"This offseason is going to be the best offseason we've ever had," said Kelly. "Don't be surprised if we come out the first game and everybody is talking about us, because we're going to make things happen next year. There's no question." There's a lot of talent returning for the University of Wisconsin as it enters the Gary Andersen era coming off Tuesday's 20-14 Rose Bowl loss to No.8 Stanford, particularly on the defensive line.
Sixteen players who started the Rose Bowl – plus the kicker and punter – will return and all four from the defensive line will return as seniors, along with most of the reserves, after the NCAA gave Kelly a sixth year of eligibility.
It's greatly fortunate for Wisconsin, as Kelly has seen his number drastically climb after battling through wrist and groin issues his first three years.
"With the trials and tribulations he's been through, you can't give him credit enough," said outgoing defensive line coach Charlie Partridge. "A majority of young men at that point would not have finished. To get through what he went through for two years and get back is as impressive as it gets."
Kelly will anchor one of the best front defensive fronts in the Big Ten. Even with the loss of senior weakside linebacker and leading tackler Mike Taylor, middle linebacker Chris Borland and strongside linebacker Ethan Armstrong will both likely return for their senior years.
"We have a ton of talent," said Borland. "Regardless of the staff, I think we're going to have a great year next year."
New Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, who watched the Rose Bowl from the sidelines, likely would agree, as Borland's and Kelly's units make up nine of the estimates 20 soon-to-be scholarship seniors that will suit up for Wisconsin in the fall.
It should be a hungry group considering what appears when one peels back the layers of the Badgers' third straight Big Ten championship: going from ranked 12th in the preseason to six losses for the first time since 2008 and a third straight Rose Bowl defeat.
"I know they are going to great here this next year," said outgoing offensive coordinator Matt Canada. "I have no doubt about it. You have nine (starters) coming back on offense. This was the tough year. This was the year to work through a lot of things, a lot of transition, and they are moving forward. They'll have a top offense in the nation with the guys they have coming back."
Wisconsin will have a lot of personnel in place, but there are a lot of major offensive issues that need to be sorted out. The main issue starts at quarterback, as Wisconsin got lumped in to a half dozen other schools that started at least three quarterbacks and struggled.
Phillips – who was 10-for-16 for 83 yards, a touchdown and interception in the Rose Bowl – may return with a sixth year of eligibility, but he'll be battling for the starting job with fellow seniors Danny O'Brien and Jon Budmayr (if healthy), sophomore Joel Stave and redshirt freshman Bart Houston.
Whoever is under center for Wisconsin needs some better options to throw the ball to. Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen are the only threats in the group, but defenses focused on Abbrederis late in the season when no other receivers stepped up and Pedersen tapered off in the passing game when given more blocking responsibilities.
The offensive line loses just two starters in left tackle Rick Wagner and junior center Travis Frederick and either won't be easily replaced. Wisconsin could switch Ryan Groy from left guard to center, where he made starts as a sophomore, or give highly-touted Dan Voltz a chance. Left tackle won't be as easy to fix, as Wisconsin doesn't have any solid candidates waiting in the wings.
After the massive upheaval the line went through last season, bringing back four starters would be a good building block.
"We really came together," said Groy. "We went through some serious adversity there and topped it off with Nebraska … We aren't going to change the mentality. This is Wisconsin football. This is hard, physical football. It's not going to change around here. It's not going to change how we work out. We might do a couple things differently offensively and defensively, but our motto is not going anywhere."
Senior tailback Montee Ball is gone after a highly productive career in which he rushed for 5,140 yards and scored 83 touchdowns, but James White – a senior – will finally get his turn as the feature back with up-and-coming star Melvin Gordon – a sophomore – being the second part of the punch after leading the country with 10.02 rushing average.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing this team in the future," said Ball.
Although the defensive losses in the front seven are limited to Mike Taylor, the leading tackler the last two seasons, Wisconsin must remake 75 percent of its secondary, as free safety Dezmen Southward is the only returning starter as a senior.
Junior-to-be Peniel Jean and sophomore-to-be Darius Hillary were the backups throughout the season and will be needed to be counted on with inexperienced youth behind them. The safety position opposite Southward is also a concern, as junior-to-be Michael Trotter and sophomore-to-be Michael Caputo didn't jump off the page in their fill-in starts for Shelton Johnson.
Whoever starts will need to be more active in the turnover game, as the Badgers had only 15 takeaways on the season (1.07 per game) and none against Stanford, despite multiple chances.
"We didn't have the type of year we wanted, but we were in every game," said Taylor. "We lost some tough games. It's going to keep on going up from here."
That will be up to Andersen and his new staff to cultivate, but it will be just as important for the 26 juniors returning to take a valuable lesson from 2012.
"We've got to learn," said White, "to finish."