Former head coach Bret Bielema was credited with vastly improving Wisconsin’s recruiting efforts over his tenure. After his 2010 class turned out to be one of his worst, as over half the class didn’t finish their career at Wisconsin, Bielema rebounded with a 2011 class that delivered in a lot of areas.
Wisconsin’s 21-member class – Bielema’s sixth - ranked No.38 in the country by Scout.com and seventh in the Big Ten, hardly a class that moved the needle nationally with only one four-star prospect.
But in retrospect, the class produced one of the best tailbacks in school history, a number of multi-year starters on defense and only seven players who didn’t complete their eligibility (that includes one player who left early for the N.F.L.). And this class doesn’t even include the school’s all-time winningest quarterback (Joel Stave), one of the program’s best receivers (Alex Erickson) and a four-year starter at punter (Drew Meyer) because walk-on commitments aren’t tabulated.
Rank this class today, and it’s safe to say that this class certainly out performed its ranking. In our pre-signing day tradition, we look back five years and evaluate the product (Note: three-star tight end Eric Steffes will be a redshirt senior next season after grayshirting).
While the tight end role wasn’t as big of a factor in Gary Andersen’s offense, Sam Arneson was a talented multi-dimensional player during his four seasons. Transitioning from the blocking tight end role to the primarily pass catching role his final two seasons, Arneson was tremendous in 2013 to help UW win 11 games and a bowl win over Auburn. Finishing his senior season with 29 catches for 387 yards and four touchdowns, Arneson decided to retire from football instead of pursue a N.F.L. career.
When it came to toughness, leadership and grit, they didn’t make them much tougher than the safety out of Imperial, PA. UW fans thought they got a gem when Michael Caputo picked Wisconsin over Ohio State and Penn State. They were right. Caputo could make a difference playing up at the line to stop the run or dropping back in coverage to thwart the pass. Caputo finished his career with 244 tackles (106 in 2014), 20 pass breakups, 10 tackles for loss, nine interceptions (five in 2015), five fumble recoveries (four in 2014) and four forced fumbles. A three-time All-Big Ten honoree and a second-team All-American as a junior, Caputo will be a tough player to replace.
I believe Melvin Gordon should have been a four-star recruit coming out of Kenosha Bradford High School. Today, I believe Gordon should have been the first in-state five recruit since Josh Oglesby in 2007. After originally flubbing his recruitment, offering Gordon without the guarantee he’d stay at running back, Bielema stuck with Gordon after the tailback committed to Iowa. The result was a flip late in the fall and setting the stage for a special four-year run.
After taking a medical redshirt in 2011, Gordon started getting more work in 2012 with his breakout game being the 2012 Big Ten championship game. In the 70-31 crushing of Nebraska, Gordon rushed for 216 yards and a touchdown on just nine carries, a foreshadowing of things to come.
Co-tailbacks with James White in 2013, Gordon ran for 1,609 yards on 206 carries (7.8 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns. It was a great season but nowhere close to what he did in 2014. With UW’s quarterback situation in flux, Gordon was the workhorse. He ran a staggering 343 times for a single-season school-record 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns, a staggering 7.5 yards per carry. He embarrassed Nebraska again, running for 408 yards through three quarters that was a FBS record for a week, eclipsed 100 yards 12 times and 200 yards six times, both school records.
Instead of coming back for a senior season with nothing to prove, Gordon declared for the N.F.L. draft and was taken No.15 by the San Diego Chargers. He left UW third on the school’s all-time rushing list, just 225 yards behind former teammate Montee Ball and 2,210 yards behind Ron Dayne – the FBS all-time rushing leader.
A three-year starter for Wisconsin who played in 55 career games, Darius Hillary was a two-time All-Big Ten honoree and a trusted corner in the Badgers’ secondary. He got better as his career went on, as his tackle numbers increased every season while his penalties and coverage gaffes lessened. One of his finer games was this past season at Minnesota, recovering a pair of fumbles that helped UW keep the axe for a 12th straight season. While his athleticism led to 19 pass breakups and a lot of good blanketing coverage, he managed only one career interception (vs. Iowa in 2013).
Another in-state player who turned out better than his ranking, Derek Landisch played in 52 games, matching the third-highest total in school history, with 17 starts. Anchoring the middle of UW’s 4-3 and 3-4 defense, Derek Landisch finished his career with 165 total tackles, including 20.0 tackles for loss and 10.0 sacks. The Badgers went 39-16 in his career, matching the second-highest win total by a UW senior class.
While many felt his senior season was a step back, there’s little debate that Tyler Marz was one of UW’s most successful and durable linemen of the past decade with 51 games played and 40 consecutive starts. A three-year starter at left tackle, and an All-Big Ten honoree his final three seasons, Marz was a key figure in Wisconsin averaging a school-record 320.1 yards per game in 2014. In 2013 Marz was part of a UW's offense that set school records for total offense (480.8 yards per game), rushing yards (3,689) and rushing average (6.62 yards per carry).
After originally committing to Northwestern, @Derek Watt flipped his commitment when the Badgers offered him a grayshirt, deciding that the in-state linebacker was too good to pass up (the grayshirt was eventually increased to a full offer when Steffes decided to grayshirt). Shortly into fall camp, UW switched him to fullback, and he never left. Watt played in 47 games over his four seasons and was a key component in opening up running lanes for Ball, Gordon, James White, Corey Clement and others. UW tried to get him more involved as a H-back, but a broken bone in his foot cost him five games in 2014 and OL struggles forced him to stay in the backfield last season. His best statistical season was this past season, catching 15 passes for 139 yards (had 30 catches for 309 and a score in his career) and rushing nine times for 45 yards (five for 32 coming in the bowl game).
