Wisconsin polished off its 2018 recruiting class by inking safety Rachad Wildgoose Jr. on National Signing Day last week. The Badgers secured 20 scholarship players in a class full of talented yet undervalued players. Of the 20 prospects, 19 are rated as 3-star recruits.
Which players have an opportunity to shine at Wisconsin? Let’s take a look:
Most likely to win a Heisman: Nakia Watson
If you’re not a quarterback or a running back, the chances of even vying for the Heisman Trophy are pretty slim. Tailback Nakia Watson will first have to prove he can crack the rotation at Wisconsin, which returns its top four rushers — Jonathan Taylor, Bradrick Shaw, Garrett Groshek and Chris James. But Watson already has earned praise from Badgers coach Paul Chryst, who said that he would serve as a nice complement in the backfield to Taylor.
Watson rushed for 1,938 yards with 27 touchdowns and averaged 7.2 yards per carry as a senior at Austin (Texas) Westlake to lead his team to the state semifinals. He also caught 8 passes for 327 yards and 6 touchdowns, so he brings an important dynamic to Wisconsin’s backfield. Three different Wisconsin running backs have finished in the top 6 of the Heisman voting since 2011: Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and Taylor last season as a freshman.
Most important recruiting win: Bryson Williams
Nose guard Bryson Williams was committed to Wisconsin for nearly five months when new Nebraska coach Scott Frost offered him a scholarship on his first day in charge. Williams played high school football in Lincoln, Neb., and the pressure for him to flip his commitment to Nebraska was immense. Ultimately, however, Williams stuck with his Wisconsin commitment and said he wanted to be a man of his word.
That decision represented a big-time win for Wisconsin, which desperately needed help on its defensive line. Williams finished his senior season with 77 tackles and 3 sacks, and projects as a potential backup nose guard as a freshman in 2018. If Williams performs well, he could earn the starting spot for the following three seasons.
Best ‘can’t-miss’ prospect: Jack Sanborn
Linebacker Jack Sanborn is the only 4-star player in the entire class. And while the star rating doesn’t guarantee success, it does speak to his talent level. Sanborn ranks as the No. 4 player in Illinois and the No. 17 inside linebacker in the country. He earned first-team all-state from the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association as a junior and a senior. Sanborn finished his prep career with 296 tackles and 13 sacks.
Wisconsin is stacked at inside linebacker in 2018, led by T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr. But Sanborn will have an opportunity to learn from the best and then become a force on the field, as he was in high school. The Badgers have churned out talented linebackers in recent seasons, and Sanborn has all the tools to be the next in line.
Most underrated recruit: Alex Smith
Cornerback Alex Smith is the lowest-rated signee in Wisconsin’s 2018 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports composite. But he’s a talented prospect who, at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, has a nice body type for his position in college. Smith committed to Wisconsin in the summer, just two weeks after he earned a Badgers scholarship offer. He also held offers from Army, Navy, Boston College, Cal Poly and Idaho.
Smith was a two-way player in high school who scored 24 touchdowns and recorded 9 interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks tested him often during his junior season because of the respect teammate Mekhi Ware commanded at the other cornerback spot. Ware was a senior who played in college as a freshman at Indiana State. But Smith recorded 64 tackles with 1 interception. As a senior, he tallied 49 tackles and 3 interceptions. Smith helped lead his team to the state semifinals in his senior season.
Most likely to be a captain: Reggie Pearson Jr.
Safety Reggie Pearson Jr. was the first player to commit in Wisconsin’s 2018 recruiting class, and his leadership helped build relationships with other prospects that joined him. Pearson will put in the type of work necessary to command respect from his teammates. Even before he arrived on campus as an early enrollee, he already was picking safety D’Cota Dixon’s brain about how to prepare for college life on and off the field.
Pearson earned first-team all-state honors as a junior and senior at River Rouge (Mich.) High School. He finished his prep career with 355 tackles and 21 interceptions. He’s a smart player with a knack for making plays and will serve as a good example for Badgers players.
Most likely to play immediately: Donte Burton
Bryson Williams is probably the more obvious answer, but Wisconsin is extremely high on cornerback Donte Burton, who is one of five early enrollees alongside Williams, Reggie Pearson Jr., Aron Cruickshank and Taj Mustapha. Burton became the 19th commitment in the class after visiting in late September, and he looks like a key pickup for a secondary in need of impact players. If Burton plays up to the level expected, he could even crack the two-deep.
Burton finished with 127 tackles and 8 interceptions in high school. He tallied 28 tackles and 3 interceptions as a senior, but those numbers primarily were the product of quarterbacks avoiding him.
Most likely to win a foot race: Isaac Guerendo
Wide receiver Isaac Guerendo’s speed and athleticism is ridiculous. He finished third at the state finals in Indiana last season in the 100 meters with a personal-best time of 10.68 seconds. He was fifth in the 200 meters, a runner-up on his team’s 4×100 relay team and a state champion in the long jump.
Guerendo was a nightmare for opponents on the football field during his senior season. He caught 54 passes for 1,258 yards with 16 touchdowns and routinely blew by would-be tacklers on jet sweeps and defensive backs on routes down the field. If he can harness those skills and quickly adapt to Wisconsin’s playbook, he could be a real treat for Badgers fans to watch.