Coming on the heels of a 9-4 season last year, the Wisconsin football team looks to build off last seasons' success while figuring out a new identity under coach Gary Andersen. Andersen is faced with the task of replacing nearly the entire front seven, including Big Ten Player of the Year Chris Borland, while also dealing with uncertainty at quarterback, wide receiver and on special teams.
While Andersen swung and missed on a number of extremely high-profile recruits, he brought in a talented recruiting class, which features numerous players that can step in and contribute early in their collegiate careers.
The keystone of the recruiting class is offensive tackle Jaden Gault. The top-ranked player in the state of Wisconsin who was the 10th-ranked offensive tackle, according to ESPN, was an important get for Andersen as in-state players have long been a focus when it comes to recruiting for the Badgers. While Gault may be the highest-rated player, the freshman with the best chance of seeing snaps is Michael Dieter.
With Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen missing the spring due to injuries, it was Dieter who stepped up and will likely compete for playing time along the crowded, experienced line. In a February 2014 interview with Fox Sports Wisconsin's Jesse Temple, offensive line coach T.J. Woods said:
You look at a guy like Michael Dieter, who was going to get maybe half the reps with the twos. Now all of a sudden he's getting all the reps with the twos and half the reps with the ones. That's a huge bonus for him. It turns the heat up on me and him both to make sure he's ready and make sure he can handle that.
Another 4-star recruit, the Badgers reeled in was quarterback D.J. Gillins out of Ribault High in School Jacksonville, Fla. Gillins, who enrolled in January, was the first quarterback Andersen recruited himself and shows a shift in the philosophy of who will be playing quarterback for the Badgers while Andersen is coaching.
Gillins, ranked the 17th dual-threat quarterback by ESPN, provides an aspect of mobility that few Badgers quarterbacks have had of late as Curt Phillips' numerous ACL surgeries negated much of his running ability, while Danny O'Brien and Joel Stave never looked to their feet as a weapon.
Gillins will likely redshirt, something he told Luke Mueller of Bucky's Fifth Quarter in an April 2014 interview he'd be fine with. "If I redshirt, I'll be satisfied," Gillins said. "It doesn't really matter. I wouldn't want the coaches to throw me out there if I don't know what I'm doing. Whatever coach Andersen and coach Ludwig have for me is fine with me."
The last spot on the offensive side of the ball where freshmen could step in right away is at wide receiver. In the wake of Jared Abbrederis' departure to the NFL, this position group is certainly a spot where the Badgers will need more production. With the top three receivers all departing, only one of whom was a wide receiver, look for the five freshman class of receivers to step in and play from Day 1.
The Badgers are bringing in 4-star athlete Dareian Watkins and four three-star receivers, Natrell Jamerson, Krenwick Sanders, Chris Jones and George Rushing. While Watkins carries the most stars, it is likely Sanders who will compete for catches early on. The former Georgia commit recorded 65 catches for 1,483 yards and 26 touchdown receptions plus 463 rushing yards and six touchdowns, according to the Badgers' site. With limited experience returning, Watkins, Jamerson, Sanders or Rushing could come in and vie for snaps.
On the defensive side of the ball, two players have the potential to step in and contribute right away. The first is Jeremy Patterson, a 3-star defensive tackle out of Georgia. While it is unlikely he will play immediately, his size—he's listed at 315 pounds, according to Rivals.com—will make him a candidate to help plug the massive hole left by the departure of Beau Allen, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the seventh round of the NFL Draft.
The other player who can contribute early in their career is Austin Hudson. Hudson, who enrolled early—there is a trend here—got valuable snaps in the spring as last year's safeties either graduated (Dezmen Southward) or moved positions (Michael Caputo to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy to quarterback).
Hudson, who was a 3-star safety only held offers from Florida Tech, Holy Cross and Jacksonville State. Hudson's appearance on this list is indicative of his strong Spring as well as the relative dearth of returning talent to the secondary.
With the 34th-ranked class, according to ESPN, the Badgers addressed major needs at stocking their offensive line, loading up on talent at wide receiver and bringing in a number of other key contributors who can step in over their Badger careers and make an impact on the field.
While very few of these players will see the field in their season-opening tilt against LSU at Reliant Stadium, don't be surprised if by the time the Big Ten season rolls around, Sanders or Dieter have made an impact.
Recruiting information courtesy of ESPN, unless otherwise noted.