As another season of college football approaches, the Wisconsin Badgers will be greeted with another season of high expectations.
And rightfully so. Back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances are nothing to frown at, but the results—from the perspective of the Badger faithful—certainly warrant disappointment.
The state of Wisconsin expects nothing less than a third straight trip to Pasadena, and returning to Madison with some hardware and a bouquet of roses would just make it that much sweeter—and fragrant.
Who's going to lead that quest? Let's get down to the nitty-gritty and analyze the Wisconsin depth chart heading into its week one matchup with Northern Iowa.
Kicker: Jack Russell
A freshman, Russell may have done enough to outduel Kyle French in the battle to replace Philip Welch.
"It could get down to Thursday, who's got the hot leg, who's performing well."
So there you have it. No definitive answer at kicker yet for the Badgers, although French is listed as the kickoff man for whatever that's worth.
Punter: Drew Meyer
No question mark here as Meyer will be the guy booting the pigskin away on fourth downs this season.
He has Brad Nortman's big leg to replace, and he was inconsistent in the spring game—so all in all, special teams could be a bit of an adventure for the Badgers in comparison to the past few seasons.
Kick/Punt returner: Jared Abbrederis
The junior wide receiver will reprise his role as return man for the Badgers. Second in line to return punts is sophomore receiver Kenzel Doe, while junior running back James White will line up alongside Abbrederis during kickoffs.
Free safety: Dezmen Southward
Dez Southward didn't have a defined role last season, but he received some notable starts—including in the Rose Bowl—and now he's locked in at free safety in 2012.
Southward has all the intangibles—quickness, athleticism, physicality—but consistency is still in question for the junior safety.
Strong safety: Shelton Johnson
Johnson and Southward battled throughout all of last season to start alongside Aaron Henry. With Henry gone, they'll now start alongside each other.
Again, steady play is something Bret Bielema is concerned about with this unit, but in the spring he had good things to say regarding the two via JSOnline.com:
"I think Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward together might give us the best safety combination since I’ve been here."
Strong words, seeing as Bielema has been in Madison since 2004. We'll see if they ring true.
Sophomore Michael Trotter is listed as the backup at each safety position.
Cornerbacks: Devin Smith, Marcus Cromartie
The Badgers secondary suffered a big blow when Smith went down with a season-ending injury in week two of last season.
But now he's back in his starting role and will be expected to provide some stability to the secondary with uncertainty on the other side of the field.
A senior, Smith is looking to take on a leadership role, and hopefully that rubs off on his colleagues.
Cromartie was a member of a secondary unit notoriously remembered for allowing two Hail Mary touchdown passes last season.
In last year's Rose Bowl, it was Cromartie being targeted repeatedly rather than all-conference performer Antonio Fenelus.
Hopefully these are lessons Cromartie learned from—who comes into the season a starter—unlike last season when he was thrust into such a role due to Smith's injury.
Sophomores Devin Gaulden and Peniel Jean will back up the two seniors, but neither should expect to see much time this season.
WLB Mike Taylor, MLB Chris Borland, SLB Ethan Armstrong
The Badgers linebacker corps is without a doubt the team's biggest strength on defense.
Taylor and Borland have been huge contributors ever since they stepped on campus, with Borland being named to the preseason all-conference team for the 2012 season.
Borland led the team in tackles (150) last season, and Taylor was right behind him at 143.
Both have battled injury throughout their collegiate careers, and should either go down at some point this season, it would be a devastating blow for Wisconsin.
Armstrong, a junior, is listed as the "Sam" linebacker and could benefit greatly from playing alongside two all-Big Ten performers. A former walk-on, he recently earned his scholarship and is one of the most well-liked players on the team.
His popularity comes from a result of his hard work, and if his hard work yields positive results on the field, the Badgers might just have the best linebacking trio in the conference.
Sophomore Derek Landisch, junior Conor O'Neill and sophomore Marcus Trotter provide solid depth, but for the sake of Wisconsin's success, it would like to keep Taylor and Borland on the field—together—for the second straight season.
Defensive ends: David Gilbert, Brendan Kelly
Just as at secondary and linebacker, the Badgers don't lack experience at defensive end.
What they do lack is getting pressure on the quarterback, and that is what Gilbert and Kelly will look to do rushing in from the outside.
Gilbert's season was cut short by injury last season, but he still managed to finish third on the team in sacks despite missing 10 games. He will be counted upon most to improve the line's pass rush.
Kelly was somewhat effective in his first full season without injury, but only mustered three sacks in 2011.
The team's sack numbers have steadily declined over the last three seasons. It's up to Gilbert, Kelly and Pat Muldoon—who is listed as co-starter at each end position—to buck that trend.
Defensive tackles: Beau Allen, Ethan Herner
Allen is a guy who doesn't mess around—he works straight ahead, and this hopefully results in some trips to the opponent's backfield.
Not much is known of Herner, a former walk-on, but he and Allen both weigh in at around 330 pounds and should be able to clog up the inside running game.
Depth is a big concern on the d-line, especially with Tyler Dippel's recurring injuries.
If the injury bug bites this unit again, it will probably bite hard.
