Even with losing nine players to NFL rosters, the Badgers were projected to finish first in the Big Ten Leaders division and given a rank of No.11 in the Associated Press preaseason poll? Why? Because nine current players are on major college football watch lists, the highest number of any Big Ten school and tied for sixth-most nationally, and 13 players have earned some type of all-conference honors during their careers.
So even with four of the seven players off last year's Front Seven having moved on, Wisconsin still looked poised for a special season. The defensive line remains virtually intact, the linebackers return a couple of playmakers who are finally healthy, the secondary has three seniors, the running game returns its two main weapons and the offensive line have been reloaded with talent. Anyway one chooses to look at it, the Badgers, on paper, appear to be one of the top teams in the country, making it hard to pick who are the seven most important players on the team.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance, expectations and need — a wonderfully vague definition of valuable to justify just about any selection. Please vent debates and disagreements on the premium board, as it wasn't easy narrowing the last down to seven.
Last week's rankings in parentheses
1, Russell Wilson, QB (NR) —Quarterback was Wisconsin's main position of weaknesses heading into the 2011 season. That's not a knock on redshirt sophomore Jon Budmayr, but more a tribute to how strong the other positions on this team are. With Budmayr possibly out another entire season with elbow problems, Wilson becomes even more important to the team's dynamic. Watching him practice, he's extremely talented, on target, aware of the holes in opposing defenses and is astute of when he can tuck the ball and run for a big game. Furthermore, if you talk to him, you realize he's extremely intelligent, grounded and humble, all things you want out of your starting quarterback. Wilson's success is imperative to Wisconsin having success.
2, Montee Ball, RB (3) —Ball came on strong at the end of last season, but never put up as big of numbers as his weight. That is no longer the case. Ball has slimmed down over 20 pounds and is running faster and just as strong then he has before. His cuts are crisp, his reads are solid and he's running with authority, which he showed on one of the first days in full pads when he threw a shoulder into Dezmen Southward and the safety tumbled to the turf. Ball has been healthy all of camp and will start against the Running Rebels. After playing second fiddle in the opener last season vs. UNLV and rushing for only 79 yards, you know Ball is shooting for the century mark on Thursday.
3, Aaron Henry, FS (5) — The team's vocal, emotional leader, Henry was one of the team's top playmakers on defense last year, scoring three defensive touchdowns, including one on a fumble recovery against UNLV. Henry, much like Chris Maragos before him, has made the successful transition to the free safety possession and owned it. He looked solid throughout camp, although he didn't make or create many turnovers in scrimmage situations. Perhaps he's saving it for the opener.
4, Mike Taylor, LB (6) — Take one look at UW's last full scrimmage and you can see how important a healthy Taylor is to the success of the defense. Taylor was everywhere in the scrimmage and finished with 2.5 TFLs. Although he is not the senior of the group, Taylor has the most college experience playing linebacker, and has a knack for playing the position. The concern through the non-conference schedule is limiting his plays, as Taylor is still battling soreness in the right knee that he tore his ACL in 2009. Taylor's health is extremely important to Wisconsin, and the Badgers will need to do everything they can to keep him fresh as the season wears on.
5, Ricky Wagner, LT (NR) —Wagner's name wasn't talked about much during fall camp, which means he was doing something right. Going unnoticed after participating in all the practices, Wagner has made the jump from right to left tackle with relative ease and appears to have put himself in position to have another standout season. Before he left for the NFL, Gabe Carimi proclaimed Wagner as the school's next Outland Trophy winner. Can Wagner make it 3-for-3?
6, Nick Toon, WR (NR) — Toon is Wisconsin's best receiving threat, but he is also has the longest injury history, meaning it will be important for Toon to have a solid start to the season to show coaches, teammates, opponents and fans that his feet are healthy and that he's still a dangerous threat. The Badgers need Toon's success to open up the offense so offensive coordinator Paul Chryst can take advantage of the one-year rental he has under center. With Toon healthy and at full strength, there are few possession receivers better in the Big Ten than the fifth-year senior.
7, Chris Borland, LB (NR) — Like Taylor, Borland has been eased back into the rotation following double shoulder surgery that cost him all of last season and spring football practices. Borland is a tenacious defender that never plays tentative. Moving him to the middle linebacker spot appears to be a smart move by Wisconsin, as nobody works harder or is more intelligent at his job than Borland. The Badgers survived without Borland last season, but rest assured that they don't want to try and do it again.
Others to Note
RB James White — Last season's crucial X-factor for UW that created a headache for opponents is back. Defenses can do everything right to stop him — and he will still find a way to bust a big play.
RT Josh Oglesby — Coming back from his sixth major knee surgery, Oglesby showed few signs of slowing down. Only missing a practice when the coaches made him rest on double days, Oglesby grinded through camp, showing his toughness along the way.
RB Melvin Gordon — When you are only one of four true freshman to be slotted into playing this year, you know you're doing something right. Gordon is a rising star and could have the same impact in the Wisconsin backfield that White had last season.
DE Louis Nzegwu — Adding pounds to his frame and building his body, Nzegwu has emerged as a legitimate pass rushing threat off the end for Wisconsin. Will he equal J.J. Watt's numbers from a season ago? Doubtful, but he may come close, especially with the speed and the hand technique he possesses.
Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!
For more Badger sports news, notes and discussion, especially on game day, follow Badger Nation on Twitter @TheBadgerNation