Wisconsin’s spring football practices are less than three weeks away, which means we’ll have our first opportunity soon to see how players have progressed since last season ended. And given the personnel changes at several positions, particularly on defense, there are bound to be some new faces occupying key roles.
With that in mind, here is a list of five early leaders for breakout candidates in 2018:
DE Isaiahh Loudermilk
Isaiahh Loudermilk is a massive individual at 6-foot-7 and 306 pounds. But he pairs that size with tremendous skill, which allowed him to earn significant reps as a redshirt freshman. Loudermilk played in 11 games and finished with 11 tackles and 1½ sacks. Wisconsin loses three senior defensive ends from the 2017 team ― Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih ― so that makes Loudermilk’s role even more vital.
Loudermilk enters spring practice as the clear-cut favorite to occupy a starting defensive end spot. Other candidates to play are Garrett Rand, Billy Hirschfeld, David Pfaff and Kraig Howe. But expect Loudermilk to take a major step forward as he readies for his sophomore season. Loudermilk is a unique weapon who can cause matchup problems for offensive lines.
TE Jake Ferguson
Zander Neuville and Kyle Penniston are the tight ends with game experience, but Jake Ferguson might have the most upside of anyone in the group. And given that Wisconsin loves to use multiple tight ends in its formations, Ferguson could make a significant impact as a redshirt freshman in 2018. During bowl prep in December, Ferguson earned rave reviews from Badgers coaches.
Ferguson ranked as the No. 13 tight end in the country for the 2017 recruiting class in the 247Sports composite, but some services rated him much higher. He was selected for the finals of Nike’s The Opening and rated as the No. 2 tight end nationally. Unlike last season, when Troy Fumagalli was far and away the best tight end on the roster, the gap isn’t as wide entering 2018. Neuville caught 9 passes for 81 yards with 2 touchdowns last season before sustaining a right leg injury in the regular-season finale against Minnesota. Penniston caught 7 passes for 56 yards with 1 touchdown. Ferguson quickly could make up ground and see the field, especially if he continues to catch seemingly every ball thrown his way, as he did during practices.
S Patrick Johnson
Patrick Johnson played early in the 2017 season, appearing in four games before sustaining a right arm injury and missing the remainder of the year. In his career, he has played in 17 games and collected 3 tackles. But with Natrell Jamerson moving on, it’s Johnson’s time to step into a starting role.
Jamerson became a valuable piece after moving from cornerback to safety in his senior season and tallied 51 tackles with 2 interceptions. There is definitely a void there, and Johnson appears to have the early edge on Eric Burrell, Scott Nelson and Seth Currens. Senior D’Cota Dixon is the only returning starter in the secondary, and his leadership will be vital in helping Johnson and the other defensive backs.
OLB Zack Baun
Don’t sleep on Zack Baun, who opened last spring as a starting outside linebacker before Leon Jacobs overtook him. Baun missed last season with a left foot injury he sustained during fall camp. Otherwise, he likely would have been a factor on the field, even as a backup. Baun played in 12 games and recorded 15 tackles as a redshirt freshman in 2016, so he has experience. His biggest competition for playing time will come from Tyler Johnson and Christian Bell. Johnson recorded 8 tackles last season, and Bell had 2.
Wisconsin’s outside linebackers have been some of the most consistently disruptive playmakers on defense the past few seasons. Joe Schobert, Vince Biegel, T.J. Watt, Garret Dooley and Jacobs each found ways to excel under outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar. Bobby April III has been hired to replace Tibesar, who is now at Oregon State, and it will be interesting to see what changes he could implement. But Baun should have ample opportunity to thrive, particularly with Andrew Van Ginkel earning the bulk of the attention at the other outside linebacker spot.
OL Patrick Kasl and Cole Van Lanen
OK, technically this makes six breakout candidates. But Patrick Kasl and Cole Van Lanen each deserve mention here. In a hypothetical world in which Michael Deiter moves from left tackle to left guard, that will free up opportunities for Kasl and Van Lanen to earn playing time on what should be a dominant offensive line. Van Lanen and Kasl each played in all 14 games during their redshirt freshmen seasons. Kasl was excellent when he replaced an injured David Edwards at right tackle during the Orange Bowl. Even if Deiter doesn’t move, these players need to find a way onto the field to spell the starters.
There is always pressure on a tackle to prevent edge rushers from blowing up a play, but both Kasl and Van Lanen possess the size and skill to hold their own. Plus, it won’t hurt to have three returning All-American linemen helping them out with calls. Wisconsin brings back its entire two-deep on the line, which means offensive line coach Joe Rudolph will have plenty of options on game day. Kasl and Van Lanen should be at the top of his list.