I did predict that the Badgers would go undefeated after the Michigan loss last year so I might as well predict a back to back 13 win season which would be absolutely extraordinary. To do it last year for the first time in school history was in of itself an amazing and unprecedented feat. To do it again would be monumental and establish a legacy that will never be forgotten when you talk about the University of Wisconsin Football program. I believe that the Badgers will go undefeated into that Nov. 3 game @ OSU. They then follow up the next week with the Michigan Wolverines at home and I think they will probably come out 1-1 in that two game stretch.
They will then end the season by keeping the axe right here in Madison as they take yet another win away from the lowly Gophers. Anytime you have 16 returning starters(9 offense, 7 defense) and two of the top kicking specialists in the country you are going to be excited about the upcoming season. The task at hand for the Badger coaching staff will be to keep this group focused week in, week out. The six senior starters that are gone from last year's squad were vital to the team's success. The 2007 Badger squad is going to have to step up in those missing leadership roles. Nobody is going to replace a Zalewski, Stellmacher, Stocco and Thomas from a leadership standpoint but the coaching staff will have to find a new group of leaders and that is going to be the difference maker this season.
The offense: who will be the standouts...who will NEED to stand up?
Obviously the biggest question mark is at the QB position who by the way touches the ball every down. I think Tyler Donovan showed everyone that he can perform in a big game when he went out and lead the Badgers to a victory against the Hawkeyes in Iowa City. He brings a new threat at the position with his legs. I think it his job to lose to Allan Evridge. Evridge is a big strong quarterback who has to learn the Paul Chryst offensive system in a hurry to catch up to Donovan. I understand he has been a quick learner in Spring ball and if that is the case will compete for the number one spot once training camp comes in August. Tyler can make things happen with his athletic ability and with another year of him learning the system under Paul Chryst he will only be that much more seasoned and prepared mentally to achieve success on game day. P.J. Hill and Lance Smith continue to carry on that running back tradition at UW similar to that of thoroughbred champions that have come out of sales at Keeneland Race Course in Kentucky.
Chris Pressley who was injured last season at the FB position is back and stronger than ever. He by far is the strongest in the weight room and makes you shiver when he makes contact against a linebacker on a lead isolation play. Luke Swann, the "Fennimore Flash", a local hero and crowd favorite is no longer playing the small town underdog role. He is truly a quality Big 10 receiver and the offense will need to feed off of his determination and leadership this year. If he makes plays like he did last year it will be contagious with the entire receiving corps. Paul Hubbard has the ability to play on Sundays and he showed tremendous strides in 2006. Coach Mason loves the work ethic of Paul and believes he can be as talented as anyone he has coached in the past at that position. Again the WR position will need to make plays for a new QB. The TE position is the most talented group on offense. Travis Beckum is the best tight end in the country. Bar none. He can single handedly breakdown a defensive coverage with his speed and athletic ability. If he stays healthy he will have a very good NFL career. Andy Crooks is a great compliment to Travis and also has NFL potential. He is a better blocker but is also a very good athlete which is deceiving when you look at his physical makeup. He is consistent and seems to be in the right place at the right time more often than not.
This tells me he is disciplined in running his routes and his blocking schemes. The leaders on offense will be at the WR/TE position and they will have to lead by example which is making plays to move those chains. The hogs upfront are a good bunch but a young bunch. They are a talented group that is led my Senior Marcus Coleman. The most attention will be drawn to Left Tackle where obviously there will be a downgrade with Joe Thomas leaving for the NFL. This is not to say that there are not two good young candidates to replace Joe. Jake Bscherer has a year of experience learning the blocking schemes on local boy Gabe Carimi out of Monona Grove but they are both very talented and will battle it out for the starting position come this fall. The man mountains are experienced and four out of the five played 13 games next to each other last year. This is vital to an offensive line because it builds cohesion in their technique together.
The defense: will it be better than this year? Which guys are going to step in and take the place of graduated seniors?
It is hard to say if the defense is going to be better because they lost some key starters. Defense wins championships and they usually do that with leadership. Mark Zalewski, Joe Stellmacher, Roderick Rogers and Joe Monty all provided that for one of the best defensive performances in UW Football history last season. That type of leadership is hard to replace especially if you have to do it with Sophomores and Juniors. Elijah Hodge has a big hole to fill in the middle and will need to go through a little baptism by fire early in the season. On the outside with Levy and Casillas . . . SPEED KILLS! Their 40yd dash times were in the 4.3-4.4 range which is what most wide receivers and defensive backs strive to hit on their times. Our cornerback tandem could be one of the best in the country if Allen Langford continues to make strides by improving his awareness and technique and Jack Ikegwuonu can put his off the field problems behind him and focus on what is important to himself and his teammates.
The two safeties are unknown and unproven and have big shoes to fill in the back end. Shane Carter at FS and Aubrey Pleasant at SS will have to be quick studies because our defense cannot afford any mental breakdowns at the safety position which is many times responsible for preventing the big play. The defensive line will be led by Jason Chapman and Nick Hayden on the inside. Nick, the only senior in the defensive line, will anchor the run defense. He is stout and near impossible to move at the line of scrimmage. He will need to continue to get push on the pass rush to collapse the pocket. Chapman can be special if he focuses on consistency. If he continues to keep his motor running and is relentless on his pass rush he will dominate offensive lineman next season. Matt Shaughnessy has been talked about a lot and this is his year to separate himself from the rest at right end. Kurt Ware will establish more of a pass rush presence than Joe Monty did at left end which could compliment Shaughnessy. If Chapman and Hayden are collapsing the pocket and Ware and Shaugnessy are shaving or narrowing the pocket, it will be a long Saturday for a lot of Big 10 quarterbacks.
Who is your sleeper performer for the team next season?
I think the sleeper performers this season are going to be Elijah Hodge on defense and Paul Hubbard and Chris Pressley on offense. It would have been easy to select the QB position because nobody really knows what to expect at that position this season. I think Chris Pressley is going to add another dimension to the offensive running game. He is another guard in the backfield when he is not running the ball and he has the athletic ability to run and catch the ball like a running back. He is the strongest player on the team and there may be many key blocks that go unnoticed by fans but the FB position is instrumental in the Badger's success in the running game.
Paul Hubbard I believe will be the Offensive MVP next year and a lot of it is due to his character and work ethic. He has worked extremely hard this off-season to improve his skills and will be one of the leaders on the team come this fall. Elijah Hodge as I mentioned earlier has a big hole to fill in the middle with Zalewski's absence and it won't come easy for this sophomore. He will have a couple of learning bumps along the way but I believe you will not see more of a dramatic improvement week to week than at any other position than middle linebacker this season.
Do you feel Tyler Donovan will be the QB, or Evridge?
Tyler Donovan is the quarterback and it his job to lose to Evridge. Donovan proved that he can play on a big stage and he may be the best running QB we have ever had at UW. The QB scramble can kill a defense and I think Donovan now brings this threat to opposing defenses. Donovan has had plenty of time to tutor under Paul Chryst and learn the system like the back of his hand so there should be no excuses mentally where Evridge may be at more of a disadvantage. Evridge is bigger and stronger but not as mobile as Donovan. I do know that it will be a lot of fun to check out both of them this Saturday at the Spring Game.