Wisconsin’s spring practice season gets underway Tuesday, and the Badgers will have plenty of questions to answer.
The Badgers are coming off a historic 13-1 campaign that included the program’s first undefeated regular season in 105 years and a victory against Miami in the Orange Bowl. While most of the offense returns, new wrinkles will surely be added. And on defense, Wisconsin must replace several key contributors.
Here are five spring practice questions for the Badgers:
1. What will Wisconsin’s inexperienced secondary look like?
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has a big task on his hands to figure out how to put the pieces together in the secondary. It is one of the most significant questions surrounding a Wisconsin team that will be expected to repeat as Big Ten West champions. At cornerback, Dontye Carriere-Williams is the only player with significant experience. He was the team’s third cornerback last season and recorded 30 tackles with 6 pass breakups and 1 interception. Madison Cone played in nine games and made 1 tackle. Faion Hicks redshirted last season, and Caesar Williams appeared in one game. Freshman Donte Burton could impress coaches and work his way into the rotation.
At safety, D’Cota Dixon is back after finishing fourth on the team with 55 tackles. Patrick Johnson seems a likely candidate to earn the other starting spot, although he played in only four games last season before sustaining a right arm injury. Eric Burrell, Scott Nelson and Seth Currens all will battle for playing time.
Wisconsin won’t have both of its starting cornerbacks from last season in Derrick Tindal, who was a senior, and Nick Nelson, who declared a year early for the 2018 NFL Draft. Safeties Natrell Jamerson and Joe Ferguson are gone as well. Those four players accounted for 131 tackles, 8 interceptions and 43 pass breakups. That’s a lot of production to replace.
2. How do the Badgers reload on the defensive line?
Wisconsin loses three senior defensive ends from last season: Chikwe Obasih, Alec James and Conor Sheehy. Much like in the secondary, there is a big void for the Badgers to fill. Isaiahh Loudermilk would seem to be in position to earn a starting spot. He played in 11 games last season and tallied 11 tackles with 1½ sacks. Garrett Rand could move from nose guard to defensive end to earn more playing time. Olive Sagapolu returns for his senior season as a starting nose guard, and freshman Bryson Williams could win the backup nose guard spot.
Other players in the mix on the defensive line include David Pfaff and Kraig Howe. Billy Hirschfeld, who took time away from the team last season for personal reasons, will not play football this season. Pfaff played in four games, and Howe appeared in one game. Wisconsin’s defensive line doesn’t always earn the credit it deserves because of how many plays the Badgers’ linebackers make. But their role in stuffing the run, pressuring quarterbacks and opening holes for teammates is vital.
3. If Michael Deiter moves on the offensive line, how will it impact the group?
Wisconsin quite likely will tinker with different offensive line combinations during spring practice. Michael Deiter has started 16 games at center, 11 games at left guard and 14 games at left tackle. He occupied the left tackle spot last season to fill the void left behind by first-round NFL draft pick Ryan Ramczyk. But it’s clear that Deiter projects in the NFL as an interior lineman, and he was encouraged to return for his senior season to put more reps on film inside.
If Deiter shifts positions, he could play left guard again. However, that move would impact the roles of Jon Dietzen and Jason Erdmann, who performed quite well last season. It also would open up the left tackle spot potentially for Patrick Kasl or Cole Van Lanen. Right guard Beau Benzschawel and right tackle David Edwards would seem to be unlikely to move around, given that they are coming off seasons in which they earned All-America honors alongside Deiter. Edwards currently protects the blind side for left-handed quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
Wisconsin’s entire two-deep on the offensive line is back, which will create a lot of competition. It will be fascinating to see how offensive line coach Joe Rudolph shuffles around the group.
4. How much progress can QB Jack Coan make?
Alex Hornibrook was phenomenal during the Orange Bowl on his way to game MVP honors. Even though Hornibrook was maligned for throwing 15 interceptions in 2017, there is no reason to believe he will lose his starting quarterback role. After all, he did throw for 2,644 yards with 25 touchdowns. However, Jack Coan has been really impressive during his time in the program and continues to develop.
Coan was an early enrollee last spring and performed well in the spring game. He solidified himself as the backup quarterback during fall camp and showcased a strong arm and solid mobility. Coan appeared in 6 games as a freshman and completed all 5 of his passing attempts during mop-up duty. Can Coan take another step and at least challenge Hornibrook in spring practice or fall camp? Competition leads to more team success, and Coan has a bright future ahead.
At some point in the next two seasons, it makes sense for Coan to use a redshirt season while Hornibrook remains the starter. That will allow Coan an extra year of eligibility after Hornibrook leaves. But if he’s the clear-cut backup, it could make for an interesting conversation with Coan and Wisconsin’s coaching staff.
5. Which young players can make a move up the depth chart?
Spring practice is a time for development, and some young players will show they’re capable of playing in the fall. Three players who took redshirt seasons last year and could contribute are tight end Jake Ferguson, cornerback Faion Hicks and safety Scott Nelson. Ferguson figures to vie for playing time with Zander Neuville and Kyle Pennison. 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 was the offensive scout team player of the year last season and should see the field.
Hicks and Nelson both have a chance to crack the two-deep at their respective positions. Burton and Williams are two of the team’s five early enrollees on campus in time for spring practice. Both players could make some noise during the spring and position themselves as contributors next season.