The last time the Wisconsin football team stepped onto the field, the Badgers got shellacked by South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day. Eight months later, the Badgers face another unfamiliar SEC foe, LSU, in one of the most anticipated games of the opening weekend.
With a lot of winnable games littered across their schedule, a Heisman trophy candidate in their backfield to go along with a lot of question marks at major positions, let's take an in-depth look at everything Badgers fans will need to know going into the 2014 season.
|2014 Wisconsin Badgers Coaching Staff|
|Title||Name||Years on Team|
|Head Coach||Gary Andersen||2|
|Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers||Dave Aranda||2|
|Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks||Andy Ludwig||2|
|Wide Receivers||Chris Beatty||2|
|Running Backs||Thomas Brown||1|
|Tight Ends/Special Teams Coordinator||Jeff Genyk||2|
|Defensive Line||Chad Kauha'aha'a||2|
|Offensive Line||T.J. Woods||2|
Year 2 of the Gary Andersen era sees very little turnover, all of his coaches have been retained except for star running backs coach Thomas Hammock, who moved to the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens.
Hammock created a strong tradition of having not just one or two top running backs but at least three guys who could make opposing teams pay thanks to competitive practices and a spirit of friendly competition.
Stepping in to replace the massive shoes of Hammock is Thomas Brown, the former running back for the Georgia Bulldogs was a star there and spent a couple of years in the NFL before becoming a coach.
Last season, as the running backs coach for Marshall, he coached a trio of backs to at least 500-yard seasons, one of only seven teams to accomplish that feat.
What Brown also brings to the table is excellent prowess as a recruiter in areas the Badgers have rarely mined for talent. In 2015, Brown has signed four players, which includes two from New Jersey, one from Georgia and another from Texas.
Overall, the coaching staff is particularly strong on the defensive side of the ball, with Andersen holding a background in defense, while defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has smoothed the transition from Chris Ash seamlessly, despite implementing a new defensive scheme.
Aranda's 3-4 defense will likely be more effective this season now that he is able to install more of his own players as opposed to those he inherited from Bret Bielema. While the Badgers have to replace their entire front seven (more on that later), the current set of players fit the 3-4 defense a bit better than the defensive ends and outside linebackers from last year's team.
On offense, the coaching staff, particularly offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig will need to figure out packages for Tanner McEvoy to play and how to maximize Joel Stave's effectiveness, all while maintaining an identity as a run-first team.
What to Watch For on Offense
|2014 Wisconsin Badgers Offensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||Tanner McEvoy||Joel Stave||Bart Houston|
|RB||Melvin Gordon||Corey Clement||Taiwan Deal|
|FB||Derek Watt||Austin Ramesh||Derek Straus|
|WR||Kenzel Doe||Reggie Love||George Rushing|
|WR||Jordan Fredrick||Alex Erickson||Robert Wheelwright|
|TE||Sam Arneson||Austin Traylor||Troy Fumagalli|
|C||Dan Voltz||Michael Deiter||Micah Kapoi|
|OG||Kyle Costigan||Trent Denlinger||Logan Schmidt|
|OG||Dallas Lewallen||Ray Ball||George Panos|
|OT||Rob Havenstein||Hayden Biegel||Beau Benzschawel|
|OT||Tyler Marz||Walker Williams||Jacob Maxwell|
|K||Rafael Gaglianone||Jack Russell||Andrew Endicott|
|KR/PR||Kenzel Doe||Natrell Jamerson||A.J. Jordan|
There's a lot in this depth chart to digest. Some of these players may redshirt, particularly the freshman linemen that are third string right now (I'm looking at Beau Benzschawel and George Panos as likely candidates to redshirt) while D.J. Gillins could step in as the third-string quarterback over Bart Houston.
Speaking of quarterback, I had penciled incumbent Joel Stave in as the starting quarterback; however, Friday, Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported sources tell him Tanner McEvoy will be the starter against LSU.
