Hayden Rucci/Twitter
Tight end Hayden Rucci, a Wisconsin commit, is part of a 2019 recruiting class that ranks No. 3 nationally.

Wisconsin mailbag: Predicting 2019 recruiting class rank; odds QB Graham Mertz stands pat

Jesse Temple

Have Wisconsin football, basketball or recruiting questions? We’ve got answers. Join us every Wednesday for the Land of 10 Wisconsin mailbag to talk all things Badgers. This week, we discuss where Wisconsin’s 2019 football recruiting class could rank, whether quarterback Graham Mertz could flip his Badgers commitment, where things stand with basketball recruiting for 2018, the player with the most disappointing basketball season, late-arriving student sections and how Wisconsin’s admissions standards compare to other Big Ten schools.

Question 1

Answer: Wisconsin’s 2019 football recruiting class currently ranks No. 3 in the country in the 247Sports composite, behind only Georgia and Miami. That mark obviously is the byproduct of having eight early commitments, four of whom are 4-star prospects: tackles Logan Brown and Joe Tippmann, quarterback Graham Mertz and tight end Hayden Rucci. But Wisconsin’s national ranking is definitely going to fall before all the classes shake out a year from now.

Nonetheless, I believe this will be the best recruiting class in the online-ranking era. Wisconsin has never ranked higher than No. 30 since 2002, and there’s no reason to believe the Badgers shouldn’t crack the 20s when this cycle is complete. Wisconsin has had four 4-star recruits only once before. I’d expect a handful of other 4-star recruits to potentially join the class.

Wisconsin clearly is beginning to attract a higher-caliber player without sacrificing the values that matter to the program. Maybe this is the start of something big for the Badgers, who could use the 2019 class as a baseline for expectations moving forward. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Question 2

Answer: At this stage of the game, I’d say no. Most of you who regularly read my mailbags, recruiting notebooks and features know that I spoke to Mertz and his father last month. Both of them reaffirmed Graham’s commitment to Wisconsin. Now, I suspect neither of them would admit to wavering when speaking with a reporter who covers Wisconsin football.

On the other hand, I genuinely believe Wisconsin is the place where Mertz wants to be. He has a great relationship with Jon Budmayr, who was promoted to quarterbacks coach when Wisconsin added its 10th assistant. The value of those relationships can’t be overstated. Wisconsin was one of the first schools to identify Mertz’s talent and he really could be a game changer for the Badgers, who rarely land a quarterback of his caliber.

The real question here is whether something will change in the next 10 months before the December early signing period. The 247Sports composite ranks Mertz the No. 9 pro-style quarterback in the class. Some of the best college football programs are suddenly wooing him. Since he committed to Wisconsin on Oct. 8, Mertz has collected 11 known scholarship offers from Michigan, Ohio State, Ole Miss, Georgia, Missouri, LSU, Arizona State, Oklahoma State, Iowa, Miami and Alabama. The Iowa, Miami and Alabama offers came during the past week.

The only reason I could see Mertz changing his mind is if he decides he wants to play in more of a spread-based offense, which is what his high school team runs. But Wisconsin’s pro-style offense obviously more closely resembles what teams run in the NFL. And a player with Mertz’s skill could thrive in that system at Wisconsin.

The Badgers have shown in recent years that their starting quarterbacks earn NFL opportunities. Scott Tolzien has been in the league since 2011 and has started four games. Russell Wilson is a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback. And Joel Stave has bounced around teams and is on the New York Jets practice squad. Given how well Wisconsin has recruited for the 2019 class, Mertz could be a part of something special. And if he lives up to expectations, Wisconsin could provide a smooth path to the pros.

Question 3

Answer: I don’t think Wisconsin will stop its recruiting pursuits until it adds at least one more player in the 2018 class. Badgers assistant Howard Moore has been extremely busy on the recruiting front. He visited the Chicago area on Tuesday, watched point guard Tai Strickland play in Florida on Wednesday and watched shooting guard Brian Wright-Kinsey play in Massachusetts on Saturday. So far, the only known scholarship offer out to an uncommitted prospect in the class is to Strickland, who earned one after Moore saw him in person.

