A disappointing 2020 season has Wisconsin looking to turn the page and climb back to the top of the Big Ten Conference West Division.
A bevy of juniors and seniors opted to return to Madison instead of making the leap to the NFL, and those players will be crucial in keeping the Badgers' defense among the top 10 in the nation in scoring and total yards allowed, as well as improving an offense that averaged its lowest scoring output (25.1 points per game) since 2004.
Head coach Paul Chryst improved to 5–1 in bowl games as the Badgers' top man last season, but he had to overhaul his staff after three assistant coaches left for new gigs. Wisconsin will have new coaches leading the quarterbacks, running backs, defensive linemen and cornerbacks this season.
Previewing Wisconsin's Offense for 2021
After a stellar debut in which he tied a school record with five touchdown passes, sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz struggled over the team's final six games. He completed just 56.9 percent of his passes, throwing four touchdowns and five interceptions as the Badgers eked out a 3–3 record over that stretch. Mertz will have all his top receiving threats back in senior receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor, sophomore receiver Chimere Dike and senior tight end Jake Ferguson. Ferguson led the team with four receiving touchdowns in 2020 and likely would've been drafted had he chosen to leave for the NFL.
As part of the coaching staff shakeup, Chryst will assume QB coaching duties and call plays for the Badgers, roles he's held multiple times before with the program. Associate head coach Joe Rudolph called plays in 2020 as Wisconsin struggled to generate big plays, averaging 4.9 yards per play, which ranked 11th in the Big Ten.
The Badgers believe they have another workhorse tailback in redshirt freshman Jalen Berger after he led the team with 301 yards and averaged five yards per carry in four games. But in Wisconsin's run-heavy scheme, having a stable of backs has always been preferred, and the Badgers have little experience behind Berger.
"If Julius (Davis), if Isaac (Guerendo) come along like we think they can and are capable of, you think you might have good depth (at running back)," Chryst said.
After an average year from the offensive line, a step up may come from former five-star recruit Logan Brown if he makes his way to the starting lineup. Five-star freshman tackle Nolan Rucci, the star of the 2021 recruiting class, could also push for snaps.
Previewing Wisconsin's Defense for 2021
Wisconsin's biggest win of the offseason thus far is keeping defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard in Madison. After serious talks with the Green Bay Packers regarding their defensive coordinator position, Leonhard opted to remain with the Badgers.
Wisconsin led the Big Ten in total defense last season, allowing 299.9 yards per game, and had the No. 9 scoring defense in the nation (17.4 points per game allowed). The defensive unit loses three starters, with Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand both departing from the defensive line. That group will need freshmen Cade McDonald (two games played) and James Thompson Jr. (one) to step into expanded roles. Oregon transfer Isaac Townsend could also play a factor.
Inside linebackers Jack Sanborn (52 tackles) and Leo Chenal (46) became one of the Big Ten's best duos last season and added significant pass rush up the middle. Chenal tallied a team-best three sacks and seven quarterback hurries, while Sanborn had one sack and five hurries. After starting each game of his freshman season, outside linebacker Nick Herbig is looking to become a more productive pass rusher. He notched just one sack and two hurries.
NFL veteran Hank Poteat was brought on staff to coach the cornerbacks, a group that kept starters Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams. No cornerbacks recorded interceptions for the Badgers last season, so improving their ability to make plays on the ball is crucial for Wisconsin.
Previewing Wisconsin's Specialists for 2021
After transferring from Division III University of Dubuque, punter Andy Vujnovich earned a scholarship, pinning 13 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line and averaging 41.6 yards per try.
Collin Larsh made 5-of-7 field-goal tries last season, missing both his attempts of more than 40 yards. The Badgers are 4-for-14 on field goals of more than 40 yards over the past three seasons, so Larsh may have competition for his spot from sophomore kickoff specialist Jack Van Dyke.
Freshman Devin Chandler showed flashes of being an explosive return man, including a 59-yard return in the Duke's Mayo Bowl win over Wake Forest.
The Badgers' chances at winning the Big Ten West and perhaps making their first appearance in the College Football Playoff rest with Mertz. With an experienced defense in tow and direct coaching from Chryst, Mertz should have what he needs to take a step forward and avoid the turnovers that doomed the Badgers in losses to Northwestern and Indiana in 2020. Wisconsin will need Mertz to elevate some new faces on offense while the defense keeps it in games.
National Ranking: 13
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