McEvoy brings something to the table Stave doesn't: mobility. McEvoy may not be the runner that Gillins or prized 2015 quarterback recruit Austin Kafentzis does in terms of running ability, but McEvoy is quite mobile and is athletic enough to run a successful read option.
Joel Stave, who started all 13 games last season and started 19 games in his career, will be valuable as a backup. It will be interesting to see how Stave is used as he has more experience and a stronger arm, but he has struggled with consistency.
At running back, the man to watch is Melvin Gordon. Gordon is a Heisman trophy candidate and has been excellent throughout his first two years of eligibility, rushing for more than 10 yards per carry his freshman season and following that up with 1,609 yards on 7.8 yards per carry while scoring 12 touchdowns.
Backing him up is Corey Clement, who rushed for 547 yards as a freshman last season and showed why he was so highly touted coming into Madison. Gordon and Clement hope to recreate the success of last year's running back tandem—Gordon and now-New England Patriot James White—who eclipsed 3,000 yards on the ground.
The vaunted third running back spot is up in the air between freshmen Taiwan Deal and Caleb Kinlaw. Kinlaw is faster and quicker than Deal, but injuries that have piled up throughout camp may hand the job to Deal.
At fullback, the Badgers have one of the best in the country in Derek Watt. Brother of the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt, Derek has cemented himself as an able pass-catcher and an excellent lead blocker.
Watt's pass-catching abilities have moved him into a hybrid fullback/tight-end role, which should give Austin Ramesh plenty of chances to see the field. Ramesh was excellent in the spring game and has carried that momentum into a strong fall and should see his hard work pay off.
At tight end, the Badgers have two guys who have patiently waited their turn behind guys like Jacob Pedersen and Brian Wozniak, both of whom earned training camp invites with the Atlanta Falcons, and now look ready to contribute in a big way.
With Sam Arneson, the Badgers have a dependable red-zone threat, who has turned 10 career receptions into four touchdowns, including a huge touchdown grab against Ohio State last season while getting clobbered in the end zone.
Backing him up is Austin Traylor, who despite not recording a catch yet in his collegiate career, projects out as an excellent blocker and should see a few targets, similarly to the way Wozniak was used last season as primarily a blocker but also a good safety valve.
Along the offensive line, the Badgers boast one of the strongest units in both the Big Ten and in the country. Led by offensive tackle Rob Havenstein, this starting group boasts dozens of starts between the five of them and nearly everyone along the line is on a preseason All-Big Ten team. Of note, Havenstein and offensive guard Kyle Costigan made Phil Steele's First Team All-Big Ten.
At kicker, the Badgers used a scholarship on incoming freshman Rafael Gaglianone, who impressed with every kick throughout fall camp. With seemingly limitless range, Gaglianone has probably overtaken incumbent Jack Russell on the depth chart, thus limiting the dog puns in my future columns.
As expected, Rafael Gaglianone is going to be the team's No. 1 FG kicker. I think he's going to be a star. Andrew Endicott on kickoffs.— Jesse Temple (@jessetemple) August 21, 2014
Kenzel Doe has been shaky at times as a returner, but his 91-yard kick return in the Capital One Bowl last season showed he has the highlight-reel ability that teams look for in a kick returner and will handle kick and punt returns. Backing him up is freshman burner Natrell Jamerson and A.J. Jordan.
