MADISON - Rather than going through press conferences and other media-required events, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst would prefer to sit quietly in a room and watch film. That’s not to say he hasn’t learned a few tricks since returning to his alma mater.
Getting some helpful pointers from Wisconsin’s athletic communication staff, Chryst said he needs to act excited when he is excited. With that thought, it was hard to deny that the first-year head coach was ready to get his team on the field for the first day of fall practice this morning at 10:15 a.m.
“I've enjoyed continuing to get to know this team,” said Chryst. “As I think about our team right now, much like probably every team in America, you've got different tiers or categories of guys, and right now I think we've got a group of players that have played a lot of football and started and won a lot of games.
“The one thing I've always been impressed with particularly here with the group of guys that there are guys that will get better, have gotten better this summer, and I'm anxious to see who those guys are. We've got a chance with a bunch of players coming together and form the team that we're going to be. Training camp is kind of the last phase before the season gets going, and we couldn't be more excited to start practice.”
Following our position by position breakdown, BadgerNation gives its most important question that needs to be answered for every position.
Quarterback: Who will win the backup job?
Fifth-year senior quarterback Joel Stave will start the season opener but what happens if UW needs another quarterback to fill in? Junior quarterback Bart Houston (aka the pocket passer) said Sunday that he feels great and really progressed over the summer under Chryst’s tutelage. Redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins (aka the dual threat) continues to look more and more polished the longer he’s in the program. Houston has held the backup job before, so he’ll hold the slight edge in what should be an interesting competition.
Running Back: Who backs up Corey Clement?
Running back coach John Settle admitted that not having Jordan Stevenson in the mix alters his thinking entering fall camp. The four-star running back was expected to have a great chance to be the backup. Now he’s in Lincoln, leaving juniors Dare Ogunbowale and Serge Trezy, redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal and true freshman Bradrick Shaw battling for two spots (redshirt freshman Caleb Kinlaw is the healthiest he’s even been at UW but still not 100 percent).
Receivers: Will anyone outside Alex Erickson be a reliable pass catcher?
After catching 55 passes for 772 yards and three touchdowns last season, Erickson is the easy top option for Stave. Obviously Wisconsin needs more, but who? Senior Jordan Fredrick – extremely limited last season – feels healthy and ready to contribute. Junior Rob Wheelwright had a great spring game and needs to carry that momentum forward into camp, all the while staying healthy. Reggie Love, Jazz Peavy, George Rushing and Krenwick Sanders all have an opportunity in front of them, too. The more intriguing question mark – how will Tanner McEvoy impact the receiving corps on the field?
Tight end has similar question marks with the departure of the reliable Sam Arneson. Can Troy Fumagalli be a 30-catch-a-year player? Can senior Austin Traylor continue show confidence catching the football? Those two are projected to be the top tight end options, but true freshman Kyle Penniston and senior Derek Watt – the starting fullback – could work their way into the mix, too.
Offensive Line: Who starts?
Left tackle Tyler Marz will start for a third straight year and center Dan Voltz said his ankle injuries are finally behind him. That’s good news. The problem Wisconsin faces is who will start at the other three positions. Chryst was blunt Sunday when he said he didn’t know who is starting five are, meaning the first two weeks of camp will be critical.
Senior Ray Ball has been patiently waiting his turn and will get his shot at left guard; redshirt sophomore Hayden Biegel will have big shoes to fill coming after Rob Havenstein if he beats out redshirt freshman Beau Benzschawel and redshirt junior Walker Williams and redshirt freshman Michael Deiter will have the most intriguing battle at right guard. New offensive line coach Joe Rudolph will have to develop capable backups from a pool of players who are mostly redshirt freshmen or younger.
Defensive Line: Can the Badgers develop a playmaking defensive end?
Wisconsin has had good ends but nobody of the caliber of O’Brien Schofield in 2009 and J.J. Watt in 2010. If the Badgers want to create more sacks and pressures, the latter hopefully to improve their porous turnover numbers from a season ago, UW needs somebody to be a pain to opposing quarterbacks.
Redshirt sophomore Chikwe Obasih is the best candidate because of his freakish athleticism, but Alec James and Conor Sheehy are in-state kids from the Milwaukee area who shouldn’t be overlooked. Arthur Goldberg is also an option to play both inside and outside, as is Sheehy, allowing UW’s front to have multiple looks and schemes. I’ll be cheering for fifth-year senior Jake Keefer, who has bounced around between multiple positions and always kept a smile on his face.
Linebackers: How does Kellen Jones fit in?
Talking to Jones in person Sunday, he came off as smart, eager and full of life. He reminded me a lot of Russell Wilson, another graduate transfer under Chryst’s watch. If Jones turns out anything like Wilson, Wisconsin will be in for a real treat. Jones has been a lot of places but hasn’t had a chance to shine in a major role. He’ll be competing for reps with junior Leon Jacobs and redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards, two players who will enter fall as the starters. Jones is certainly motivated, as he didn’t come here for one final season to sit on the bench.
Cornerbacks: Who emerges as the third cornerback?
Devin Gaulden held this spot last season but, like Jones, decided to use his right as a graduate transfer to change programs, moving on to Wake Forest. That leaves the Badgers dangerously thin at the position, as only sophomore Derrick Tindal made an impact last season. The door is open for seniors Terrance Floyd and T.J. Reynard to make an impact in their careers after playing most reverse/special teams roles.
Special teams: Who returns the kicks?
Although Kenzel Doe made things interesting at times, the now Pittsburgh Steelers rookie made some big plays in the return game. Erickson is the most logical, consistent option but do the Badgers want to expose their best receiver to blindside hits? The Badgers need some younger options to step up on kickoff and punt to prevent that from being an option.