Recruited primary as a return specialist, Kenzel Doe’s ability to return kicks and punts after Jared Abbrederis left was always an adventure. He did manage to take two returns back in his career (a punt against Utah State and a kick against South Carolina) but averaged a modest 23.9 yards per kick return and 9.8 yards per punt. Doe did manage to develop into a halfway decent slot receiver during his career to finish with 42 catches for 379 yards and a receiving touchdown against Northwestern in 2014, earning himself some N.F.L. free agent opportunities.
A solid two-way athlete from Madison Memorial, Jordan Fredrick made an immediate impact as a redshirt freshman in 2012, catching 17 passes for 196 yards and a four-yard touchdown against Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Problem was for Fredrick is that his body couldn’t hold up, as he played through various injures throughout his career. In 2014, Fredrick could barely practice during the week with leg and shoulder injuries and gutted it out for games. His overall stats don’t jump off the page (47 catches, 509 yards and a touchdown), but he played in 53 of 54 games during his career and was one of UW’s best downfield blockers.
The son of N.F.L defensive line coach, and former Wisconsin assistant, Jay Hayes, it’s fair to say more was expected out of Jesse Hayes when he committed to the program. He played in only four games in 2012 and not at all in 2013 but started to see his role expand the last two seasons after transitioning to an outside linebacker role. He played in 25 games the last two seasons and his teammates credited him for bringing a lift to the group.
Easily the highest-ranked player in the class, Jake Keefer was the only four-star prospect in the class and the No.295 prospect in the country by Scout.com. Unfortunately for him, a knee injury his redshirt sophomore season and a position change from linebacker to the defensive line never allowed him to really shine. Still one of the best character guys on the team, Keefer played in all 26 games his final two seasons and contributed 14 tackles to UW’s deep defensive line rotation.
Had he been able to stay healthy his senior season, Austin Traylor’s career may have turned out differently. A blocking tight end for his first three seasons, not to mention a liability as a pass catcher, Traylor worked diligently this past offseason, going so far as to catch 100 passes a day. The results started to pay off, as he averaged two catches over his first five games and caught three touchdowns. However, an arm injury against Iowa cost him the next five games and another two to get re-acclimated to the lineup. With time to prepare, Traylor went out with a bang, registering 47 yards and a touchdown in UW’s bowl win over USC.
There were high expectations for the three-star athletic defensive end out of Chicago, anticipations that didn’t decrease after he was named the UW defensive scout team player of the year in 2011. James Adeyanju never could break through on the depth chart, however, and played in only 16 career games (10 in 2014) and totaled only 10 tackles and a fumble recovery. He looked like he was in line for increased playing time this upcoming season, but he decided to transfer to Central Washington for his last season. He played in 10 games and had 11 tackles (3.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery in the end zone for a touchdown.
Another case of a prospect who couldn’t break though on the depth chart, Ray Ball played in 31 games in his career but never proved enough to crack the starting lineup. He did see considerable reps in the 2014 season against Ohio State and Auburn when UW became razor thin on the offensive line. Other than that he was mostly on special teams. With UW needing his experience this past season, Ball suffered an arm injury in fall camp and eventually left the team.
Terrance Floyd had no major offers and wasn’t rated by Scout.com at the time of his commitment. That appeared to be foreshadowing for his career. Floyd played in 21 games at Wisconsin and never elevated beyond special teams. He only played one game this past season.
A one-time commit to Auburn and Wake Forest, Devin Gaulden eventually committed to UW roughly a month before signing day. Gaulden brought promise of speed and athleticism but he battled through knee injuries each of his first three seasons. After missing all of 2013, Gaulden finally broke through after a healthy 2014 and played all 14 games (five starts at nickel), totaling nine tackles and two pass breakups. But with UW having depth at the spot, Gaulden transferred to Wake Forest for his final season. He played nine games for Demon Deacons and had 14 tackles, one tackle for loss and one pass breakup.
The big surprise in the signing class, Nate Hammon spent his first two seasons at Wisconsin before moving to safety in 2013, playing in 12 games with two starts and making 24 tackles. Unfortunately for Hammon, chronic leg problems ended his career. In 2012 he was diagnosed with exertional compartment syndrome, a nerve condition that causes pressure in the leg muscles that damages blood veins and prevents blood from flowing smoothly back to the heart. He had surgery in May 2013 to try create better blood flow in both legs. By the end of the 2013 season, Hammon’s legs had quit on him. A total of three surgeries to try to fix the problem led to him being advised to quit football.
As is sometimes the case, A.J. Jordan’s career was stunted by his inability to stay locked in at one position. He started his career at wide receiver, moved to safety during bowl prep late in 2013 season and moved back to wide receiver during the 2015 spring season. He played 46 games, made 16 tackles and registered a block punt against Rutgers in 2014.
Having the perfect frame to be an impact tight end at Wisconsin, Austin Maly’s career was halted by concussions and he was never able to make an impact. Maly graduated at the end of the 2014 season and didn’t return.
Coming from small Brookfield Academy, Fred Willis was a raw talent on the football field and a track star. He played in five games his true freshman season before an ankle injury sidelined him for the rest of the 2011 season. By the start of 2012, Willis no longer felt passionately toward football and quit the team.