What to Watch For on Defense
|2014 Wisconsin Badgers Defensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|NG||Warren Herring||Arthur Goldberg||Jeremy Patterson|
|DE||Chikwe Obasih||Alec James||James Adeyanju|
|DE||Konrad Zagzebski||Jake Keefer||Billy Hirschfeld|
|OLB||Vince Biegel||Jesse Hayes||Jack Cichy|
|ILB||Derek Landisch||Michael Trotter||D'Cota Dixon|
|ILB||Marcus Trotter||Ben Ruechel||Chasen Andersen|
|OLB||Joe Schobert||Leon Jacobs||Sherard Cadogan|
|CB||Sojourn Shelton||Derrick Tindal||Dare Ogunbowale|
|CB||Darius Hillary||Devin Gaulden||T.J. Reynard|
|SS||Michael Caputo||Peniel Jean||A.J. Jordan|
|FS||Lubern Figaro||Leo Musso||Austin Hudson|
|P||Drew Meyer||P.J. Rosowski|
The first thing you notice when you look up and down the depth chart is a lot of unfamiliar names, even to the most ardent of Badger fans. With that caveat aside, there is actually a lot of talent in here, much of which fits into defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 scheme.
Starting at nose guard, filling in for the massive Beau Allen—a draft pick by the Philadelphia Eagles—is Konrad Zagzebski, a move which surprised some. Zagzebski was originally penciled in as a defensive end, but in order to move Warren Herring to defensive end, Zagzebski moves to nose guard.
Badgers football: Warren Herring, Konrad Zagzebski swap spots on defensive line http://t.co/civjA7gZq4— madison.com (@madisondotcom) August 22, 2014
Behind him, while the coaching staff had reservations about backups Arthur Goldberg and Jeremy Patterson, Goldberg has progressed nicely and coach Kauha'aha'a looks more comfortable playing Goldberg at this point. Freshman Jeremy Patterson has the frame to be a great nose guard, but for now, is firmly entrenched in the third string role.
At defensive end, the Badgers lost the most experience, losing Pat Muldoon, Tyler Dippel and Ethan Hemer, all three of whom were very good for the Badgers, particularly in run support. Konrad Zagzebski saw a few snaps last season, but more than the lion's share of playing time went to the three aforementioned departed seniors.
This leaves a potentially huge void at defensive end; however, the combination of Chikwe Obasih and Alec James should provide plenty of speed along the outside to help increase the pressure on opposing quarterbacks while also working in run support.
Furthermore, moving Herring to defensive end lets him spend more time pressuring the quarterback. Spelling Allen last year, Herring picked up four sacks—tied for second on the team. If Herring could pick up four sacks in a part-time role on the inside, the hope is that number can increase if he's playing more and at end.
With Herring and Obasih or James, the Badgers have more pieces to rush the passer than in years past, which will only be a good thing for them as coach Aranda gets to blitz a little bit more this season, now that the coaching staff has more of their own players in place.
At outside linebacker, the Badgers graduated Brendan Kelly and Ethan Armstrong; however, both Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert played quite a bit last season and both are chomping at the bit for their first real chance to start. Behind them, Leon Jacobs has been very good throughout camp and will be called upon to play plenty of snaps this season as the primary backup to Biegel and Schobert.
On the inside, the Badgers will attempt to replace the All-World production of Chris Borland. While no one will be able to do what Borland did, when called upon to start against Iowa after Borland went down with an injury, it was Marcus Trotter who stepped up to the plate and delivered a strong performance in relief.
Whether Trotter can keep up that kind of production throughout the course of a whole season is still yet to be seen; however, if that game was an indicator of anything, it's that Trotter is a sound tackler with good instincts and is very strong in run support.
Set to start alongside Trotter is Derek Landisch, who started a couple of games last season and, along with Herring, will be called upon to be a leader of this young defense. If Trotter and Landisch can play as well as they did against Iowa all season, the Badgers won't miss Borland as much as they may have anticipated.
For the first time in a long time, the secondary is not a question mark, but rather a position of strength. At cornerback, Sojourn Shelton looks to improve off an excellent freshman season. Paired with Shelton is Darius Hillary, who got picked on quite a bit last season but still performed very admirably.
In the nickel corner role is likely Devin Gaulden, who has struggled with injuries throughout his Badgers career, but if he can stay healthy, he will be a big contributor for the team. Also fighting for that nickel corner spot is freshman Derrick Tindal, who has been quite good throughout fall camp.
