MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s football team has completed seven fall practices, each of which has been open to the media in their entirety. The Badgers have a long way to go to reach the season opener Sept. 1 against Utah State, but the answers to some offseason questions have become clearer.
Here’s a look at 10 observations from the first week of fall camp:
1. Tight end Troy Fumagalli will be really good.
OK, this is not exactly a news flash. But Troy Fumagalli has been exceptional during camp in a way that makes you believe he really could be the best tight end in the country, as he suggested at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. During practice on Tuesday, he caught two ridiculous touchdown passes in red-zone drills. The first came through two defenders in the back of the end zone. The second occurred almost immediately after the first, as he bobbled the ball and fended off a defender to haul it back in. Fumagalli also caught the first move-the-ball drill touchdown of fall camp on Thursday after a lengthy drive. It’s almost unbelievable that Fumagalli has caught only 3 career touchdown passes. I wouldn’t be surprised if he caught somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 touchdowns, which is what former Badgers tight end Jacob Pedersen had in 2011 with quarterback Russell Wilson at the helm.
2. Leon Jacobs appears to be Wisconsin’s other starting outside linebacker.
Entering fall camp, we knew Garret Dooley had locked down one starting outside linebacker spot. The biggest question was whether redshirt sophomore Zack Baun or redshirt senior Leon Jacobs would earn the other spot. But Jacobs has been running with the first-team defense throughout fall camp, and it seems he could be in line for a big final season. During a pass-rushing drill last week, Jacobs got left tackle Michael Deiter off balance and quickly maneuvered into the quarterback dummy, showcasing his speed and strength. Jacobs was at it again Thursday, pushing right tackle David Edwards right into the tackling dummy. Jacobs’ presence will help to fill the void left behind by Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt.
3. The offensive line will be talented and deep enough.
One of the most newsworthy events to take place occurred before fall camp began, when Wisconsin’s coaching staff opted to reshuffle its offensive line. Michael Deiter moved from center to left tackle, which allowed redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz to take over at center. David Edwards, who played left tackle in the spring, moved back to right tackle, where he started seven games last season. Edwards’ value increases because Wisconsin won’t have the services of Jacob Maxwell, who is no longer on the 105-man roster. Maxwell started the team’s first seven games last season. Edwards also is responsible for protecting quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s blind side. But the Badgers have some options in backup spots. Micah Kapoi, who has played in 25 games with 12 starts, has been backing up Jon Dietzen at left guard. Brett Connors can back up Biadasz, and Patrick Kasl could be a viable backup option at right tackle. Wisconsin definitely has seven linemen capable of playing and potentially eight with Kasl. Deiter also provides versatility in case of an injury because he can play tackle, guard and center.
4. Dontye Carriere-Williams and Lubern Figaro continue battling for the nickelback spot.
Wisconsin’s coaching staff is very high on Dontye Carriere-Williams, who ultimately could win the nickelback job. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said in the spring that Carriere-Williams could have played late last season, but the staff didn’t want to burn his redshirt. Figaro, meanwhile, played nickelback last season after Natrell Jamerson sustained an injury to his left leg. Figaro has played in 38 games with 11 starts, so he is among the team’s most experienced defensive backs. Carriere-Williams and Figaro have rotated at nickelback during the first week of fall camp. Both players should contribute to the secondary.
5. Cornerback Derrick Tindal has been taking reps at wide receiver.
Derrick Tindal has been wearing a dark-colored jersey in practice so he can take reps on both offense and defense. But we don’t really know whether playing wide receiver is realistic for him. His most significant attribute is speed, and he did catch a nice 40-yard touchdown pass last week after he beat a defensive back down the right sideline. Tindal believes he could contribute as a slot receiver or as a jet-sweep runner. Still, he admitted he has a lot to learn if he wants to be a two-way player. Route running and blocking, which come almost as second nature for a full-time receiver, are areas Tindal must improve. On Thursday, Badgers coach Paul Chryst shot down the notion that Tindal would play any receiver this season. At the very least, Tindal hopes playing some receiver in fall camp will make him a more complete defensive back because he’ll better understand the nuances of playing wideout.
