Wisconsin Football: Power Ranking the Strongest Positional Units for 2013
Last season, Wisconsin football found itself in every game thanks in large part to its defense. The Badgers had plenty of veteran leadership at every tier, but they lost five starters from a season ago and will have to rely on some youth to get them through the 2013 season.
So why did the Badgers lose six games last year? That can largely be blamed on their offense, which saw three different starting quarterbacks, inconsistency in the running game, a lack of pass-catching threats and issues on special teams.
Wisconsin is still uncertain if another threat will emerge alongside Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen, but there figures to be more stability at quarterback, and there's still plenty of talent in the backfield.
Before summer practice gets underway, let's break down each positional unit from weakest to strongest.
We hate to do this to Dezmen Southward, but he is the only returning member of the Badgers' starting secondary from 2012, so we really have no idea what to expect from this unit next season.
Southward was part of a top-25 pass defense last season, but the real question is this—who the heck is going to play next to him at safety?
Freshman Reggie Mitchell is transferring to Pitt, and junior college recruit Donnell Vercher was denied admission, leaving the Badgers in even more flux than they were originally. This is not to mention that Wisconsin will have two new starters at cornerback, which will probably be junior Peniel Jean and sophomore Darius Hillary, although true freshman Sojourn Shelton is also making a bid.
There's just far too much ambiguity in the defensive backfield at Wisconsin for it to break out of the cellar in terms of the Badgers' positional unit rankings.
8. Special Teams
Place kicking used to be a very reliable area for the Badgers, but between Kyle French and Jack Russell last season, putting a football through the uprights was far from a guarantee.
French should begin the season as Wisconsin's kicker after going 10-of-16 in 2012, including just 2-of-6 from 40 yards and beyond.
Freshman Drew Meyer took over the punting duties and was serviceable, averaging 41.5 yards per punt, which was relatively run of the mill in comparison to the rest of the country.
The return game should be the strongest part of the Badgers' special teams, whether it be Abbrederis, Kenzel Doe or Melvin Gordon returning kickoffs and punts. But until the field-goal kicking stabilizes, special teams will be a weakness for Wisconsin.
7. Wide Receiver
There's senior Abbrederis, and then there's everybody else in Wisconsin's receiving corps. That was a serious issue in 2012, as Abbrederis had 641 more receiving yards than the next closest receiver, sophomore Jordan Fredrick.
For now, it looks like Fredrick will retain his role as the Badgers' No. 2 wide receiver, and junior Doe appears to be a fit at the slot. But plenty could still change before the season begins as well as throughout the season depending on if anyone else is able to emerge, including a couple of true freshmen from the class of 2013.
Abbrederis is a great player, but his ability alone isn't enough to bring this group higher in terms of Wisconsin's positional unit rankings because of the immense uncertainty behind him.
The position battle at quarterback is front and center once again in Madison this offseason, but this time, there is a much better feeling about the player who will be under center for the Badgers to begin the season.
Sophomore Joel Stave has jumped out ahead of senior Curt Phillips in the quarterback race, and highly touted JUCO recruit and dual-threat quarterback Tanner McEvoy will also challenge for the starting job.
While Stave brought a calming influence and stability to the offense upon his arrival last season, his numbers weren't anything to call home about, and we're not exactly sure what we're going to get out of McEvoy if he winds up being named No. 1 on the depth chart.
Neither Stave, Phillips nor has McEvoy started a full season at the FBS level, so quarterback gets a No. 6 ranking based off inexperience and lingering questions.
5. Offensive Line
For a position that has been a staple of Wisconsin football for so many years, No. 5 may seem low for the offensive line, but believe it or not, it might be ranked this high solely based off reputation.
Former center Travis Frederick was selected in the first round of the NFL draft, and former left tackle Rick Wagner was also drafted into the NFL.
Each position on the offensive line appears to be settled, as Ryan Groy will slide over to left tackle and freshman Dan Voltz appears locked in at snapper. That would leave Dallas Lewallen at left guard, Kyle Costigan at right guard and Rob Havenstein at right tackle as of right now.
This unit had its issues throughout the 2012 season, and we'll see what kind of impact yet another new offensive line coach has this year, but it needs to show that last season was an anomaly to deserve a ranking higher than fifth.
4. Defensive Line
Only three players will suit up on the defensive line next season for Wisconsin upon the switch to primarily using a 3-4 formation, and luckily for the Badgers, all three starters on the line have starting experience.
Senior Beau Allen is a force at nose tackle and will be the leader of the unit. He'll line up alongside two more seniors—Ethan Hemer and Pat Muldoon, who played defensive end last season but won't make the switch to outside linebacker.
Depth is also good on the defensive line, as we can expect to see junior Warren Herring spell each starter. With Allen out during spring practice with an injury, Herring saw plenty of time at nose tackle and looked the part. He also refuted the theory that a man of his stature can’t do the splits.
We know what we're getting with Wisconsin's offensive line—some big dudes with experience and talent who will be able to plug up the middle.
3. Tight End
The University of Wisconsin pumps out NFL tight ends, and while Jacob Pedersen still has one year remaining at Madison, he's projected to be one of the first tight ends off the board in next year's draft.
He was the second-leading receiver in 2012 during what was a rough season for the passing game at Wisconsin, but he and Abbrederis are far and away the top two options for whoever winds up playing quarterback next season for the Badgers.
Senior Brian Wozniak isn't half-bad himself, and behind him, the Badgers return both of their backup tight ends in Sam Arneson and Brock DeCicco.
Pedersen is one of the best NFL prospects at Wisconsin, and with the experience of Wozniak and the depth at the tight end position, it makes for one of the strongest positional units on the team.
There's plenty of intrigue at the linebacker position for the Badgers following the switch to a 4-3 defense. They will have one more starting linebacker than last season but will also be without the services of Mike Taylor.
Chris Borland will anchor the linebacker corps along with fellow senior Ethan Armstrong. Outside linebacker will also have returning starters as Brendan Kelly and Tyler Dippel, who each played defensive end last season, should each see plenty of playing time.
Talented redshirt freshman Vince Biegel could challenge for a starting spot after an impressive spring, and there were others who made noise at outside linebacker throughout spring practice into the spring game.
It's a unit that is undergoing change and learning on the fly, but it's definitely not short on talent and ability, so it falls just short of being Wisconsin's best positional unit.
1. Running Back
Was there really any doubt?
Just like at linebacker with Mike Taylor, the Wisconsin backfield takes a hit after losing Montee Ball to the NFL, but that hit will be minimized thanks to the returning talent at tailback.
Senior James White will start for the Badgers, and he has been the backup running back since his freshman season when he tallied over 1,000 yards on the ground.
There's also sophomore Melvin Gordon. All he did was rush for over 200 yards in the Big Ten Championship Game last season and show why he will one day—maybe even at some point next season—become the feature back at Wisconsin.
Assuming Vonte Jackson is able to fully recover from his knee injury, he could also emerge as a threat a la Gordon last season. Jackson was highly coveted out of high school and many are anxiously waiting to see what he can do in a Badgers uniform.
There's talent, there's experience and there's the tradition of Badgers backs racking up ridiculous numbers. Running backs take the cake and win out as the top positional unit for Wisconsin.