Linemen: LT Ricky Wager, LG Ryan Groy, C Travis Frederick, RG Kyle Costigan, RT Rob Havenstein
The Badgers' offensive line has been a staple of their success for several years, and a lot hinges on whether it will be able to replace what it lost from a season ago.
Out are Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby. In are Groy, Costigan and Havenstein.
It's a younger and more inexperienced o-line than in 2011, but replacing offensive linemen is something Wisconsin has managed to do very well in recent years.
This unit has been the backbone of Wisconsin football, and is a huge reason why Montee Ball was a Heisman finalist last season.
Senior Ricky Wagner will be counted upon the most as a projected first round draft pick, and Frederick, a junior, will slide over from left guard to center.
Beyond that, hope lies with three unknowns, one of which is still fighting for their right to start.
Junior Zac Matthias is neck-and-neck with Costigan, who is battling injury. Freshman Dan Voltz is also in the discussion (via Tom Mulhern).
For now, count on Groy, Costigan and Havenstein to step on the field first with Wagner and Frederick against Northern Iowa.
Tight Ends: Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak
Wisconsin has been a breeding ground for NFL tight ends, and—if Jacob Pedersen can maintain his current pace—he could be the next Badger tight end to suit up on Sundays.
There was some cause for concern that the tight end would cease to be prominent in the Badgers' offensive plans after Paul Chryst departed for Pitt.
Fortunately for Pedersen, the philosophy should remain unchanged under new coordinator Matt Canada.
When the Badgers line up in two tight end sets, which they often do, junior Brian Wozniak will be lined up in the other slot.
Wozniak has been dealing with a sports hernia, but he will be good to go on Saturday. He'll be a more traditional end while Pedersen will play the H-back position.
Backing up Pedersen and Wozniak will be sophomore Sam Arneson and junior Brock DeCicco.
Arneson caught the eyes of coaches in the spring with Wozniak out with injury, and he could be another downfield threat as a pass catcher even though he was previously best known as a blocking specialist.
Wide Receivers: Jordan Fredrick, Jared Abbrederis, Kenzel Doe
Just as on the offensive line, the Badgers are a little green at wide receiver.
The most talented and recognizable face on the unit is junior Jared Abbrederis, one of only two upperclassmen receivers on the squad this season.
Abbrederis led Wisconsin in receiving last season and is poised to do it again in 2012. The only problem is that he'll garner a lot more attention with Nick Toon gone and a sea of new faces fighting to take his place.
A lot of people expected junior Jeff Duckworth to crack the starting lineup, but inconsistent and poor play landed him behind Fredrick and Doe, two relative unknowns.
Beyond Abbrederis and Duckworth, the only Badger receiver who has caught a pass is Doe.
Other receivers to crack the two-deep were sophomore Chase Hammond and freshman A.J. Jordan. Manasseh Garner will follow Paul Chryst and transfer to Pitt.
Someone will have to emerge alongside Abbrederis as a legitimate threat, or else the Badgers will be forced to be more one-dimensional than ever.
Running Back: Montee Ball
The biggest no-brainer on the Wisconsin roster, Heisman trophy contender Montee Ball will line up behind his mammoth offensive line week one against Northern Iowa.
Ball had his fair share of controversy during the offseason, but it appeared to be more because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He's put all that behind him now. Ball is focused on bringing a third straight Big Ten title to Madison.
And he's not the only guy who will be counted on in the Wisconsin backfield.
White, freshman Melvin Gordon, sophomore Jeff Lewis and freshman Vonte Jackson make up one of the most talented groups of backs in the nation.
When Ball needs a breather, Wisconsin shouldn't lose much of a step in the run game.
Gordon redshirted last season after suffering a groin injury, but Ball had some strong words for the frosh:
"What I've done, you can do just as good or even better. With your speed, you can take a lot more to the house."
Wow. I see Gordon stepping up and having an impact this season, even with how crowded the Wisconsin backfield will be—per usual—in 2012.
Lining up at fullback will be both Sherard Cadogan and Derek Watt, the little brother of the Houston Texans' JJ Watt.
Watt made the move from linebacker to fullback in the offseason.
Quarterback: Danny O'Brien
In what was a more heated quarterback competition than some may have expected, incoming transfer Danny O'Brien won out and will start for the Badgers week one.
O'Brien, a transfer from Maryland, has two years left of eligibility and already received his degree, allowing him to transfer to Madison without sitting out the mandatory year.
He had to earn the starting gig, though, duking it out with freshman Joel Stave and the injury-plagued senior Curt Phillips.
Stave and Phillips are listed as co-backups to O'Brien, who will simply be counted on to manage the offense with such a stifling running attack behind him.
What made Wisconsin such an enticing school to O'Brien was that it ran a pro-style offense—the same type of offense Maryland ran when O'Brien was the ACC rookie of the year.
He struggled last season after the Terrapins switched to a spread offense, but fans should expect to see more of the 22 touchdown, eight interception O'Brien of 2010, not the seven touchdown, 10 interception O'Brien of 2011.
Don't expect a Russell Wilson-like performance, but O'Brien will provide stability under center for Wisconsin.