Wisconsin Football: Projecting Who Will Win Badgers' Open Starting Positions
When you lose as much talent and experience on both sides of the ball as Wisconsin's football team did after 2013, you are bound to have some position battles as the new season approaches.
Going into his second year as head coach of the Badgers, Gary Andersen is in the process of implementing a more aggressive defensive scheme while on the offensive side of the ball, the plan should be to run, run and then run some more.
But even with an offense predicated on a power running game, losing its top four pass-catchers while having a giant question mark at quarterback could put a crimp in Melvin Gordon's bid for a Heisman Trophy and hamper the team's ability to run the football.
On the defensive side of the ball, nearly every position features a battle as only Sojourn Shelton, Michael Caputo and Derek Landisch come in with significant starting experience. Replacing Big Ten Defensive Player of the year and Badger all-time great Chris Borland will present a massive hole to fill by the coaches.
There are a handful of spots where the Badgers have unquestioned starters. At running back, Melvin Gordon will take the lion's share of carries while Corey Clement will play a strong complementary role. Along the offensive line, four of the five spots are being held by starters last year, all of whom have a firm grip on their position, barring injury.
Two other spots where the Badgers are set is at cornerback, where Sojourn Shelton will take the top corner spot, while Darius Hillary will play across from him. Last but not least, Drew Meyer is the punter barring an open competition at the spot.
Overall, this is a team hurt more by a lack of experience than a dearth of talent. Let's take a look at who will win the Badgers' open spots.
Quarterback: Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy?
In 2012, down 14-3 at the half to Utah State, former Badger coach Bret Bielema made the switch from Danny O'Brien to little known walk-on freshman Joel Stave. While Stave did little against the Aggies to inspire confidence, going 2-of-6 for 15 yards, he did enough to keep the starting job for the next few games.
Playing in eight games, starting six, Stave compiled a fairly pedestrian 1,104 yards while completing 58.8 percent of his passes. He also threw six touchdowns against three interceptions.
Going into his sophomore season, Stave once again held the reins of the team, showing flashes of great skill while also displaying a maddening inconsistency on short, medium and long throws. Over the course of the season, he completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 2,494 yards and threw 22 touchdowns.
Stave's weaknesses were really in the forefront in the team's season ending defeat against Penn State. Stave went 29-of-53 for three touchdowns but also three interceptions, all of which came in the last 22 minutes of the game.
Stave's struggles—he had 13 interceptions on the season—paired with Coach Andersen's desire to implement a scheme involving a more mobile quarterback opens the door for Tanner McEvoy. The former South Carolina recruit moved around quite a bit last season, logging practice reps at wide receiver before moving to safety and eventually started there.
McEvoy, who is listed at 6'6", 223 pounds, has a quirky delivery, but he possesses a strong arm and an ability to run, both of which are prized attributes by the coaching staff.
With Stave sitting out the spring game and the latter half of spring practices, I'd look for skill to trump experience in this regard as McEvoy looked increasingly comfortable running the offense as he took the majority of the first-team reps.
Starter against LSU: Tanner McEvoy
Wide Receiver: Question Marks Abound
When you lose your top-four pass-catchers, and the players who accounted for more than 80 percent of the total receptions, you know there are some holes to fill at wide receiver.
Gone is Jared Abbrederis, who caught 78 passes for 1,081 yards and seven touchdowns last year. He probably could've had at least a dozen more catches with better quarterback play. Also gone is Jeff Duckworth, who probably did the most with 39 career receptions of anyone ever (only slight hyperbole); it seemed as if every catch he made was important.
Returning for the Badgers is Kenzel Doe, who excelled as a kick returner and was serviceable as a receiver, saw nearly all the first-team reps—as well as second and third team reps as well due to a lack of healthy receivers—and benefited greatly from all of the extra work. Doe will almost certainly find himself on the outside against LSU.
Also returning is Jordan Fredrick and Robert Wheelwright, both of whom should contribute this season with the nod going to Fredrick, as he contributed last season with 10 catches for 109 yards. Wheelwright, when healthy, may be the most talented receiver currently on campus, but injuries throughout the spring may stifle his progress.