At strong safety, the Badgers have a strong, physical presence in Michael Caputo. Caputo is a tackling machine, recording the second most tackles on the team last season, and with Borland's departure, Caputo should rack up even more tackles this season.
Playing alongside him is likely freshman Lubern Figaro. Figaro has been nothing short of a revelation during fall camp, which has been a sigh of relief for the coaching staff as free safety was the only spot in the secondary with a question mark. Behind him is Leo Musso, who has been a valuable contributor in special teams thus far and should see snaps at safety.
At punter, Drew Meyer will likely retain his role. Meyer was really good as a freshman and solid last season as a sophomore. While the Badgers would love to see more distance on his punts, Meyer has been very effective in limiting the returns on his kicks.
|Wisconsin Badgers Injuries|
|Player Name||Injury||Expected Return Date|
|Derek Landisch||Hamstring||By Opening Day|
|Vince Biegel||Head||By Opening Day|
|Robert Wheelwright||Unknown||Late August|
|Jazz Peavy||Hamstring||Late August|
The Badgers have been hit with the injury bug throughout fall camp, with more than a dozen players going down for stretches of time. With that being said, thankfully for the team, most of those injuries haven't been particularly serious, carrying tags of precautionary and the team has seen most players back on the field a couple of days later.
With that being said, the five injuries listed above are the most cause for concern. Both Robert Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy were in the discussion for serious playing time at wide receiver, with Wheelwright's name being bandied about as the No. 1 receiver.
Unfortunately, neither can seem to stay on the field, with Wheelwright watching his window of opportunity slip away as the trio of freshmen receivers along with previously unheralded players like Reggie Love overtaking them on the depth chart.
Kinlaw left practice on Tuesday with an undisclosed injury. Kinlaw was looking like a good change-of-pace option for the Badgers as the third string running back, though this injury could put the brakes on the freshman taking that role.
RB Caleb Kinlaw left practice early w/an unspecified injury. Was just his 2nd day in full contact after returning from offseason surgery.— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) August 19, 2014
The last and arguably most important of these injuries is the one suffered by Derek Landisch. Landisch is one of the three most important players on the Badgers' defense and would expose some serious depth issues at inside linebacker.
#Badgers LB Derek Landisch, coming back from hamstring injury, told me he's "taking it day by day" 3 different times. We'll know by LSU game— Jesse Temple (@jessetemple) August 20, 2014
With that being said, Landisch is expected back by the time the Badgers travel to Houston to take on LSU, though it will be important to monitor his health status leading up to the game.
While there are plenty of candidates for this role, there's one player who stands above the rest. Sure, one could point to Corey Clement, who will need to step into James White's big shoes as the complement to Gordon. One could point to Kenzel Doe in his attempt to fill the shoes of Jared Abbrederis, both as a receiver and a punt returner.
On the defensive side of the ball, one could look at Obasih or Biegel as the primary pass-rushers or Figaro as he is the freshman center fielder for the Badgers. But it is the man under center, Tanner McEvoy, that will make the biggest impact on whether the Badgers will be 8-4 or significantly better than that.
Originally, this section was written with Joel Stave as the X-Factor, when signs pointed to him being the starting quarterback for the Badgers; however, the substitution of McEvoy into this role shows just how important the man under center is.
McEvoy has the ability to hurt teams with his feet and his arms, though his 3/4 delivery is highly unconventional and, as a result, can be a bit erratic. He was good two years ago, the last time he played quarterback, when he was at Arizona Western, but last season, his first at Wisconsin, he played safety.
Talked to Tanner McEvoy’s JC coach. Said UW coaches looking for more athleticism at QB. Odd throwing motion, but McEvoy can be very accurate— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) August 22, 2014
At safety, he played in 10 games, starting three and allowed Dezmen Southward to move over to a hybrid cornerback/safety role last season.
The questions that need to be asked include, "how much will McEvoy play?" and "how will the Badgers implement a mobile quarterback?" Outside of Russell Wilson in 2011, the Badgers haven't really had a mobile quarterback since the start of the Bielema era.
