Wisconsin Football: Ranking Badgers' Top 10 Players Heading into 2014 Season
As we inch closer and closer toward opening day, the Wisconsin football team sports a lot of new faces on both sides of the ball. Coming off a 9-4 season that saw a debacle in the desert, a meltdown at Camp Randall and their first loss by more than a touchdown since October 2010, the Badgers have plenty of room for improvement.
Replacing their entire front seven and their top four receivers will be no easy task, but these 10 players will certainly help Gary Andersen and his coaching staff as they move into their second season at the helm of the Badgers.
To compile this list, I examined how well these players have performed in the past, be it through tangible statistics or just their impact on the field, as well as projected ahead a bit in some cases. Honorable mentions to this list include Kyle Costigan and Tyler Marz along the offensive line as well as tight end Sam Arneson.
Without further ado, let's start with a controversial choice at No. 10 with a potential starter in the Badgers' No. 2.
No. 10: Joel Stave
I've been one of the harshest critics of Joel Stave; however, by and large, he's been quite good if you look at his statistics from afar. Furthermore, reports out of camp show that he's been in the driver's seat of the quarterback competition.
Starting with his redshirt freshman year, when he took over for the struggling Danny O'Brien against Utah State in the team's third game, Stave performed admirably considering the circumstances. While he was up-and-down all season, the team looked better with him in than without him.
When the team faced Michigan State, Stave was 9-of-11 for 127 yards and a touchdown before exiting the game with an injury after a William Gholston sack. At that point, the Badgers held on to a tenuous 7-3 lead before eventually falling 16-13 in overtime.
Despite a broken collarbone, Stave managed to throw one pass in the Rose Bowl. While the box score will show an incomplete pass, receiver Jared Abbrederis probably should have come down with the ball in the end zone after a beautifully thrown 34-yard pass.
His redshirt sophomore season was a record-setting one for the Badgers. While Stave was inconsistent for stretches of time, he threw for the fifth-most passing yards in a single season in school history (2,494), which was also the most for a sophomore, had the second-most passing touchdowns (22) and had the most passing attempts in school history.
While every overthrown pass will cause grumbles from the stands and every interception will lead to a clamor for Tanner McEvoy, Stave at this moment seems like the best option at quarterback and is easily one of the most important and top players for the Badgers in 2014.
No. 9: Warren Herring
How do you replace one of the most productive, disruptive and demonstrative players in school history? By inserting one of the most unheralded yet dynamic players, replacing Beau Allen may not be as gargantuan a task as it may have seemed.
Warren Herring had six tackles for loss and four sacks last season and even notched a start among the crowded and experienced front seven. Herring may not have the size that Allen has, but he has remarkable technique and will be seen as a leader among the inexperienced group up front.
One thing Herring will need to learn, and quickly, is that he may need to be on the field the entire game. In regard to how little quality depth the Badgers have at nose guard, head coach Gary Andersen said, "right now Warren would have to take every snap," according to Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal.
But focusing solely on Herring, he is one of the most accomplished players on a defense loaded with talent but light on experience. The Badgers' ability to stuff the run and pressure the quarterback will start with the big man in the middle.
No. 8: Derek Landisch
Much of the sentiment about Herring being the only experienced player on the defensive line can be echoed with Derek Landisch and the linebacking corps. While both outside linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel played quite a bit last year, it is Landisch who has been toward the top of the depth chart for three years.
From his freshman year when he won UW Rookie of the Year to his two straight academic All-Big Ten appearances in 2012 and 2013, Landisch is incredibly solid both in stopping the run game and dropping back into coverage.
One improvement Landisch needs to make is to get in the backfield. In his career, Landisch has played in 38 games with only four tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Furthermore, he has only recorded one career sack.
While the role of a 3-4 inside linebacker isn't necessarily to be in constant pursuit of the pass-rusher, if Landisch can diagnose and react in time to get the ball-carrier behind the line of scrimmage, life in a post-Chris Borland world will be much easier for the Badgers.
No. 7: Derek Watt
Only at Wisconsin would a fullback crack the list of top-10 players. But Derek Watt is no normal fullback. Coming from a lineage of great football players—you may have heard of his older brother J.J.—Derek Watt is no exception to that.
His redshirt freshman season, Watt recorded 10 solo tackles to go along with 12 receptions for 150 yards while notching five starts. His redshirt sophomore year, Watt was utilized more for his blocking skills, as he only recorded three receptions for 20 yards, but he also picked up his first career touchdown.
Watt's versatility as both a lead blocker and a pass-catcher caused the coaching staff to move him around quite a bit, working with the tight ends as well as the backs during both the spring and fall camps.
His name may not pop off the stat sheet, but behind every 100-yard day from Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement will be Watt leading the way.
