Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, February 28, 2018
The good times are rolling for Wisconsin, which has won back-to-back Big Ten West titles and is coming off a historic 13-1 season. Credit Paul Chryst, who has gone 34-7 overall and 22-4 in the Big Ten in three seasons at his alma mater.
This is the last of our 2018 spring football previews.
Last year?s squad just missed making the playoffs, as Wisconsin opened 12-0 before losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. UW rebounded to whip Miami (Fla.) in the Orange Bowl, with Chryst earning Big Ten Coach of the Year accolades.
The offense was balanced, as the Badgers ranked No. 3 in the Big Ten in scoring (33.8 points per game) and No. 3 in total offense (415.0 yards per game). Once again, the attack was led by a strong rushing game that was No. 3 in the league (203.1 ypg). Freshman running back Jonathan Taylor was an instant star, while QB Alex Hornibrook continued to develop throwing to an underrated unit of wideouts. And the line? Well, it was a typically massive and powerful Wisconsin front.
But it was the defense that made Wisconsin special. The Badgers finished No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense (13.9 ppg) and No. 1 in total defense (262.1 ypg). The rushing defense (98.4 ypg) was No. 2 in the conference. From front to back, there was nary a weakness for coordinator Jim Leonhard?s unit.
The staff was tweaked. Wisconsin hired ex-Badger Jon Budmayr as quarterbacks coach. He spent the last three seasons at UW, serving as a graduate assistant in 2015 and an offensive quality control assistant the last two years. And Bobby April III is the new outside linebackers coach. April joins the Badgers after spending six seasons in the NFL, most recently as linebackers coach for the Buffalo Bills in 2015 and 2016.
Here are three positions to watch.
Defensive backs: Lots of work to do, as the Badgers need to replace three starters. One guy to watch is early enrollee cornerback Donte Burton. Who will take over at the safety spot opposite D?Cota Dixon? Natrell Jamerson excelled there the last two years. Keep an eye on junior Patrick Johnson, sophomore Seth Currens and redshirt freshman Scott Nelson. The corners could be sophomores Dontye Carriere-Williams and Madison Cone, with redshirt freshman Faion Hicks and sophomore Caesar Williams battling. DC Jim Leonhard does a good job with this group.
Defensive line: The Badgers welcome back NT Olive Sagapolu but lose three senior ends in Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy. The top two replacement candidates have some playing experience and a lot of promise: junior Garrett Rand and sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk. Is there an opportunity for early enrollee Bryson Williams to emerge?
Tight end: Wisconsin loses a Mackey Award finalist and Big Ten Tight End of the Year in Troy Fumagalli. Zander Neuville proved himself last year but won?t be in the mix for spring after tearing his ACL in November, which leaves Kyle Penniston as the only major contributor available for spring ball. There is a chance for young guys like sophomore Luke Benzschawel and redshirt freshman Jake Ferguson to stand out. Stay tuned. Wisconsin loves to utilize this position.
WISCONSIN SPRING INFO
2017 record: 13-1 overall; 9-0 Big Ten/1st West (beat Miami in Orange Bowl)
Spring ball starts: March 13
Spring game: April 13
Key players back: G Beau Benzschawel; C Tyler Biadasz; LB Ryan Connelly; WR Danny Davis; OT Michael Deiter; G Jon Dietzen; SS D?Cota Dixon; OT David Edwards; LB T.J. Edwards; K Rafael Gaglianone; QB Alex Hornibrook; P Anthony Lotti; TE Kyle Penniston; NT Olive Sagapolu; LB Andrew Van Ginkel; WR A.J. Taylor; RB Jonathan Taylor
Key players gone: LB Jack Cichy; LB Garret Dooley; TE Troy Fumagalli; LB Leon Jacobs; S Natrell Jamerson; DE Alec James; CB Nick Nelson (turned pro); DE Chikwe Obasih; DE Conor Sheehy; CB Derrick Tindal