O’Brien is a long way from his ACC Rookie of the Year season at Maryland back in 2010. A broken arm, an underwhelming on-the-field performance, a bizarre divorce with head coach Randy Edsall and torrid (second) recruitment landed the redshirt junior in Madison. For the second straight season, the Badgers will hang Big Ten title hopes on an ACC transfer. He is undoubtedly the top option on the UW roster and will be playing in the best situation of his career — aka with Montee Ball and the UW O-line. His experience — 4,086 career yards, 32 total touchdowns — gives the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder a shot at returning the Badgers to the title game.
After contributing successfully in his first two seasons on campus, much was expected from the defensive end in 2011. But after a hot start that included three sacks in his first four games, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound pass rusher from Coral Springs, Fla., saw his season cut short with a serious foot injury in Week 4. With some new faces along the defensive line, Gilbert will once again be counted on to become the team’s top pass rusher. Something the Badgers need to improve after finishing 71st in the nation in sacks a year ago without the talented defensive end.
The leader of a reworked secondary, Johnson returns to campus after leading the Badgers in interceptions (4) a year ago. The two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection posted 54 total tackles and 6.0 tackles for a loss. With Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus departing, the onus of leadership in the defensive backfield falls to the Carrolton, Texas, native in 2012.
The rich recent history of tight end play at Wisconsin has clearly continued with Pedersen. The John Mackey semifinalist was named second-team All-Big Ten last season after catching eight touchdowns. The 6-foot-4, 242 pounder is equally adept as a blocker and will be a big part of an offensive line that features three new starters. He has played in every game and should find himself as the next great Badger tight end. Daniels, Beckum, Graham, Kendricks and, now, Pedersen.
This do-everything wide receiver may not be the most physically gifted wideout in the nation, but few players do as much for their team as Abbrederis. He trails only his teammate, Montee Ball, in returning Big Ten all-purpose runners after 1,999 yards in 2011. He is also the leading returning receiver in the Big Ten with 933 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He led the Big Ten in punt returns last season with a 15.8 clip, good for third nationally. Toss in 11 rushing attempts and Wisconsin has one of the most versatile pass catchers in the league.
As a freshman, the 6-foot-6, 322-pound bookend appeared in 12 of the Badgers 13 games. He then started 10 games as a sophomore in 2010 and earned honorable mention all-Big Ten. After starting 14 games in 2011 and earning his second All-Big Ten honorable mention decoration, Wagner enters his final season in Madison with a chance to continue the recent run of first-round NFL Draft picks from Wisconsin’s offensive line. With a great year, he could be the first tackle taken in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The big fella from Big Foot High School in Sharon, Wis., broke into the Badgers starting line-up as only a freshman. He started four games in 2009 before redshirting in 2010 due to a deep and talented offensive line depth chart. In his first full season as a starter, the 6-foot-4, 328 pound hog molly earned consensus second-team All-Big Ten honors after starting 13 of the Badgers 14 games in 2011. He helped pave the way for the record breaking seasons for Montee Ball and Russell Wilson.
With 150 tackles last season, Taylor paced the Big Ten and finished third in the nation in stops. His exploits at linebacker earned him first-team All-Big Ten honors by the media and second-team all-league by the coaches. He has started 26 straight games after missing a big chunk of the 2009 season with a knee injury. He has 254 career tackles and 23.5 career tackles for a loss heading into his final season. He needs 93 tackles to get to No. 10 on the Badgers all-time tackle charts and with a huge season could land in the top five all time.
The original Honey Badger plays with a level of intensity and energy that few players in the nation can match. He trailed only teammate Mike Taylor in the Big Ten in tackles a year ago with 143 stops and was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten performer. But what makes Borland an All-American candidate in 2012 is his ability to make big plays. The former Big Ten Freshman of the Year has 31.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, three interceptions and 10 forced fumbles in his UW career. Look for another huge season from the Badgers ballhawk. With two more productive seasons, Borland will become the school’s all-time leading tackler (451, Pete Monty and 58.0 TFL, Tarek Saleh).
No player in the nation rushed for more yards that the Heisman Trophy finalist last fall and no player in history has scored more touchdowns in a single year than his Barry Sanders-tying 39 total touchdowns (well, officially). In fact, Ball has scored 53 times in his last 19 games. No player in the nation has scored at that pace in nearly three decades. While it would be foolish to think Ball could replicate that performance in 2012, another 1,500-yard, 15-TD season is well within reach for the senior. Nearly anything Ball accomplishes in 2012 will be dwarfed by his Hall of Fame-type performance from last year — even if he leads the Big Ten in rushing and finishes as a first-team All-American.
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