Wisconsin has a new coach (Paul Chryst), but the expectations remain the same in Madison. Led by talented junior running back Corey Clement and a solid defense, the Badgers are Athlon’s pick to win the Big Ten’s West Division. Question marks remain about this team, especially at quarterback and receiver. However, with Nebraska and Minnesota each having their own share of concerns, Wisconsin should make another trip to the Big Ten Championship.
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Previewing Wisconsin’s Offense for 2015
Paul Chryst oversaw some of the most explosive offenses in program history as a coordinator at Wisconsin, but the unit he inherits in his first season as head coach of the Badgers has some major question marks. Start with the offensive line, the engine that powers Wisconsin’s power-running attack. Senior left tackle Tyler Marz and junior center Dan Voltz return, but the Badgers must replace three starters, and the next players in line have precious little experience. Some of the team’s best recruits the past two seasons have been linemen, and the Badgers will need a few members of that crop to grow up in a hurry.
Wisconsin returns a fifth-year senior quarterback with 28 career starts and 21 victories, but Joel Stave has struggled with consistency and is coming off a season in which he completed 53.4 percent of his passes and finished with more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine). The good news for Stave is that he finished the 2014 season strong and he’s comfortable with Chryst, who helped recruit Stave to Wisconsin as a preferred walk-on.
Wide receiver Alex Erickson was a pleasant surprise last season, finishing with a team-leading 55 receptions for 772 yards. But the senior needs some help from a supporting cast that includes junior Robert Wheelwright, whose only reception in 2014 was a 17-yard touchdown vs. Minnesota in the regular-season finale. Tight ends get a lot of love in Chryst’s offense, so sophomore Troy Fumagalli could be in line for a breakout season.
Oh, and by the way, the Badgers have to replace tailback Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 2,587 yards, scored 32 touchdowns and finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Junior Corey Clement will take over as the primary ball carrier.
Previewing Wisconsin’s Defense for 2015
One of Chryst’s biggest recruits after being hired at Wisconsin was retaining defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who oversaw a unit that finished fourth nationally in total defense and 17th in scoring defense.
Aranda has some holes to fill, but he also has some nice pieces to build around. The biggest is junior outside linebacker Vince Biegel, who led the Badgers with 16.5 tackles for a loss last season and added 7.5 sacks. Lining up at the other outside linebacker spot in Aranda’s 3-4 defense will be senior Joe Schobert, who had 13.5 tackles for a loss in 2014.
Senior safety Michael Caputo headlines an experienced secondary that also returns both starting cornerbacks, senior Darius Hillary and junior Sojourn Shelton. The Badgers need more ballhawking from this unit in 2015 after finishing with only six interceptions last season, none of which came from cornerbacks.
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Previewing Wisconsin’s Specialists for 2015
Placekicker Rafael Gaglianone had an excellent freshman season, finishing 19-of-22 on field goals. He made his final 14 tries of the season and was a respectable 5-of-7 from 40 yards and beyond. Senior punter Drew Meyer was terrific as a freshman — he averaged 41.5 yards per attempt and landed 36 of his 80 punts inside the 20-yard line — but is coming off back-to-back subpar seasons. The Badgers are looking for a new returner after Kenzel Doe exhausted his eligibility.
Chryst has a good track record with quarterbacks, which bodes well for Stave. But the inexperience and lack of depth on the offensive line is a major concern, especially since it’s considered the program’s bedrock. The defense should be solid enough to keep Wisconsin in most games, though Aranda would like to see the Badgers force more turnovers. Wisconsin’s schedule is manageable — at least once it gets past the opener against Alabama — and the Badgers should be able to make a run at a second consecutive Big Ten West Division title.