Wisconsin Football: Grading Every New Starter's Week 1 Performance
When Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said he was going to do a lot of substituting during the Badgers' Week 1 opener against Massachusetts, he wasn't kidding.
Even before Wisconsin began to run away from the Minutemen in the second half, far more than 22 players saw the field, especially when it came to the defense. At times, Andersen would solely use linebackers to rush the passer without any defensive linemen in the game.
It's rather difficult to classify some as starters and others as substitutes because of the way Andersen used his personnel on defense, but going off the depth chart and who saw the field first, we've determined there were eight new starters for the Badgers on Saturday.
Based on each player's performance in Wisconsin's 45-0 thrashing of UMass, we'll hand out grades to the new Badgers starters.
Strong Safety: Michael Caputo
Last season, Michael Caputo saw some extended playing time at safety after Shelton Johnson broke his arm, but it was Michael Trotter who started in Johnson's absence. After falling behind early in the position battle during fall camp, Caputo emerged in the end over Leo Musso.
Caputo held his own and was part of a secondary that only allowed 112 passing yards. In total, Caputo racked up four tackles, good for fourth on the team.
With the Badgers' experience in the front seven, UMass was going to have to pick apart Wisconsin through the air to have a chance of keeping it close. But Caputo and the defensive backfield refused to break and rarely even bent.
We won't truly know until Week 3 if Caputo is up to the task of being the man at strong safety, but against the Minutemen, he did nothing to make us believe he isn't the right player for the job.
Cornerback: Peniel Jean
An injury-riddled 2012 season ended up costing Peniel Jean his nickel corner role and saddled him with solely mop-up duty while redshirt freshman Darius Hillary took over as the No. 3 cornerback.
Jean has been able to bounce back in his junior season to seize a starting job in the secondary, and the decision to throw Jean right back into the fire paid off for Wisconsin on Saturday. He disrupted passes, tallied a break up and recorded four tackles against the Minutemen.
As Andersen said in his press conference leading up to the opener, he considered Jean, Sojourn Shelton and Hillary as starters because the Badgers were going to play a lot of nickel. Hillary came in listed as the nickel, just as last season, so therefore he won't be considered a new starter.
Because Jean was able to get his hands on a pass, he gets a slight bump in his grade compared to Caputo's. The Wisconsin secondary was nearly impossible to penetrate.
Inside Linebacker: Derek Landisch
In yet another position battle that took place during fall practice, Derek Landisch eventually won out over Conor O'Neill, although both saw plenty of playing time against Massachusetts.
That's because defensive coordinator Dave Aranda would at times line as many as five linebackers right up at the line of scrimmage. It was a unique look that involved shifts right before the snap of the football, and whatever this formation is called, it got the job done against the Minutemen.
As far as Landisch was concerned, the junior linebacker didn't exactly light up the stat sheet—he finished with just two tackles, one of which was a solo.
He's by far the least experienced of the starting linebackers, but even so, he was a member of a front seven that only allowed 100 yards on the ground, good for a 3.4 yards-per-carry average. For that, Landisch still manages to earn an above-average grade.
Center: Dallas Lewallen/Dan Voltz
One of the four positions listed with an "or" on the depth chart, both Dallas Lewallen and Dan Voltz were listed as starters against Massachusetts. It wound up being Lewallen who received a majority of the playing time, however, and that was largely due to Voltz's lingering hamstring injury.
Lewallen was originally slated to start at left guard entering the season next to Voltz. That proved to lead to snap issues, as Lewallen and quarterback Joel Stave botched two snaps. Overall, Andersen considered the snap issues to be a huge negative, via Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and that may have led to Voltz getting into the game late.
Aside from the snap issues, Lewallen was fine in the blocking department. The Badger offensive line didn't allow a sack of Stave or Bart Houston, and Wisconsin averaged nearly nine yards per carry while totaling 393 rushing yards.
As players get healthier, it will be interesting to see where Lewallen winds up, or if he even remains a starter on the offensive line.
Left Tackle: Tyler Marz
The beneficiary of Voltz's uncooperative hamstring was Tyler Marz, who went from Barge formation specialist to starting left tackle.
Marz impressed in fall practice, which allowed the Badgers to feel comfortable with him protecting the quarterback's blind side entering the season. It also allowed Ryan Groy to play his natural position of left guard rather than left tackle, which is where he was expected to line up before Voltz's injury.
On Saturday, Marz held his own against an obviously overmatched UMass defensive front. Stave remained upright—he even rushed for a score—and three Wisconsin tailbacks reached the century mark in rushing yards.
Sometimes, all it takes is an injury for the depth chart to fluctuate, but Marz is proving he belongs.
Defensive End: Pat Muldoon/Tyler Dippel
Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel were listed as co-starters for Wisconsin's game against Massachusetts, and each saw their fair share of playing time on Saturday.
To be expected, Wisconsin's defensive line was simply too much for UMass' offensive line. Muldoon and Dippel deserve some of the credit for completely owning the battle in the trenches—they combined for five tackles, with Dippel accounting for four of them. That came as a bit of a surprise, as Muldoon seemed to earn the majority of the first-team reps in fall camp.
Being a down lineman in the 3-4 defense doesn't result in much glory, but the fact of the matter is that Muldoon and Dippel successfully executed their roles against the Minutemen and should each figure to see plenty of playing time moving forward.
Cornerback: Sojourn Shelton
The only true freshman starting for the Badgers this season is Sojourn Shelton, and when you enter your first season of college football as a starter with a Top 25 school, that's no small feat. He became the first true freshman to start for the Badgers since Travis Frederick back in 2009, and Frederick turned out to be a first-round draft pick, via Badger Football.
Shelton really couldn't have asked for a better debut.
He was one of just two players to record a hit on the quarterback, and Shelton was the only Badger to register an interception. The pick came in the third quarter with the Minutemen in Wisconsin territory, arguably mounting their best drive of the day.
There were a lot of times when it was only Hillary and Jean on the field together, but it's going to be difficult to take Shelton off the field. He can flat out cover people and has the ability to make game-changing plays. The true freshman's grade is well deserved.
Running Back: James White
The two-headed (and at times three-headed) rushing attack for the Wisconsin Badgers could wind up being something special in Madison.
Oddly enough, No. 1 running back James White received the third-most carries behind Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement, but that had more to do with Wisconsin's opponent rather than White's performance. Speaking of which, White was excellent, rushing 11 times for 143 yards and a touchdown.
White also caught a pass out of the backfield for 11 yards and had the best yards-per-carry average among both teams. It will continue to be a running back by committee approach, but the leadership and experience of White combined with the talent of Gordon and Clement give the Badgers one of the best backfields in the country.
If White had been the lone running back for Wisconsin on Saturday, his numbers would have been through the roof. His final grade is a no-brainer.