Picked by the league media members to repeat as Big Ten West Division champions, Wisconsin has a lot of work to do to replicate its 11-win 2014 season. The Badgers have to replace three offensive linemen with a young crop of players, find a new reliable option at tight end, develop depth at receiver and replace tailback Melvin Gordon, who finished runner-up in the Heisman Trophy vote.
With the media now being booted from fall camp practices, BadgerNation.com fills out what the offensive depth chart may look like when it’s released next week in anticipation of No.20 Wisconsin’s season opener against No.3 Alabama.
First String: Joel Stave
Second String: Bart Houston
No huge surprise here. Stave was named the starter in the spring and did nothing during fall camp to lose that position. He’s without question the best quarterback on the roster and could be in for a major improvement this season. Not only is he working with confidence in himself and within the offense, he has a head coach with an offensive background who he has a great relationship with. That hasn’t always been the case for Stave with his head coach/offensive coordinator.
The backup job is a little less certain. Both Houston and redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins struggled with consistently in the practices the media saw and both struggled in the only scrimmage of the fall. I think Houston wins the job based on his experience. I will say it’s easy to see Gillins made a big jump in his development over the last year with his passing ability and technique. Combine that with his ability to scramble, Gillins is a young star in the making. He’s just not there yet.
First String: Corey Clement
Second String: Dare Ogunbowale
Clement likely won’t be Melvin Gordon but should be very serviceable this season for Wisconsin. Clement has yet to be a central figure in the Badgers’ offense (he was limited due to injury down the stretch last season) but pushed himself into a leadership role since Gordon left. Throughout fall he has looked sharp, quick and confident with his runs.
A year ago Ogunbowale was buried on the depth chart at cornerback but will open the season behind Clement. The redshirt junior is still learning the position and needs to perfect his craft (ball security was an issue last week), but Ogunbowale is running better now that he was a year ago. Good friends and former roommates with Gordon, Ogunbowle certainly picked the Heisman runner-up’s brain and is better for it. He clearly outshined redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal (likely the No.3 back), junior Serge Trezy and true freshman Bradrick Shaw in camp.
First String: Derek Watt
Second String: Austin Ramesh
The only question at this position is how much Watt will be at fullback and how much he’ll play at tight end. There’s no clear answer because the offensive line is still a work in progress, meaning Watt will be needed for run and pass blocking, but he’s too talented of a player to not have his passes thrown his way in the flat. How Watt is used will depend on the ability of Ramesh to fill in admirably when Watt is not the lead blocker.
Wisconsin doesn’t lose any key contributors from the receiving corps, so this unit should be better in 2015. Erickson is Wisconsin’s best deep-ball threat and the unit’s most consistent pass catcher. The other starting role was a mystery at the start of camp but quickly answered in the first week. Fredrick battled health issues last season, preventing him from doing a lot in practice during the week, and still developed into the team’s best run blocker. Now that he’s healthy, Fredrick has turned into another deep-route option for Wisconsin and can take pressure off of Erickson.
Wisconsin will likely rotate a handful of players at the receiver position, so Wheelwright and McEvoy technically aren’t reserves. Wheelwright has looked like a different player since March and has been more active within the offense (a result, he says, of the confidence his late-season touchdown catch against Minnesota gave him). The work McEvoy put in during fall have led some coaches to believe that he play mostly at receiver. Time will tell where McEvoy will go, but there’s no doubt that his 6-6 frame combined with his athleticism is a weapon on the field, especially in the red zone.
Second String: Eric Steffes, WattWith the departure of 2014 starter Sam Arneson, this spot will likely be shared between Fumagalli and Traylor. Fumagalli is the younger of the two and really shined in spot duty last season, seemingly catching at least one pass per game in a critical situation. Traylor underwhelmed in the passing game last season but worked overtime during the offseason to make pass catching feel natural. Throughout fall, it appeared he has accomplished that task.
The backup duties will almost certainly fall to Steffes, a player whose talent drew the attention of Bret Bielema back in 2010. The 6-5, 255-pound redshirt junior has battled through surgeries and injuries but is starting to make plays on the second-team unit. Again, the workload of Watt will depend on the flow of the offense, but he’ll certainly be involved.
First String: Tyler Marz
Second String: Jacob Maxwell
There’s no debate here. Marz is going to be entering his third season as a starter at the position and, most importantly, has been one of the few linemen who have stayed healthy since the start of spring. Maxwell has taken some really nice strides this camp, even getting a chance to work at right tackle because of injuries. Under Marz’s wing, Maxwell should see his first reps late in games this season.
Second String: Jon Dietzen
It was assumed Ball would be the starter considering his game and program experience but offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph has not been so willing to hand him the job on a platter. It’s been just the opposite in fact. Ball has been constantly pushed by a variety of players throughout camp. The latest is Kapoi – the redshirt freshman from Kapolei, Hawaii. Kapoi took most of the first-team reps in last Saturday’s scrimmage and has been seeing his workload increase since, especially now that Ball is out with an injury. If Ball is healthy, he’s Wisconsin’s best option. If Ball is still limited with an arm injury, Wisconsin’s young line will get even younger.
First String: Dan Voltz
Second String: George Panos
Finally healthy after leg and ankle problems wrecked the end of his 2014 season and spring practices, Voltz has been practicing with minimal limitations over the last three weeks. UW’s coaches probably would have preferred to give him some extended time off to rest his legs for the season but the uncertainty on the line has prevented that from happening. With backup center Dallas Lewallen having graduated, the redshirt freshman legacy will serve as the backup. Panos came to Wisconsin slated to play guard but has been working diligently on learning the center craft the past two seasons.
First String: Michael Deiter
Second String: Michael Deiter
A spot that was open at the start of camp was quickly filled by Deiter, who doesn’t play like a typical redshirt freshman. Enrolling early in spring 2014, Deiter quickly advanced during his redshirt season, a season that was almost slightly derailed when he was almost forced to play in the Big Ten championship game because of injuries. Deiter is versatile and is talented enough to start on any of the three interior positions on the line. The backup spot is a little less certain. Dietzen battled an ankle injury that limited him for a week but returned to the field earlier this week.
First String: Hayden Biegel
Second String: Maxwell or Walker Williams
This is the area of greatest concern. Biegel worked at right tackle throughout the spring and appeared to have a good grasp on the position. That changed in camp when redshirt freshman Beau Benzschawel started to close the gap and Biegel went down with a concussion. As UW’s bad luck would have it, Benzschawel suffered a knee injury shortly after Biegel’s concussion and has been on the shelf. He likely won’t be ready for the season.
At one point UW was down to its fourth-string right tackle in Williams but now he’s out with an injury. Biegel practiced Thursday in a “no-contact” jersey and head coach Paul Chryst believes the redshirt sophomore could be ready for the season.