Power Ranking Wisconsin Football's Positional Units for 2014
Last season, the Wisconsin football team went 9-4, losing all the close calls and losing its first game by more than a touchdown for the first time in years. In Gary Andersen's second season, graduations have stripped the cupboard that he started with.
James White and Ryan Groy are gone, but the Badgers still boast an excellent backfield and offensive line, which shouldn't surprise anyone who has followed Wisconsin football in the past.
In what feels like Year 1 for Andersen as his recruits slowly start to trickle into snaps, let's take a look at how each of the positional groups for the Badgers looks in a post-Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis world.
No. 9: Wide Receivers
Without Jeff Duckworth, who holds a special place in my heart due to his ability to make huge catches time and again, and Jared Abbrederis, who's taking his talents to Green Bay, the Badgers receiving corps is thin.
This year, a total of 28 receptions return in the receiving corps. While Robert Wheelwright could turn into an excellent receiver, as could many of the freshmen coming in, for now, this position is an absolute mess.
Kenzel Doe was great during the spring but has never been a dependable receiving option with the team, hauling in just seven receptions last season while ostensibly playing the role of second or third receiver on the team.
It will be interesting to see how much the incoming freshmen contribute. Given how poor the current crop of receivers is, there will be opportunities for new faces.
No. 8: Special Teams
Of the 12 Big Ten punters, Drew Meyer was 11th in punting average. Of the 10 qualifying Big Ten kickers, Jack Russell was eighth in field-goal percentage. The one positive is that Russell didn't miss an extra point last season.
This unit is pretty horrible, which shows just how awful the receiving corps is. Kyle French leaving is the best thing that happened to the special teams unit, but that still doesn't say much positive about the personnel.
The good news is that Kenzel Doe proved himself as an excellent kick returner and has returned both a punt and kick return for touchdowns.
No. 7: Quarterback
Tom Brady can elevate the level of a poor receiving corps to a level where the passing game still hums along. Unfortunately for the Badgers—or maybe fortunately, the Badgers don't want Brady anyway—they don't have him. They have Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy instead.
Stave was horrible at the end of the season and now has a torn AC joint in his shoulder, which only makes matters worse.
McEvoy didn't take a single snap under center last season, instead dabbling in playing receiver and safety. This doesn't bode well for the Badgers, who have had shaky quarterback play since the departure of Russell Wilson.
No. 6: Linebackers
This low ranking isn't necessarily indicative of the talent level in the linebacking corps, as Derek Landisch, Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel all have quite a bit of talent. The biggest problem is the dearth of snaps they've seen.
Landisch and Schobert have both played quite a bit, at least by this current defense's standards; however, they were playing alongside experienced guys like Chris Borland, Conor O'Neill, Ethan Armstrong, Brendan Kelly and Tyler Dippel. Schobert and Landisch didn't need to do quite as much.
Biegel was one of the top guys coming in as a recruit and has shown flashes, but it will be interesting to see what he does with a full plate of snaps.
Also providing depth in the middle will be both Michael and Marcus Trotter, the latter of whom filled in more than admirably when Borland went down for three halves last season.
No. 5: Tight Ends
Jacob Pedersen has been "the guy" for so long that filling his shoes will be tough. Also departing is Brian Wozniak; both players were signed by the Atlanta Falcons in an attempt to bring Madison to the Georgia Dome.
Sam Arneson, while he hasn't played much, has made the most of his opportunities, converting 40 percent of his receptions (10) into touchdowns (four). Also on the roster is Austin Traylor, who—despite not recording a catch yet—could develop into an excellent player.
Derek Watt also played a sort of weird tight end position throughout the spring, so it will be interesting to see how he's utilized as a U-back. His pass-catching ability will make him attractive in the decimated passing game.
No. 4: Defensive Line
This is projecting ahead a little, but I believe that this unit will be exceptional by year's end. Nose guard Warren Herring should fit like a glove into the gaping hole left by Beau Allen. While he doesn't quite have the same size Allen did—though to be fair, few do—Herring has a good concept of gap spacing and will aptly plug the middle to let the blitzing linebackers shoot the gaps.
On the ends, both Chikwe Obasih and Konrad Zagzebski should learn quickly on the job. In particular, Obasih should be an excellent player now and in the future. Also along the line is Alec James, who plays in a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position utilized by 3-4 teams and should develop well throughout his Badgers career.
No. 3: Secondary
Michael Caputo and Sojourn Shelton were two of the biggest surprises from last season, as both quickly proved their mettle on the field. Shelton, the diminutive (5'9") and quick cornerback was excellent, except for dropping one early-season interception against Ohio State that eventually led to a Buckeyes score.
Caputo came in last season as an unheralded player, playing alongside current Atlanta Falcon Dezmen Southward, and proved to be the better safety. A sure tackler with a nose for the ball, Caputo provides stability to the back line that Southward never could.
Darius Hillary and Devin Gaulden, if healthy, will provide a good pair of extra corners as the Big Ten continues to open up and move away from the power run games of old, though not so much in the Big Ten West.
No. 2: Offensive Line
The Badgers offensive line rarely skips a beat, and this season, despite the departure of first-team All-Big Ten guard Ryan Groy, the O-line returns five guys who started games last season.
Known for fielding giants along the line, the Badgers running game has been successful of late for a reason. Rob Havenstein, Kyle Costigan, Tyler Marz, Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen all bring toughness and experience, while Michael Dieter and Ray Ball provide much-needed depth behind them.
This is one of the best units from Day 1 of the season, and as the linemen play alongside one another, their chemistry will only grow. Pairing talent and unity is necessary for an offensive line to be successful, and this one has all the key ingredients to provide Texas-sized holes for Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement to run through.
No. 1: Running Backs
Though the offensive line could easily slot in here as the top unit for the Badgers, when the running game features a Heisman candidate and a backup who could start in about 90 percent of other programs, the running backs earn the top spot in this power ranking.
Much has already been written of Gordon, who was called "the best running back on the roster" by Bret Bielema in 2012, per Gabe Neitzel of ESPN Wisconsin. To give that quote some context, Gordon was the third-string back that season behind Wisconsin legends Montee Ball and James White.
Backing up Gordon is Corey Clement, who was used sparingly in his freshman season but was effective whenever he carried the ball. On 67 carries, he racked up 547 yards—good for 8.2 yards per carry—to go along with seven touchdowns.
They are without a doubt the best unit for the Badgers and may be the most formidable tandem of backs in the Big Ten this season.
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