With that being said, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and coach Andersen have been looking to install a mobile quarterback, and while all reports have been that Stave has had the edge in camp, Ludwig and Andersen's preference for someone who can hurt you with their legs and their arm wins out.
While I don't believe McEvoy is Chuckie Keaton, the standout Andersen had under center at Utah State, by introducing an offense with a mobile quarterback this season, it could pave the way more easily for Gillins and Kafentzis in the coming years.
|Wisconsin Badgers 2014 Schedule|
|Aug. 30||LSU||Houston, TX|
|Sept. 6||Western Illinois||Madison, WI|
|Sept. 20||Bowling Green||Madison, WI|
|Sept. 27||South Florida||Madison, WI|
|Oct. 4||Northwestern||Evanston, IL|
|Oct. 11||Illinois||Madison, WI|
|Oct. 25||Maryland||Madison, WI|
|Nov. 1||Rutgers||Piscataway, NJ|
|Nov. 8||Purdue||West Lafayette, IN|
|Nov. 15||Nebraska||Madison, WI|
|Nov. 22||Iowa||Iowa City, IA|
|Nov. 29||Minnesota||Madison, WI|
Make or Break Games
Opening day is a good place to start, though beating LSU does more for the Big Ten than it does for the Badgers. A loss to the Tigers on opening day won't kill their chances to notch double-digit wins or make it back to Indianapolis, so I don't believe it is a make or break game.
The team's two make or break games come in consecutive weeks in mid-November, when the Nebraska Cornhuskers travel to Madison and the Badgers travel to Iowa City to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes.
These three teams are the class of the newly realigned Big Ten West division, and it's more than likely that the West's representative in Indianapolis will be decided in these two games.
If the Badgers can go 2-0 in these two games, even a slip-up against Minnesota or Northwestern at Ryan Field would still virtually ensure them a berth in the Big Ten Championship game.
Iowa has a similar schedule to the Badgers with their crossover games coming against Indiana and Maryland, two of the weaker teams in the East, while the Badgers get Maryland and Rutgers. Furthermore, Iowa's two toughest Big Ten games, against Nebraska and Wisconsin, both come at home.
Meanwhile, in Lincoln, Nebraska gets to play in East Lansing for one of their crossover games against Michigan State and also have to travel to Madison and Iowa City. With such a difficult schedule, I would be surprised to see Nebraska get through that gauntlet unscathed.
Hlog: Ranking Iowa's 2014 football games. No. 1 Wisconsin. They're finally in the same division & both could be good. http://t.co/9rjaNPhVlB— Mike Hlas (@Hlas) August 20, 2014
With all of that being said, that would make the Badgers' game against Iowa the make-or-break game on their schedule as both teams have a good chance to go undefeated in Big Ten play headed into this game, which would be the de facto West division championship game.
Not a lot is new this year, though the team has experimented with quite a few new combinations over the past few years. This season features an all-red uniform, which fits in with the rest of the team's uniform options nicely.
I think 11-1 is certainly in the cards. I also think the opening game against LSU will be too steep a challenge, considering the amount of losses at both the skill positions on offense and their entire front seven, but I think there is a lot to learn from this game, win or lose.
While it may be a bit optimistic, I think the Badgers have a good chance to run the table in conference. From there, a matchup with probably Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game is on the cards. While anything can happen in a game like that—just look at the 2012 Big Ten Championship against Nebraska—I think Michigan State's defense would bottle up the run too well for the Badgers to overcome.
In terms of awards, Rob Havenstein is one of the best lineman in the country, and I think people will quickly find that out over the course of the season; however, Iowa's Brandon Scherff has the inside track on the Outland Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award.
As for the much talked about Gordon, I think he will earn an invite to New York for the Heisman trophy award presentation, but Brett Hundley or Marcus Mariota will probably edge him out for the award itself.