New faces on defense will be the main story for Paul Chryst's Badgers heading into the spring session
The Wisconsin Badgers exceeded the expectations of most college football fans and media members in 2016. Despite beginning the season as an afterthought, the Badgers became a mainstay at the top of the polls, riding their always dependable running game and a surprisingly dominant defense to a Big Ten West title.
As the 2017 spring football season gets rolling in Madison, there are a lot of questions to be answered and holes to be filled – mostly on defense. Can Paul Chryst and his staff overcome key changes and losses in personnel to win another division crown? The spring session may give us a sneak peek at the answer to that question.
5 Storylines to Watch During Wisconsin's Spring Practice
1. How will the defense respond to its third coordinator in as many years?
Yes, for the third spring in a row, Wisconsin will be working in a new defensive coordinator. Softening the blow of this change is the fact that new coordinator Jim Leonard spent 2016 as the team's defensive backs coach. He excelled in the role – his first real coaching stint of any kind. He understands the scheme that helped the Badgers field an elite defensive unit last season. He's also an alumnus, so he understands both the culture and expectations. On paper, it appears to be a seamless transition. There shouldn't be any visible effects of a transition schematically during the spring.
2. Can the Badgers replace lost star power at outside linebacker?
You'd be hard-pressed to find another defense in the nation that lost two linebackers as good as T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel from a season ago. Those two played instrumental roles in Wisconsin's defensive domination a season ago and leave behind some large shoes to fill. The Badgers have depth to replace the two, but it's star power that is the question. Zach Baun, Tyler Johnson and Garret Dooley all bring valuable experience, but it could be junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel who emerges as the dominant star at the position.
3. Can the secondary grow up quickly?
Leonard's success in 2016 was aided by the fact that he had a veteran defensive backfield to work with. The group was led by hard-hitting safety Leo Musso and corner Sojourn Shelton. Patrick Johnson appears to be the lead candidate to replace Musso, while the task of replacing Shelton appears slightly more muddied. Caesar Williams, Natrell Jamerson and Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson should all compete for the job. Regardless of who starts, the raw talent should be there. It's just a matter of replacing the intangibles from a leadership perspective that Musso and Shelton brought to the table.
4. Look for the offensive line to continue to dominate
Wisconsin has become the gold standard in the Big Ten in terms of offensive line play. Despite losing Ryan Ramczyk – the top rated tackle in the 2017 NFL Draft by most accounts – the Badger line should still be one of the better units in the conference. Wisconsin returns four starters, all of whom have all-conference potential. Redshirt freshmen Cole Van Lanen – a highly recruited tackle out of Green Bay two years ago – looks to have all of the tools to become Wisconsin's next great offensive tackle. He's a strong candidate to win the left tackle job, subsequently holding on to it until he leaves Madison. Bottom line: if this unit shows any signs of being anything other than a well-oiled machine in the spring, that could spell trouble.
5. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook's transition into the full-time starter
The sophomore signal-caller had shown promise since arriving in Madison. Last season, the Badgers had the luxury of a savvy vet like Bart Houston to fall back on. That allowed Hornibrook to share time and grow into the role slowly. Now, Houston is gone and Hornibrook is the "big man on campus." Badger fans will want to see him take better care of the football through the air compared to 2016. If he can focus on short, high-percentage throws, Wisconsin's offense should be as efficient as it has been in recent years. They'll never be a program that lights up the scoreboard every weekend as long as head coach Paul Chryst is calling the shots, but ball security is the key to winning on the back of a strong running game and a stout defense. It's Hornibrook's job to manage that task.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Wisconsin in the Big Ten
When it comes to Wisconsin football, success is all in the system. The Badgers lost plenty of talent from 2016, but return an experienced depth chart full of players who know how to execute and win games. The 2017 schedule is not as daunting as the ‘16 slate was at first glance. But there are still plenty of challenges that await this fall. The month of November in particular could make or break Wisconsin's season. Home games against Michigan and Iowa are sandwiched between road trips to Indiana and Minnesota to close out the year. If the Badgers can come out of that stretch with three wins, they'll likely have a good shot at a second consecutive trip to the Big Ten Championship Game.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.