No. 6: Dan Voltz
Another name that may not come to mind as one of the top players on this team, center Dan Voltz is one of the best in the country at his position and certainly deserves a spot on this list.
Voltz came in as a highly touted recruit, rated as a 4-star player by 247Sports and ranked No. 99 in the country in the class of 2012. After taking a redshirt, Voltz played in 11 games last season, starting in six of them, and was as strong in pass protection as he was in the run game.
Voltz's efforts last season earned him a spot on the first team of Athlon Sports' All-Freshman team and earned him Academic All-Big Ten honors. This season, Voltz is on the Rimington Trophy watch list, an award given to the best center in college football.
No. 5: Corey Clement
On most teams, Corey Clement would be a starter and then some. On the Badgers, he's the clear-cut No. 2. As a freshman, Clement notched 547 yards on just 67 carries, good for 8.2 yards per carry, while also recording seven touchdowns.
Clement found himself the recipient of Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors twice and had three games with over 100 yards on the ground.
While Clement did much of his damage in garbage time last season, he did have an impressive 32-yard run against the stout South Carolina defense in the team's bowl game.
The sky is the limit for Clement as he looks to continue the tradition of having multiple 1,000-yard rushers in the Badger backfield. Who knows, next year it could be Clement that we talk about as the Heisman candidate.
No. 4: Michael Caputo
Last season, massive question marks surrounded the Badgers secondary. Outside of Dezmen Southward, who would play safety? Michael Caputo stepped into that role with aplomb, helping in coverage as well as establishing himself as a premier safety in run support.
Caputo notched 12 starts last season and compiled 36 solo tackles to go along with 27 assists. He also allowed Southward to slide over to corner when needed, as Caputo's management of the safety position gave the coaching staff flexibility.
For his efforts, Caputo earned All-Big Ten honorable mention and has made his way onto Phil Steele's preseason All-Big Ten fourth team. With the other safety spot up for grabs among a litany of inexperienced players, it will be on Caputo to anchor a much-improved secondary.
No. 3: Rob Havenstein
While it may be Melvin Gordon who snares the headlines as a potential first-round pick, if Wisconsin's track record of churning out first-day offensive line talent continues, it may be offensive tackle Rob Havenstein who hears his name called first on draft day.
When an image of a Wisconsin offensive lineman comes to mind, it's probably Havenstein. At 6'8" and 333 pounds, Havenstein fits the role of road-grader. Havenstein's 40 games played is the most among active Badgers, and he has 28 starts to his name, including 27 in a row.
Last season, Havenstein found himself on the second-team All-Big Ten, according to the coaches, and his outlook for this season is even brighter. With spots on the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award watch lists to go along with spots on Phil Steele's preseason All-America fourth team and All-Big Ten first team, Gordon and Clement should have plenty of room to run behind him.
No. 2: Sojourn Shelton
Though his stature may be diminutive—he stands at 5'9"—Sojourn Shelton's presence on the field is immense. The first true freshman to start the season opener since Travis Frederick in 2009, Shelton wasted no time making an impact, recording his first career interception in that season opener.
Over the course of the season, Shelton racked up 30 total tackles to go along with four interceptions and four pass deflections. While Shelton is probably still kicking himself for dropping a sure interception against Ohio State, the now-sophomore looks to be one of the best at his position in the Big Ten.
A preseason first-team All-Big Ten selection by Sporting News, Shelton comes in with big expectations. Furthermore, what was seen as a weakness going into last season is now a strength, with Shelton and battery mates Darius Hillary and Devin Gaulden proving to be as formidable a trio as any set of corners outside of East Lansing.
No. 1: Melvin Gordon
What can be said about preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon that hasn't already been written? While some may wonder what Gordon has left to prove at the collegiate level, Gordon has always strived for team success over individual greatness.
When Jesse Temple of Fox Sports Wisconsin spoke with Gordon's high school coach, Jed Kennedy, he said: "I said a realistic goal for you should be rushing for 2,000 yards. I'll never forget his response back to me. He said, 'Coach I don't care how many yards I rush for, I just want to win a state championship.' That's how unselfish he is."
Gordon rushed for 621 yards on just 62 carries as a redshirt freshman and 1,609 yards last season, though he can still improve. While his battery mate James White had 39 receptions last season, Gordon had just one catch for five yards.
With White playing many of the passing downs, Gordon will need to show his ability to work in pass protection as well as handle a larger load carrying the ball, though I'd expect to still see him split carries with Corey Clement.
Is 2,000 yards too lofty a prediction for Gordon? Considering his career 8.1 yards-per-carry average, it would take fewer than 250 carries for Gordon to reach that benchmark if he were to keep up that remarkable average.
While with many of the people on this list, one could argue that they should be higher or lower or don't belong on the list at all, Gordon is not just the best player on the Badgers, but he has a chance to be one of the best players in the country.