6. Garrett Rand has played nose guard instead of defensive end.
Wisconsin’s coaching staff put Garrett Rand at defensive end during spring practice, but he has been running as a backup nose guard in fall camp. Rand played in all 14 games last season and recorded 5 tackles. Wisconsin’s first-team defensive line has consisted of defensive ends Alec James and Conor Sheehy, as well as nose guard Olive Sagapolu. Chikwe Obasih and Billy Hirschfeld have been the No. 2 defensive ends, although Obasih and James presumably will continue battling for first-team reps. Sheehy has played nose guard in the past, but defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield appears to be comfortable with Rand stepping into that spot to spell Sagapolu.
7. Wisconsin is trying out kick- and punt-return options.
On the surface, Wisconsin would seem to have its No. 1 kick return and punt return men in line. Natrell Jamerson returned 12 kicks and averaged 21.1 yards per return last season. Jazz Peavy returned 17 punts and averaged 5.8 yards. But early in fall camp, a large group of players has participated in kick- and punt-return drills. The Badgers could be looking for more production out of their punt-return team in particular. The punt-return group has consisted of Jack Dunn, Cade Green, Nick Nelson, Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor and Peavy. The kick-return group has included Chris James, George Rushing, Jamerson, A.J. Taylor, Deron Harrell, Dunn, Quintez Cephus and Rachid Ibrahim. At this stage, the staff is evaluating who could perform each role best — and also establishing which players could be in line as backups.
8. Quintez Cephus has solidified his spot as the No. 2 receiver.
Quintez Cephus really stood out during the first couple weeks of spring practice, and his fellow receivers have raved about his athleticism, agility and strength. Cephus has endured a difficult last four months since his father was shot and killed in Macon, Ga. But he has used football as an escape and channeled his energy into becoming the best player he can be. It has shown during the first week of fall camp, with Cephus running with the first-team offense opposite No. 1 receiver Jazz Peavy. Cephus caught 4 passes for 94 yards last season, but he could be the team’s third-best receiving option in 2017 behind Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli. Expect him to have a solid sophomore campaign.
9. The starting running back spot remains undecided.
There is still no clear-cut front-runner for Wisconsin’s top running back spot. Chris James and Bradrick Shaw continue to split reps with the first team. During a move-the-ball drill on Thursday, for example, Shaw took the first carry with the starters. Badgers running backs coach John Settle immediately inserted James for two plays, followed by Shaw again. We could see a scenario this season similar to what happened at Wisconsin in 2013, when James White carried the ball 221 times and Melvin Gordon carried 206 times. Both Shaw and James will play a ton, and something close to a 50-50 split wouldn’t be surprising. James’ strength could be his pass catching — a role filled last season by Dare Ogunbowale. James lined up as a pass blocker on one play Thursday before quickly turning around to catch a screen pass. These types of plays could become common as the season progresses. On Saturday, Shaw took carries on first and second down, while James played on third down. But Settle told me afterward that, if the season started next week, James would give Wisconsin the best chance to be effective as a starter, and Settle wanted Shaw to take more practice reps. So, stay tuned for what happens in the next few weeks.
10. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook continues to make strides.
Barring some unforeseen circumstance, Alex Hornibrook will be the starting quarterback for the duration of the season. Backups Jack Coan, Kare Lyles and Danny Vanden Boom have no college in-game experience, and all three players are still trying to learn the offense. That means it’s Hornibrook’s show to run, and he has looked the part early in camp. On Wednesday, Hornibrook unofficially completed 11 of 14 passes during 11-on-11 team drills, including deep completions to receivers George Rushing and Jazz Peavy. On Thursday, Hornibrook led a 14-play touchdown drive in Wisconsin’s first “move-the-ball” drill of the fall and unofficially completed 6 of 7 passes, capped with a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Troy Fumagalli. Hornibrook spent his entire offseason searching for ways to improve, and it should show up on game days this season.