I’ve said this before, but Wisconsin’s best bet to land another player is finding an undervalued prospect with only a handful of Division I scholarship. Strickland, for example, holds offers from Wisconsin, Boston College, South Florida, Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay. But he’s only beginning to gain more exposure. Wright-Kinsey doesn’t have any offers. He did score 22 first-half points and finished with 26 in the game Moore watched.

Wisconsin isn’t going to hand out scholarship offers just because the program needs a player. The Badgers will take their time evaluating prospects and only offer if they believe there is a good fit. Coaches will continue to monitor some late-blooming seniors, prep school players and potential graduate transfers.

Wisconsin seems to be keen on adding a guard, given that the two committed 2018 players are in the front court. If it’s a point guard, that could impact the recruitment of 2019 prospect DJ Carton, the No. 4 point guard in the country. But it makes little sense for Wisconsin to bank a scholarship given how many will be available in 2019.

As it stands, there would be five scholarship seniors on the roster next season: Ethan Happ, Khalil Iverson, Andy Van Vliet, Alex Illikianen and Charlie Thomas. In a hypothetical world in which someone like Van Vliet transfers after this season, it would free up another scholarship for the 2018 class.

Question 4

Answer: I talked to Tai Strickland on Sunday, and he’s definitely at least interested in Wisconsin. Strickland is a 6-foot-2, 180-pound point guard who has really begun to gain the attention of several schools in the past few weeks. He will almost certainly earn more scholarship offers when his high school season finishes. But when Moore watched Strickland last week and offered him a scholarship, it was a big deal to him.

“I was really excited,” Strickland told Land of 10. “They’ve had a great tradition. They’ve been pretty good the last couple years. They’ve had a down year this year. But I feel like it’s a great program, so it’ll be on the rise.

“Coach Moore, he came to the school during the day, met some of my teachers, talked to some of my guidance counselors. It shows he’s doing his homework on me. He’s checking on my grades and all that. It was just great to see because he was showing that he cares. He was putting his time into watching me. That went a long way.”

Strickland said he hasn’t yet begun to line up official visits because his team is in the midst of the playoffs. But he seems like the type of player who could help Wisconsin as a true point guard. He is versatile and can score, rebound and pass. Earlier this month, Strickland recorded a triple-double with 35 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. And he plays for a winning program at St. Petersburg (Fla.) High, which is 21-5.

“I’m definitely just a do-it-all point guard,” Strickland said. “I lead the team. I make plays for others. I can score. And I definitely play defense and rebound, so I can do everything.

“There’s a lot of people that can score. But when you can score and then you’re doing everything on the opposite end, it really sets you apart from other people.”

As for your question on Wisconsin’s potential NCAA Tournament seed after winning the Big Ten Tournament, get back to me if the Badgers make it to the weekend. Right now, avoiding a finish in the 11-14 range and getting a Day 1 bye would an accomplishment in itself.

Question 5

Answer: I’m basing this response on preseason expectations. For that reason, I have to go with forward Van Vliet. Badgers coach Greg Gard was very complimentary of Van Vliet before the season began, and it appeared he was ready to be a major contributor. When Van Vliet scored 18 points in the season opener and 13 points in the second game, he seemed in position to be the second scorer Happ and the rest of the team desperately needed.

But then the competition ratcheted up against Xavier and Baylor, and Van Vliet was not ready. He lost his starting spot in the fifth game of the season against UCLA. Van Vliet hasn’t played more than 6 minutes in any game the rest of the way. He hasn’t even entered the game 15 times.

The problem with Van Vliet isn’t his shooting (8 of 15 3-point shots made in limited duty). But Van Vliet hasn’t demonstrated the toughness and defensive intensity necessary to consistently see the court. It’s been disheartening for Badgers fans because Van Vliet is a player with as much offensive promise as anybody on the roster.

