MADISON – Only graduating 12 seniors and nine full-time starters from an 11-win team, Wisconsin two-deep depth chart has plenty of familiar names on it, meaning few positions are truly up for grabs as the 2017 season draws near.
That’s not to say Wisconsin has everything completely figured out.
Before making the journey to Camp Randall Stadium or tuning in on the Big Ten Network for the Badgers’ Friday night spring game, here are two positions on each side of the ball to pay attention to.
Likely the biggest position battle on the entire roster, Wisconsin needs to find a pair of players who can help fill the void of Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt, two players who flourished in rushing the passer and helping limit 2016 opponents to a 27.9 percent third-down completion percentage.
The Badgers will rely heavily on senior Garret Dooley, who filled in admirably when Biegel missed two games following foot surgery last October. Beyond Dooley is a question mark.
Wisconsin initially paired Dooley and redshirt sophomore Zack Baun together, as the two worked extensively in practice together last season. Baun worked primary on special teams but got an expanded role in the defense in the two games without Biegel.
As spring wore on, Wisconsin has rotated in more players and made the decision to move Leon Jacobs back to outside linebacker, the position he originally started at when he was recruited in the weeks following Gary Andersen’s hiring in December 2012.
With 45 career games played, Jacobs brings experience and competitiveness into a linebacker room that doesn’t have a lot of live reps.
“He hasn’t been out there a long time as an outside backer, but had very few mental errors and made a lot of plays,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “The physicality and the speed that he plays with gives those guys a lot of freedom.”
The inexperience in the room is plentiful and has potential. Junior Andrew Van Ginkel has drawn positive reviews in his first few months on campus as he transitions from defensive end (he has had a pair of pick-six interceptions in practice) while redshirt freshman Christian Bell and Keldric Preston have also rotated in.
This is the group that likely has the most strides to make between now and September 1, but there’s no need to hit the panic button yet.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we have the guys and have the talent to step up and replace those guys,” Baun said, referring to Biegel and Watt. “We are always refilling and rebooting.”
Barring an injury, Wisconsin is set with its starting cornerbacks in senior Derrick Tindal and junior transfer Nick Nelson, who started for two seasons at Hawaii and spent last season on the UW scout team while taking his redshirt year. Beyond those two, the depth at cornerback is a question mark.
With Natrell Jamerson being moved to free safety, senior Lubern Figaro is the most experienced reserve with 38 games played. Figaro played in all 14 games last season and played the nickel spot after Jamerson broke his leg in week two, but he struggled as the season wore on when going against bigger talented players. It was his first year playing the nickel role after coming to UW as a safety, and Figaro looks more polished with the year of experience at the position.
Sharing reps at the nickel with the first-team defense is redshirt freshman Dontye Carriere-Williams, a 5-10 cornerback full of speed and swagger. Coming from a high school program that won state championships his final two seasons and able to run a 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, Carriere-Williams has shown to be a strong presence in the 3-4 scheme.
“He’s such a confident player,” former UW cornerback Sojourn Shelton said in December. “He’s still got some learning to do, but he’s been learning at a fast pace and a high level. It’s going to be fun. He’s going to continue to make plays. That’s what it’s all about. When he gets his shot in the spring, he’s going to be a solid contributor going into the future.”
UW will also be looking at redshirt freshman Caesar Williams, although his tryout will have to be in the fall after missing all of spring with what was listed as a core injury.
In naming quarterback Alex Hornibrook the starter prior to spring football, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst signaled that he had faith in the redshirt sophomore after the on-field performance of 2016. It also signaled that there is clear separation between Hornibrook and freshmen Jack Coan and Kare Lyles.
Coan and Lyles have yet to take a collegiate snap as they go through their first spring workouts, but one of them will be the backup quarterback when the season begins because they are the only other QBs on the roster.
Lyles missed out on development opportunities last year after undergoing hip surgery prior to spring and was rusty during fall camp. He traveled with the team last season during his redshirt year and was partially responsible for signaling in plays, so he has knowledge of the offense. He also spent this past offseason working to make his throwing motion more compact.
Having a strong arm and some maturity, Coan has done a steady job of learning the playbook to the point that the staff can put more on his plate. Both quarterbacks are more of a threat to run than Hornibrook and have received a lot of reps this spring.
“They’re getting good work,” Chryst said. “We talked to them; you guys aren’t competing for a spot, you’re just trying to learn. They’re getting enough reps to where they can learn it. They can screw up, come back at it. I’ve liked what they’ve done. They both have progressed.”
With Jazz Peavy – Wisconsin’s 2016 leader in catches, yards and touchdowns among receivers – back for his senior season and sophomore Quintez Cephus making strong, consistent strides, wide receiver coach Ted Gilmore has a strong tandem to trot out on to the field on fall Saturdays. Things are wide open beyond that.
Next to Peavy, George Rushing brings the most experience and knowledge to the group but the senior only has 18 career catches (12 for 136 last year) and has been inconsistent throughout his career. To his credit, he’s shown to be a deep-ball threat and more engaged this spring. Sophomore A.J. Taylor got his feet wet last year in a limited role and has made a handful of catches coming out of the slot. A former high school running back, Taylor’s speed and ability to absorb contact fits that position but his consistency making catches is still a work in progress.
“I’m hopeful that by the time we get to training camp we feel comfortable with 5-6 guys having a role in some capacity,” Gilmore said. “I don’t think that’s unrealistic. Now it’s got to happen. Everyone has got to own it and take ownership to get it there.”