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Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor has at least two years remaining in a Badgers uniform.

Wisconsin mailbag: How long RB Jonathan Taylor stays, trying to keep QB Graham Mertz, Greg Gard’s challenge

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 how difficult it might be to keep quarterback commit Graham Mertz, whether any inside linebackers could move outside next season, potential impact freshmen in 2018, whether running back Jonathan Taylor will stay for his senior year, the chances of landing forward Drew Peterson and the job basketball coach Greg Gard has done this season.

Question 1

Answer: Graham Mertz’s showing in one offseason combine won’t be the difference between Wisconsin keeping or losing him as a committed prospect. There’s no question Mertz turned heads Friday at the U.S. Army National Combine, which took place in San Antonio. He earned honorable mention honors as the second-best quarterback there, according to 247Sports.

Still, the best thing the Badgers have going for them is that they identified Mertz’s talent early. They extended a scholarship offer well before other teams, and that loyalty could go a long way in the end. When Mertz committed to Wisconsin on Oct. 8, he had only two other known scholarship offers, from Kansas and Minnesota. Mertz dominated during his junior season at Blue Valley North and led his team to a Kansas state championship. He finished the season completing 269 of 434 passes (62 percent) for 3,684 yards with 45 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.

It’s no surprise that other schools have tried gauging Mertz’s interest. He has received scholarship offers from Michigan and Ole Miss since committing to Wisconsin. There are sure to be more coming in the next year. He’ll be an important piece to Wisconsin’s 2019 recruiting class. And at this stage, there’s no reason to believe he’s wavering in his decision.

Question 2

Answer: Wisconsin won’t be moving T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly or Chris Orr to outside linebacker. Edwards and Connelly are multiyear starters inside, and Orr (who has starting experience, too) helps to create a nice trio there. There should be a lot of competition for the fourth inside linebacker spot with Arrington Farrar, Griffin Grady, Mike Maskalunas and Nick Thomas, among others.

Andrew Van Ginkel is an obvious starter at one of the outside linebacker spots. The big question is which player emerges to start opposite Van Ginkel. Zack Baun and Tyler Johnson seem like the early candidates. Baun was in position to start when spring practice began until Leon Jacobs overtook him. Then, Baun suffered a season-ending left foot injury in fall camp. Johnson recorded 8 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and 1 sack. Maybe Christian Bell or Izayah Green-May, who cuts an imposing figure at 6-foot-6, can emerge as well. But there does seem to be enough talent at outside linebacker to prevent coaches from moving someone over from the inside.

Question 3

Answer: I put together a list a couple weeks ago of five 2018 signees who could contribute next season. You can check out the full story here. It’s difficult to predict which players will emerge, but the five I picked were nose guard Bryson Williams (Lincoln, Neb.), running back Nakia Watson (Austin, Texas), defensive end Boyd Dietzen (Kimberly, Wis.), wide receiver Isaac Guerendo (Avon, Ind.) and cornerback Donte Burton (Loganville, Ga.). Williams and Burton are enrolling early and will participate in spring practice, which should give them an advantage.

But if I had to pick one player right now, I’d go with Williams. I wrote about Williams on Monday, and he could be in line to serve as the backup nose guard behind Olive Sagapolu next season. That’s a definite position of need for Wisconsin. If Williams perform sat the level coaches expect, it could set him up to be a three-year starter there from 2019-21.

Badgers defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield hasn’t promised Williams anything and will use a redshirt if Williams isn’t ready. But Williams has set high goals for himself.

“My plan is to get to Madison and work harder than I ever have in my life,” Williams told me. “That’s kind of what my plan is right now. Not even just athletic-wise. I want to be academic Big Ten, any type of things like that. I just want to outwork everybody like I’ve been doing.”

Question 4

Answer: Wisconsin has definitely shown a great deal of interest the past month in Drew Peterson, a 6-foot-7, 180-pound forward from Libertyville, Ill. Coaches watched Peterson score 17 points in a game on Dec. 12. He then visited Madison to watch Wisconsin beat Green Bay 81-60 on Dec. 23. Badgers assistant Howard Moore was supposed to watch Peterson play in late December in the Wheeling Hardwood Classic.

Peterson has put together an excellent senior season in the Chicago suburbs. During his team’s four-game holiday tournament, he averaged 21.3 points per game, as Libertyville lost the championship game in overtime to Niles North. He is a solid passer and rebounder, but his strongest attribute is his shooting. Peterson can spot up for 3 but has nice handle and can pull up on a defender from long range as well.

Of course, Peterson needs to add weight and become stronger if he is to compete in the Big Ten. Wisconsin has not yet offered him a scholarship, and it’s unclear if one is coming soon. But the Badgers do need frontcourt help given that they have four upperclassmen that are forwards.

Wisconsin already has forward Taylor Currie (Clarkston, Mich.) in the 2018 class. Center Joe Hedstrom (Hopkins, Minn.) will join as a walk-on and then earn a scholarship in 2019. I think Wisconsin will use another scholarship in this class, although I’m not sure who else the Badgers will pursue. But Wisconsin won’t take a player simply to have someone else. Coaches will continue to be selective, which is likely part of why Peterson has yet to receive a scholarship offer.

Question 5

Answer: Jonathan Taylor’s passion for academics was well documented during his freshman season, and it’s clear he is a pretty special individual. After all, how many players with his football talent seriously consider Harvard? Having said that, it seems difficult to believe that Taylor would stay all four years if he’s a surefire first-round NFL draft pick.

Players can’t declare for the NFL draft until they have been out of high school for three years, so the Badgers will have him for a minimum of two more seasons. But the shelf life is short for any NFL player, particularly running backs, who only have so many hits they can take. According to the NFL Players Association, the average career for an NFL player is 3.3 years. Running backs have the shortest average careers at 2.57 years. There are plenty of players who produce long, fruitful pro careers, but nothing is guaranteed.

You know what is guaranteed? That Taylor can come back to school after his NFL career if he really wants to earn a college degree.

Question 6

Answer: You won’t hear any argument from me. Greg Gard is an excellent basketball coach, and frankly I’m surprised there have been some fans questioning whether his job is safe. This season was always going to be a challenge given that the Badgers returned only one starter with Ethan Happ. But throw in injuries to D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King, and now you’re talking about losing two of the top four guards on the roster. Gard had no choice but to burn walk-on freshman Walt McGrory’s redshirt and play former walk-on T.J. Schlundt to fill out the guard rotation.

Here’s what also hasn’t helped: the lack of consistent production in the frontcourt. I hear fans clamoring for Andy Van Vliet to play more. He obviously can score. But in order to see the floor under Gard, players must play defense and show confidence. I wrote about Van Vliet last week, and Badgers assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft had some pointed remarks about the areas in which Van Vliet needs to improve.

Van Vliet, Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas haven’t shown the strides necessary to play more as juniors. Some want to blame coaches for not developing them, but recruiting is a crapshoot, and it’s difficult to know how much someone can ultimately help the program. Now, Wisconsin is relying on former walk-on Aaron Moesch, as well as freshman Nate Reuvers, who had to burn his redshirt after five games because there weren’t other viable frontcourt options.

Wisconsin played a tough nonconference schedule that included games against four nationally-ranked opponents. The Badgers could have won three of those games. At this stage, it seems unlikely that Wisconsin makes the NCAA Tournament. But after 19 straight seasons in the Big Dance, the Badgers are allowed a rebuilding year. Don’t forget that Gard led Wisconsin to the Sweet 16 in each of his first two seasons as coach. And after the 2015-16 season, he was named the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year.

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.