a major rash of injuries this group will be just fine.
Questions to Answer in Fall Camp:
- How quickly can Voltz become the leader that a center needs to be?
- Will this unit stay healthy enough?
- Can the incoming freshman help bolster a line that's thin or will they be able to redshirt and learn?
I'm not a Stave fan. As a passer, he's no Wilson. As a runner, he's no Phillips. If McEvoy performs as advertised, with the loaded backfield, we'll stay with any team offensively. It's the secondary that worry's me. The defensive front & LB's, will give other teams fits. I think Anderson & the new coaching staff will get it figured out.