For the second consecutive season, the Badgers return just 11 of 22 starters from a team that claimed a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl berth the previous season. However, the caveat for this year's team is 19 players have started at least one game in their career, a group that provides experience on defense and talent on offense.
Combine that depth and talent with all the other factors - like Montee Ball returning for his senior year along with Ohio State and Penn State being ineligible for postseason play – and the Badgers appear primed for another run at a third straight conference championship. The only problem with that depth is determining who the seven most important players coming out of fall camp.
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 year's rankings in parentheses
1, Danny O'Brien, QB (NR) —Quarterback is always considered the most important position on the field and the Badgers appear to have hit the free agent jackpot for the second straight season in O'Brien. O'Brien will be the sixth different quarterback to start a season opener in Bielema's seven seasons, and he brings with him 17 career games played. While many look at the struggles he faced at Maryland last year, O'Brien has thrown for 4,086 career passing yards, giving him the second-most among Big Ten quarterbacks (Michigan's Denard Robinson has 4,931). O'Brien also has thrown 29 career touchdown passes, which is third in the conference behind Robinson (40) and Illinois' Nathan Sheelhaase (30). O'Brien showed throughout camp that he's a solid, consistent player who makes few throwing mistakes. Wisconsin will need that to continue.
2, Chris Borland, MLB (NR) — Wisconsin held 10 opponents to fewer than 18 points last season, and the defense could be that strong once again if Borland takes the big leap that many people are projecting at the middle linebacker position. Borland was phenomenal last season in so many ways – over 140 tackles and leading the nation's linebackers in tackles for loss – and did that despite having never played the position before. Having a full year of health and time to learn the details of the position, Borland's leadership in the unit will determine whether UW's defense takes a step forward or not.
3, Jared Abbrederis, WR/KR/PR (NR) —On a team that lacks big play receivers, Abbrederis is the unquestioned top target for O'Brien and the offense. The team's top returning pass catcher, the former walk-on has 55 catches for 933 yards and eight touchdowns last season. His yardage total was fifth-best in the conference and in school history. Abbrederis will also be the team's primary returner after leading the conference in punt return average (15.8 yards per return) and leading the team with 24.6 yards per kickoff return last season. Abbrederis finished with 1,999 all-purpose yards, second behind Ball. UW will need Abbrederis' success in all areas in order to be a dangerous, productive unit.
4, Devin Smith, CB (6) — Bielema knows how important Smith is to the defense. Remember? He was the one who said the Badgers would have played in the national championship game if Smith didn't get hurt in the second week of the season. Whether you believe it or not, the injury was an awakening for Smith, who said he plays every play with no fear and attacks the play like it could be his last. It has showed in camp by the way he has played in team drills, especially in one-on-one coverage against Abbrederis. Smith looked primed for a huge season, and set a good example for a guy like Marcus Cromartie to try and follow.
5, David Gilbert, DE (NR) —Wisconsin's pass rush was basically non-existent throughout the conference season and the injury to Gilbert after week four had a lot to do with it. A dynamic player with strength and agility suddenly out of UW's lineup, the Badgers didn't have another player who could step right in and be that dominant presence. Gilbert is not quiet 100 percent yet, but he's close to getting back to his old self. Gilbert, Borland and senior Brendan Kelly will be key to Wisconsin's pass rush being more aggressive and disruptive this season.
6, Montee Ball, RB (1) —Why is Ball ranked so low? How dare you! It's nothing personal against the man who has scored 53 touchdowns and averaged 142.1 rushing per game over the last 19 games, but the five players above him don't have capable backups behind them. Wisconsin's running game is the best in the country with James White and Melvin Gordon backing up Ball. Still, Ball's 39 touchdowns last season were more than 43 teams scored last season and his 33 rushing touchdowns were more than 104 teams tallied for the season. Seriously, the dude can play.
7, Travis Frederick, C (NR) — With three new full time starters on the offensive line, including one on either side of him, the leadership Frederick will provide this year's group will be invaluable. Named a team captain to begin the season, Frederick will be responsible for all the calls on the line and looks to carry on the legacy of Peter Konz, which was never having a quarterback-center exchange issue. The reason UW was so good last season in its wins was a lack of turnovers, a reason why it lost three games last year was partly due to turnovers. If Frederick and O'Brien can match that chemistry, UW will have the foundation for a solid offense.
Others to Note
CB Darius Hillary — With Peniel Jean out 4-to-6 weeks, Hillary will be counted on to man the nickel cornerback role in the Badgers' 3-3-5 defense and step in should something happen with Smith and Marcus Cromartie. He was aggressive during camp and made plenty of plays, leading to the notion that he's ready to compete.
WR Jordan Fredrick – A capable number two receiver despite having not played a game yet, Fredrick had a great camp and could be the hardest working receiver on the team next to Abbrederis. He runs good routes, is a good downfield blocker and is a decent pass catcher. After having a year to really learn the position, Fredrick could have a breakout season for Wisconsin's passing attack.
LT Ricky Wagner — His name was hardly mentioned during camp, which means he is doing something right. A force on O'Brien's blindside, the quiet Wagner was named team captain by his teammates because of his work ethic and durability, which will be key this season for a position that is thin on depth.
RB James White – I proclaimed the other day that White would be the team's comeback/breakout player of the year because I think White could be dominant in the passing game. White has looked very comfortable throughout camp split out as a receiver and catching passes in the flat. With uncertainty at wide receiver, I expect White to be counted on for carriers and catches all year.
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