With the first week of fall camp completed, we’re getting a clearer picture as to who the 2016 Badgers will be. Largely clear is the fact that the Badgers have a strong team, but a couple key questions still remain. Questions they must answer before their season opener September 3 against LSU.
A couple key items are clear for the Cardinal and White: Wisconsin will be able to run the ball and stop the run.
The 2015 Badgers saw the emergence of two relatively unknown backs: Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal. Although the Badgers ranked 10th in the Big Ten rushing wise, they developed a new trust and confidence in their backups. A trust and confidence that has surely boosted the morale of the two backs. Why the confidence in a running game that ranked 10th a season ago? The Badgers played nearly the entire season without a full strength Corey Clement. Clement is a two-time Maxwell and Doak Walker Award preseason watch list member. He has also averaged over 6 yards per rush over his Badger career. The combination of one of the nation’s best backs with two confident and moderately experienced backups will spell good things for the Badger running game.
Just as the running backs gained a good deal of experience due to injuries, the offensive line did the same. Injuries plagued the Badger o-line, last season forcing youth and inexperience to the front. Although the 2015 line didn’t live up to Wisconsin’s lofty expectations for them, the young core did learn a great deal in its on the job training. They experienced a fair amount of success, too. With the return of veteran Dan Voltz from injury and a more experienced young core, the Badgers will have a strong offensive line. Some in the media agree; Brian Bennett of ESPN has them as a top-four unit in the conference. After a below-average 2015, that is a significant improvement.
The Badger front seven had an incredible 2015 campaign. The Badgers rush defense was best in the conference. They were also first in total defense. The Badgers were also the best scoring defense in the entire country. Wisconsin did lose All-American Joe Schobert, but the defensive’s total depth will be enough to thrive despite Schobert’s departure and TJ Edwards’ injury.
Now, for the fun part. By that, I mean the interesting and unknown bits.
Simply and concisely, the Badgers need to get SOMETHING out of the quarterback position. With the resurgent backs and offensive line combined with an elite front seven defensively, it does not need to be a lot, but they do need something. The Badgers have won Big Ten titles with players like Mike Samuel, Brooks Bollinger and Scott Tolzien under center. None of the aforementioned quarterbacks were overly flashy or explosive; they simply got the job done. The key between all those quarterbacks: they were smart and didn’t turn the ball over. In the Big Ten championship seasons of ’98, ’99 and 2010 the three threw a combined 12 interceptions. That was over 37 games.
I’m not intending to insinuate that the 2016 team is as good as those Rose Bowl teams, I’m trying to illustrate that the starting quarterback –whether it’s Alex Hornibrook or Bart Houston—needs to be productive and efficient for the Badgers to succeed. If the Badger starter can be productive, the running game and defense can carry the brunt of the load.
The defensive secondary had a great season, last year. The Badgers ranked seventh nationally in pass yards allowed and second in pass defense efficiency. With the graduation of Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy, there are two major holes to fill in the defensive backfield. Attempting to fill the holes are D’Cota Dixon, Leo Musso and Arrington Farrar. Although the three are unproven, they all have game experience. They each appeared in at least 12 games last year.
From those who defend the pass to those who the passes are intended for. The Wisconsin receivers will have a major say in the outcome of the 2016 season. The loss of team leader Alex Erickson will be a significant one for sure. The loss of his production will force several players who haven’t performed to play crucial roles. Rob Wheelwright will be the class of the crew. He had a strong season marked with some memorable grabs against USC and Illinois. He’s expected to play a decisive role in the passing game. He caught 32 passes in 2015. After Wheelwright’s 32 grabs from a season ago, the receiver with the most receptions was Jazzy Peavy with 20. After that, though, Reggie Love had four and George Rushing had one. The passing game will be a huge question mark on both sides –passing and receiving. If the Badgers are to have a successful season, the receivers will need to carry their share. That will require major production out of receivers that have not previously provided it.
Typical for Badger teams the 2016 team will have a strong running game and a rush defense. The overall success for the Cardinal and White will come down to the ability of unheralded players in the passing game –offense and defense—to step up. The running game and run defense will be quite talented, but not talented enough to carry the entire Badger squad through a daunting schedule. If the Badgers hope to succeed in 2016, they will need substantial production from some previously untapped resources.