If there’s a recurring theme, it’s The New Guys.
And if the Wisconsin Badgers’ spring game on Friday has a subtext, it’s transfers. Impact transfers, too.
At outside linebacker, exit T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel and enter Andrew Van Ginkel, a 6-foot-4 pass-rushing specialist out of Iowa Western Community College. He ripped it up as a freshman at South Dakota and was a standout in the Missouri Valley Conference — home to Power 5 nightmare guest North Dakota State.
At cornerback, exit Sojourn Shelton and enter Nick Nelson, a 5-11 hammer who recorded 9 tackles, a half-tackle for loss and a pass breakup in Madison as a sophomore starter with Hawaii.
At running back, exit Corey Clement and enter Chris Smith, a 5-10 whirling dervish from Chicago who appeared in 23 games for the University of Pittsburgh in 2014 and 2015.
And there are plenty more subplots for the defending Big Ten West champions, whose spring game is scheduled to be carried live on the Big Ten Network at 7:30 p.m. ET. Not the least of which include:
How well do all these linebacker pieces mesh?
The massive holes left on the outside by pass-rushing dynamos Watt and Biegel are old hat. Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst went into spring ball with enough good inside linebackers to go about three units deep, but veterans such as Chris Orr and Jack Cichy have been brought along gingerly, while T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly spent the last month or so on the shelf.
All of which has meant a lot of snaps for young bucks such as Griffin Grady and Arrington Farrar, a former safety. Both of them can close in a hurry. There’s a chance one of Friday’s starters won’t even crack the September 2-deep, but that’s a reflection of the numbers, not ability.
How the outside ’backer candidates shake out should also be fun to watch. Garrett Dooley came up big in spot duty last year, while coaches like Zack Baun’s athleticism. Leon Jacobs bulked up to move from inside backer to an outside slot, while transfer Van Ginkel certainly has looked the part in drills.
Can Nick Nelson live up to the hype?
Like Van Ginkel, Nelson is another transfer who was a big fish in a small pond — or, in this case, a small island — having recorded 53 tackles and 15 pass breakups for Hawaii as a cornerback in 2015.
The junior from Maryland isn’t shy about contact, and isn’t short on experience, having already started 21 games at the FBS level in his first two seasons. And he’s reportedly already forming an effective tandem with fellow boundary man Derrick Tindal:
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) April 8, 2017
How much has Alex Hornibrook progressed?
After being thrown into the fire as a redshirt freshman, Hornibrook is a grizzled sophomore now — and it’s his offense, for better or worse. After nine starts last fall, the lefty out of Pennsylvania has a leg up on the offense and a leg up on chemistry, as well as front-line targets such as tight end Troy Fumagalli and wideout Jazz Peavy.
Hornibook’s touch and poise in the pocket complimented the more mobile Bart Houston well last fall. Will backups Kare Lyles and Jack Coan be ready to offer an alternative if No. 12 is banged up or rendered ineffective?
Which offensive line combo works the best?
Spring is also about experimenting, and with projected starting offensive linemen Jon Dietzen (ankle) and Jacob Maxwell (shoulder) injured, there will be more looks for the pups down the pecking order — in particular Patrick Kasl, Tyler Biadasz and Cole Van Lanen.
But the switch that’s raised a few eyebrows is sophomore Michael Deiter moving from guard to left tackle earlier this week as Chryst tries to shore up the biggest projected line gap for 2017 — the loss of NFL-bound blind-side protector Ryan Ramczyk, a first-team AP All-American last fall. Deiter, who’s also started at left guard, told reporters he was working out at left tackle because one of the front-runners to replace Ramczyk, David Edwards, has been battling ankle problems.
Like linebacker, you’ve got a lot of good moving parts here. And battles that might not be settled until well into preseason camp.
How does the rotation at tailback pan out?
Big Bradrick Shaw (6-1, 208) is a known quantity — a powerful ball-carrier with breakaway speed. The only question is ball security and comfort level with a larger workload. That second part may not be as much of a problem, given the early reports on James’ spring:
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— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) April 13, 2017
With Shaw, Smith and a healthy Taiwan Deal, Chryst has plenty of options in the backfield. And almost enough carries to go around.