There are some big shoes to fill in Madison this fall. Second-year coach Paul Chryst has to replace defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, quarterback Joel Stave and wide receiver Alex Erickson and also faces one of the nation's toughest schedules. Chryst started off his UW head coaching career with an impressive 10-win season, but can he repeat that standard in 2016? Finding a quarterback and the performance of the defense behind new coordinator Justin Wilcox will determine how well the Badgers navigate a brutal slate.
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Previewing Wisconsin’s Offense
Finding a quarterback is one of the challenges for Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, but it’s not his only one. In fact, it’s probably not even the No. 1 order of business for the Badgers. The top priority is getting the program’s trademark running game back on track. Wisconsin ranked No. 95 nationally in rushing offense a year ago at 150.3 yards per game, its lowest total in 20 years and less than half of its production from the previous season. Part of the issue was that Corey Clement, the heir apparent to record-breaking tailback Melvin Gordon, was limited to four games and 48 carries because of a sports hernia injury. Clement is back for his senior season and joins Dare Ogunbowale, Taiwan Deal and Bradrick Shaw in a deep backfield.
Another big problem for the Badgers in 2015 was the offensive line. Seven different combinations started, and the group for the final two games of the season included four redshirt freshmen. The good news is that the experience should pay off in the future, perhaps as early as this season, as Wisconsin returns seven linemen with starting experience and has to replace only one starter, left tackle Tyler Marz.
As for quarterback, senior Bart Houston is the frontrunner to replace Joel Stave. But the coaching staff likes freshman Alex Hornibrook, who could push Houston for playing time.
The other major item on Chryst’s to-do list is replacing the production of receiver Alex Erickson, who had 77 catches for 978 yards last season. Tight end Troy Fumagalli will be counted on to take some of the load off receivers Robert Wheelwright, who has had trouble staying healthy during his career, and Jazz Peavy.
Previewing Wisconsin’s Defense
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Justin Wilcox, formerly of USC, replaces Dave Aranda at defensive coordinator. Aranda, who oversaw a unit that led the nation in scoring defense and was No. 2 in total defense last season, left Wisconsin for the same position at LSU.
Two key pieces of that elite defense from 2015 — linebacker Joe Schobert and safety Michael Caputo — are gone. Schobert led the Badgers with 9.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss, while Caputo was a playmaker on the back end and the defense’s unquestioned leader.
UW’s front seven, led by outside linebacker Vince Biegel (eight sacks), should still be strong. The Badgers also have plenty of experience at cornerback, with Derrick Tindal joining veteran starter Sojourn Shelton.
The one huge question mark is at safety, where Caputo and Tanner McEvoy must be replaced. Leo Musso and D’Cota Dixon are the leading candidates to step in as starters, but true freshmen Eric Burrell and Patrick Johnson could have a chance for immediate playing time.
Previewing Wisconsin’s Specialists
After going 19-of-22 on field goals as a freshman in 2014, placekicker Rafael Gaglianone struggled with his consistency last season and was 18-of-27. He did end the season on a high note, going 3-of-3 against USC in the Holiday Bowl and hitting the game-winner with 2:27 remaining. Four-year starter Drew Meyer must be replaced at punter, and the most likely candidate is freshman Anthony Lotti.
The Badgers scored 17, six and seven points, respectively, in their three losses last season and topped 30 points only four times in 13 games. Not only is Wisconsin’s offense still a work in progress, but the schedule is also much more difficult this season with games against LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa by the time the calendar even flips to November. The Badgers have played in a bowl game in 14 consecutive seasons, the longest active streak among Big Ten teams, but that run might be in jeopardy in 2016.