Wisconsin returns eight starters on offense, seven on defense and its kicker and punter when it opens fall camp this afternoon. Even though there's plenty of experience coming back there are some serious question marks surrounding this year's team. Below are the five burning questions for this year's fall camp.
1, Who will be the starting quarterback?
Wisconsin has a three-way quarterback battle on his hands with Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and incoming sophomore Tanner McEvoy all battling for the starting spot. Stave left spring practices as the starter and should use his solid spring to be named the starter in the fall. Stave played well in the spring game - leading two scoring drives - and has consistently improved since arriving on campus. Even though head coach Gary Andersen is looking for a mobile quarterback, which doesn't quite fit Stave's strength, the coaching staff has said Stave has the tools to run the offense the staff wants to run.
McEvoy or Phillips may have some special packages set for them in the offense but swapping out quarterbacks hurt the offense last season. If Stave can stay consistent through out the fall while continuing to improve, he'll be hard to unseat as the starter. Some fans will think McEvoy will start since Andersen brought him in to compete for the starting job. McEvoy will get his chance to win the starting job and has been on campus since June, meaning he should have timing down with his receivers and tight ends. Also can he get the playbook down fast enough? If he struggles early in camp then it will be difficult for him to win the starting job.
2, How will the players adjust to the new coaching staff?
The Badgers had to adjust to all new assistant coaches a season ago and the results were mixed at best. Not one position group had a bigger struggle then last year's offensive line, suffering under then offensive line coach Mike Markuson's coaching techniques and principals before he was let go after the second game of the season. Besides the offensive line struggling, the Badgers offense took a step back under then offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Although the offense has to adjust to another new offensive coordinator, Andy Ludwig shares similar offensive philosophies to former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. Like Chryst, Ludwig will play to his offense's strengths. (i.e. recognizing that the Badgers tight ends can be used as more of a weapon in the passing game then the wide receivers thanks to the depth and talent). It is unlikely Ludwig will be able to get this offense to put up the same kind of offensive numbers like Chryst was able to do, but we will likely see a more balanced offense that doesn't necessarily rely just on the run.
The offensive line should have a better adjustment to T.J. Woods then they did with Markuson. Woods seems like he has earned the trust and respect of this year's offensive line. Woods, like former OL coach Bob Bostad, has similar coaching techniques that are rooted in power and zone blocking schemes, which was what made Wisconsin so dominant in 2010 and 2011.
3, Who's going to start in the secondary?
With the unexpected losses of redshirt freshman Reggie Mitchell and Donnell Vercher, the Badgers secondary depth took a hit, and has open up a door for Michael Trotter, Michael Caputo and others to show why they should start. Trotter and Caputo both started a year ago when Shelton Johnson went down with a broken arm in week two. Trotter made three starts but struggled at times and Caputo got one start against Illinois, only to get pulled because he struggled.
If Trotter or Caputo struggles in fall camp the coaching staff may consider switching Darius Hillary to the safety position. Hillary was expected to start at one of the corner positions this year but that plan may change considering he worked with the safeties during last year's fall camp before he became the teams nickel back. The starting corners should be Peniel Jean and Hillary, assuming he doesn't get switched. Both have experience but they'll need to improve their consistency.
Wisconsin will also need to take a close look at junior college corner T.J. Reynard, true freshman Sojourn Shelton, redshirt freshman Hugs Etienne and junior Devin Gaulden to see who could be a consistent contributor at nickel.
4, Who's the number two wide receiver?
We know Jared Abbrederis is going to do his job, but who will start opposite him? Last year redshirt freshman Jordan Fredrick started, but finished with only had 17 catches for 196 yards and a touchdown. If Fredrick regains his starting spot opposite, he's going to have to put up better numbers and show he can make enough impact plays.
Kenzel Doe is another who could be that receiver who steps up for the Badgers. Doe improved from his freshman to sophomore year and saw the field more. While he has struggled with consistency like the rest of the receivers, Doe was catching the football more consistently at the end of spring and capped off spring practices by catching eight passes for 93 yards in the spring game. He needs to carry over his spring game performance to fall camp.
The Badgers signed two wide receivers in the 2013 recruiting class - Rob Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy. I think Wheelwright has a chance to play early and be a talented receiver for the Badgers one day but I don't think he'll be able to have an immediate impact if he plays as a freshman. The reason I say that is right now he may be just as good as some of the other wide receivers on the roster. Wheelwright also will need to add some more strength to his frame. A.J. Jordan is a prime example, as he was also highly rated coming out of high school but has sparingly played last year as a redshirt freshman. Both players are talented, but need to show consistency catching, blocking and running routes.
If no one from the receiver group steps up to take pressure off of Abbrederis this offense won't be effective.
5, Will the offensive line stay healthy?
The offensive line struggled with consistency during spring practices but that was because the lineman couldn't stay healthy. Wisconsin will replace first-round NFL draft pick Travis Frederick with redshirt freshman Dan Voltz, who shown consistency and the ability make the proper line calls. Redshirt senior Ryan Groy will be given a chance to replace Ricky Wagner at left tackle after playing left guard a year ago. Groy played left tackle a year ago when Wagner went down with an injury and had success at the tackle spot. Groy has plenty of athleticism and he should be able to do a good job of protecting the quarterback.
Besides Groy seeing action at the guard and tackle spot a year ago, Kyle Costigan, Dallas Lewallen and Rob Havenstein should join Groy as the other starters on the offensive line. Redshirt senior Zac Matthias should push Costigan to be a starter during fall camp. Ray Ball, a redshirt sophomore who didn't play a lot last year, should make the two deep on the depth chart and should see his playing time increase if the Badgers can't get over their injuries. Riki Kodanko and Jacob Ninneman two walk on's are currently the top back up to Havenstein and Voltz respectively, which furthers the point on the importance why the starters need to stay healthy (Ninneman was playing on the defensive line a year ago before being switched to the other side of the football because of the injuries).
If injuries do occur during the season I can see Woods reshuffling his line and moving around players to get his best lineman on the field. Of the three incoming freshman, Jack Keeler is the most likely one to see the field early. Keeler can get off the line quickly but at times struggles to gain the leverage needed to win his battle. Keeler could end up redshirting this year but suiting up for every game and traveling with the team similar to what Voltz did a year ago for the Badgers.
If Wisconsin can't get healthy or avoid injuries during the season, it won't matter whom the quarterback is since he'll be under pressure through out the game.