Another thing to look at will be the large crop of incoming freshmen. Of all the newcomers, Dareian Watkins is likely the most talented of the group; however, his dearth of experience at the position will likely impede his ability to contribute right away.
While likely not a starter on day one, I like Krenwick Sanders' chance to see the field, potentially on the outside across from Doe at some point this season. Natrell Jamerson and George Rushing also have a chance to see some playing time, but I can't see them starting at any point this season.
Starters against LSU: Kenzel Doe and Jordan Fredrick
Tight End: Sam Arneson's Position to Lose
Losing the ever-dependable Jacob Pedersen as well as Brian Wozniak will be a big blow to the Badgers as Pedersen's soft hands and solid blocking skills will not be easily replaced.
With that said, the Badgers have a pair of talented players to step in and contribute.
Sam Arneson will almost certainly be the starter. Arneson notched only six catches for 57 yards last season, two of which were touchdowns. (At least Arneson has been efficient with his receptions, as four of his 10 career catches have gone for scores.) Of particular note was his catch against Ohio State, seen above, where he was drilled by Christian Bryant as he secured the ball.
There is no reason to think, particularly with the state of the Badgers' receiver corps, that Arneson can't notch Pedersen-like numbers.
Nipping at Arneson's heels is Austin Traylor. A 3-star athlete out of Ohio, Traylor has yet to record a catch in his Badger career; however, reports out of spring practice said he's progressed nicely and should be a good option for whoever quarterbacks the team.
Starter against LSU: Sam Arneson
Center: Dan Voltz Is the Next Man Up
With only one departure from an already strong offensive line, the Badgers have little to worry about when it comes to the tractors up front. While Ryan Groy was an All-American and two-time All-Big Ten, last year's center Dallas Lewallen should slide into the vacancy at left guard without a hitch.
This opens up the center spot, where Dan Voltz looks to be the front-runner to replace Lewallen. Voltz backed up Lewallen last year and was a 4-star recruit out of high school. Michael Dieter was also impressive during the spring as an early enrollee and will provide valuable depth for the Badgers as they appear to have more than a half-dozen players capable of starting on virtually any FBS program.
Starter against LSU: Dan Voltz
Defensive End: Changing Scheme Breeds Opportunity
While individually, each of the three losses the Badgers suffered at defensive end may not have been monumental, when put together, it creates a substantial void.
Gone from the team are Ethan Hemer, Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel, each of whom played at least 12 games last season and contributed 59 total tackles combined.
Coming in to fill the hole left by those three departures is Konrad Zagzebski and Chikwe Obasih. Zagzebski is the most experienced defensive end, playing in all 13 games last season, while contributing 19 total tackles including two for a loss.
One other name to keep an eye on is Alec James. The former star at Brookfield East and 4-star recruit according to ESPN redshirted last season but has a promising future ahead of him, whether he ends up as an outside linebacker or a defensive end.
Starters against LSU: Konrad Zagzebski and Chikwe Obasih
Nose Guard: Filling Beau Allen's Shoes
When Beau Allen graduated after an illustrious career, playing in a school record 54 games, he left a massive—seriously, he was huge—hole in the middle of the defense. Allen didn't skip a beat when Coach Andersen made the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4, forcing the big interior lineman into a gap-filling role. His presence on the field and in the locker room will be sorely missed by the Badgers; however, at least on the field, help is on the way.
Warren Herring, while significantly smaller than Allen, is extremely skilled, having played in 35 games and notching one start so far in his Wisconsin career. He tallied four sacks last season, including two against Ohio State, and is head and shoulders above the competition for the nose guard spot.
Also figuring to work into the rotation is Bryce Gilbert and the 310-pound incoming freshman Jeremy Patterson. Expect both to see the field this season.
Starter against LSU: Warren Herring
Outside Linebacker: Inexperience Casts a Heavy Shadow
As with the defensive end position, outside linebacker was a position group that last season was certainly a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. 2013 starters Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly were both very good, but not irreplaceable.