The other two candidates here are Charlie Thomas and Alex Illikainen. There’s a certain expectation level that just because a player has been in the program for a few years that he should automatically make huge strides. That hasn’t been the case for those two. Thomas is averaging a point per game, while Illikainen is averaging less than that. Both of those players can still have an impact, but it probably won’t be in the way that fans once envisioned.

Question 6

Answer: Wisconsin’s spring practice will begin March 13, with the spring game Friday, April 13. That’s a pretty condensed schedule for Wisconsin, which will play its spring game more than a week earlier than the previous three years. This marks the second consecutive year in which the game takes place on a Friday. Here’s a look at other recent spring game dates for Wisconsin:

  • 2017: April 21
  • 2016: April 23
  • 2015: April 25
  • 2014: April 12
  • 2013: April 20
  • 2012: April 28
  • 2011: April 23

Question 7

Answer: Badgers linebacker Arrington Farrar suggested during a UW athletic board meeting last week that students be allowed into the stadium on a first-come, first-serve basis, which would provide reason for them to arrive earlier. Beyond that idea, I’m not sure what else Wisconsin can actually do to prevent the late-arriving student section — a particularly noticeable issue for 11 a.m. games with an underwhelming opponent on the schedule.

I don’t see how anyone could enforce punishment on students for arriving after kickoff. Ticket holders are free to show up whenever they want. Revoking those season ticket privileges for arriving in the second quarter instead of the first quarter doesn’t seem feasible.

In a perfect world, it would be great if students filled the stadium in time for kickoff. But at least Wisconsin’s students generally are there at some point, particularly when Jump Around approaches. It beats going back to the 1980s, when the on-field product was terrible and 20,000 people showed up inside the entire stadium.

Question 8

Answer: I wrote a column about this topic back in December 2014, right after Gary Andersen left Wisconsin to become coach at Oregon State. At the time, Andersen’s decision to make a backward career move was seen as stunning. And given his 7-23 record over the next 2 1/2 seasons in Corvallis, it was perhaps not his best decision. But one of the reasons Andersen left Wisconsin was because of his inability to get some prospects admitted into school.

Badgers athletics director Barry Alvarez told the Wisconsin State Journal that Andersen was “really bothered” that Sun Prairie (Wis.) defensive tackle Craig Evans committed to Wisconsin but flipped his commitment to Michigan State when it seemed likely he would not be admitted in Madison. Other known academic issues led to linebacker Mohamed Barry changing his commitment from Wisconsin to Kansas State and wide receiver Chris Jones flipping to Toledo.

In that column, I compared Wisconsin’s admissions standards to those at Ohio State, Michigan State and Nebraska. Here’s what I wrote:

At Wisconsin, 13 high school credits must be considered “core college preparatory” classes (four years of English, three years of math, three years of natural science and three years of social science). However, unlike other institutions, Wisconsin also requires an additional four electives, which can include foreign language, fine arts, computer science or other academic areas. That last addition very well could be the difference between landing some talented prospects with marginal coursework.

Nebraska requires 14 of those so-called “core” units, adding a fourth year of math. But the school only asks for two other units coming from a foreign language for a total of 16 academic course units. Ohio State’s minimum course unit requirement also is 16, while Michigan State’s is only 14.

At Wisconsin? That number is, at minimum, 17.

Oregon State, meanwhile, requires 15 units of academic courses for admission. Like Wisconsin, the same 13 core credits are needed, but only two additional credits for a foreign language are necessary.

In other words, there is validity to the notion that Wisconsin doesn’t admit some students who might wind up at rival Big Ten schools. But the Badgers have shown in recent years that they can win as much as any program in the conference across multiple sports.

Have a question about Wisconsin football, basketball or recruiting? Tweet us @Landof10Badgers and we’ll try to answer your question in a future mailbag. Check to see if your question already was answered by reading previous Wisconsin mailbags here.