The Badgers have two players who will be very capable starters lined up in Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel with Biegel being a bit stronger in pursuit while Schobert is a sound tackler and according to reports throughout the spring, excellent in stopping the run.
Both Biegel and Schobert played in all 13 games last year, recording 25 and 24 total tackles, respectively. Depth could be an issue here as there are no incoming freshmen at outside linebacker and neither Jesse Hayes nor Sherard Cadogan bring much in the way of experience.
If necessary, safety Michael Caputo could slide to outside linebacker or defensive end Alec James could move there. Or former safety Michael Trotter, brother of Marcus, could also play outside linebacker if needed.
Starters against LSU: Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel
Inside Linebacker: How to Replace a Legend
When you lose someone who recorded three straight 100-tackle seasons, finished sixth in total tackles, fourth in tackles for loss and fifth in solo tackles in team history, while recording the most forced fumbles in Big Ten history, you have your work cut out for you. When you realize that those are only a small selection of the many accomplishments Chris Borland racked up, then you begin to realize the task ahead of Coach Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
Luckily for them, there have two pieces to plug into the inside linebacker spots who should minimize any drop in production.
When Borland hurt his hamstring last season, Marcus Trotter took over in both the Illinois and Iowa games, and made the most of his opportunities. In those two games, Trotter racked up 18 tackles, two of which went for a loss. His experience as a redshirt senior and being Borland's main backup for so long will certainly pay off now that it's his time to shine.
The other half of the inside linebacker tandem is Derek Landisch, who started twice last season and recorded 33 tackles across 10 games. Landisch, a senior, was named UW Rookie of the Year his freshman season and has improved steadily throughout his time in the program.
With these two patrolling the middle, there shouldn't be as significant of a decline in play as to be expected after losing arguably the best linebacker in team history.
Starters against LSU: Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch
Safety: Fierce Competition for the Second Safety Role
Coming into last season, safety was one of the biggest question marks.
Specifically, there was a massive hole alongside Dezmen Southward, who had tremendous potential but at the time was still very raw. In stepped Michael Caputo, who emerged as one of the strongest performers on defense in 2013.
With Caputo flirting with playing linebacker, he should be back at safety this season and will certainly be a starter. The other safety spot was filled last season by Southward and quarterback Tanner McEvoy, who moved to the defensive backfield to add depth.
This year, with McEvoy potentially taking over as starting quarterback, it comes down to Peniel Jean and Leo Musso. Jean, a cornerback for the past three seasons, is probably the clubhouse leader, as his experience in the secondary will pay huge dividends if he does in fact move over to safety.
Musso is also a strong candidate, recording an interception and 15 tackles last season while playing all 13 games. I'd look for Jean to probably get the nod alongside Caputo here but Musso should certainly see playing time at safety while also contributing on special teams.
Starters against LSU: Michael Caputo and Peniel Jean
Kicker: Can the Badgers Find Consistency?
What better way to close out this slideshow than to discuss the position that's caused fans the most gripes: kicker. Kyle French is gone, something which most fans will rejoice about. Chris Borland was supposed to take kicks over 45 yards last season but a hamstring injury derailed that plan, though Borland did complete a 23-yard pass last season and kicked three extra points against Hawaii his freshman year.
Jack Russell will likely be the kicker on opening day as he was perfect on PATs and was mostly serviceable on field goals, hitting 9-of-13, though his two misses inside of 40 yards certainly anguished fans.
Andrew Endicott also may figure into the kicking competition as he took on kickoff duties midway through last season but was not given any field-goal or point-after opportunities.
The real name to watch in the kicking competition is incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone. The 3-star recruit out of Tennessee, "looks like a young Sebastian Janikowski" according to ESPN.
While I have trouble imagining Gaglianone handling all of the kicking duties at Reliant Stadium against LSU, at the first sign of trouble from Russell, I'd expect to see the true freshman come in.
Starter against LSU: Jack Russell with a short leash