MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s football program has completed nine of 15 spring practices, and only two weeks remain before the Badgers scatter for offseason workouts. Of those nine practices, seven have been open to the media in their entirety, providing ample opportunity to examine where things stand as the summer approaches.
Here are five observations from Wisconsin’s spring practices:
Jonathan Taylor’s versatility could be a major weapon
Running back Jonathan Taylor put together one of the most sensational freshman seasons in college football history. He ran for 1,977 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. He was a Doak Walker Award finalist and finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Yet for all of his success, there are still areas in which he can improve.
One of those areas is becoming a more dynamic threat as a pass catcher. Taylor caught 8 passes for 95 yards last season but could see an expanded role in the passing game as a sophomore.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst has spent extensive time with Taylor during spring practice, working individually on improving his route running. Taylor regularly caught passes from reserve quarterback Kare Lyles as Chryst watched and provided 1-on-1 pointers for the first 20 minutes. During one session last Thursday, Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard offered assistance by teaching Taylor and tailback Garrett Groshek how a defensive player would react to a route.
— Jesse Temple (@jessetemple) March 22, 2018
In the video above, you can see Taylor has focused on running routes that would split him out wide in a formation. One of Chryst’s main points during that practice was for Taylor to work on driving hard and cutting to generate power out of the break. Later in the same practice, Taylor caught a touchdown from quarterback Alex Hornibrook in the front left corner of the end zone during red-zone drills.
Learning to catch passes is an important step in helping Taylor become an every-down tailback. Wisconsin still has Chris James, who could play an even bigger role on third downs with Rachid Ibrahim gone. But the more ways Wisconsin can utilize Taylor, the better.
Tight end Jake Ferguson catches nearly everything thrown his way
Jake Ferguson has stated his case this spring as someone who needs to be on the field next season. Throw a pass in Ferguson’s direction, and he seems to come up with the catch nearly every time. Check out this one-handed catch he made during practice last Tuesday:
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) April 3, 2018
When spring practice opened, the two tight ends working with the first unit were Kyle Penniston and Luke Benzschawel. Zander Neuville, a projected starter, is out for the spring with a right leg injury. It’s difficult to say how Wisconsin’s coaches will use all four tight ends on the field, but Ferguson presents an enticing option. He is reminiscent of Troy Fumagalli in the sense that he’s a big body with strong route running and catching ability. All Ferguson generally needs from a quarterback is the chance to catch the ball.
Ferguson’s performance thus far really doesn’t come as a surprise. He earned scout team offensive MVP honors last season and was one of the best high school tight ends in the country. Ferguson finished his prep career with 1,795 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns. He also was selected for the finals of Nike’s The Opening and was rated as the No. 2 tight end nationally. The Badgers’ string of high-level tight ends is far from finished.
Offensive line shuffling won’t be settled until fall camp
Wisconsin’s coaching staff obviously has a plan in mind for where the Badgers will put Michael Deiter on the offensive line this fall. But it sure would have been fun to watch the shuffling unfold during spring practice. Instead, Deiter is out this spring while recovering from a right leg injury. Jon Dietzen is out with left and right leg injuries.
Last season, Deiter started at left tackle, while Dietzen started at left guard. Deiter could have declared a year early for the NFL draft but returned, in part, to move back inside and put those reps on tape for pro scouts. If Deiter moves to left guard, where does that leave Dietzen?
Badgers offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said this spring that Dietzen was among several players the coaches wanted to cross-train at multiple spots. But it’s hard to believe Dietzen would plug in at left tackle over someone like Cole Van Lanen, who has been a standout this spring.
Van Lanen and Jason Erdmann, who is playing left guard, have been the biggest beneficiaries of the absences of Deiter and Dietzen. Van Lanen and Erdmann have worked with the first-team offense all spring. Patrick Kasl is another option at tackle. Coaches also like center Kayden Lyles, who has played multiple spots on the line in practice. Of course, Wisconsin returns center Tyler Biadasz, who earned freshman All-America honors last season.
Biadasz would seem to be a lock to start next season. Deiter, right guard Beau Benzschawel and right tackle David Edwards — each of whom earned All-America honors last season — are locks to start. So, will Dietzen lose his starting job? Will Wisconsin keep Deiter at tackle? Will Wisconsin have the best second-team offensive line in college football history? The answers won’t be revealed for months.
Defensive groupings are beginning to take shape
The biggest question facing Wisconsin as spring practice began was what the defense would look like. The Badgers lost their starting defensive ends, starting outside linebackers and three of four starters in the secondary off the team from last season. Through nine practices, however, we have a pretty good indication of a possible starting lineup.
Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand have been starting defensive ends, with Olive Sagapolu at nose guard. Rand moved from nose guard to end in an effort to see the field more. Aaron Vopal has worked his way in as a reserve defensive end and could see significant time. Freshman Bryson Williams already has established himself as Sagapolu’s backup and is positioning himself to take over as the starter in 2019.
The inside linebacker pairing of T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly is no surprise. Neither is seeing Andrew Van Ginkel as one of the starting outside linebackers. Van Ginkel was a menace late last season. Zack Baun has been working with the first-team defense opposite Van Ginkel. Baun missed last season with a foot injury but provides strength and quickness off the edge. Tyler Johnson earned first-team reps when Baun was out last week with an illness. Baun sustained an apparent left foot injury Friday during Wisconsin’s scrimmage, and the severity is not known.
The real competition for playing time is taking place in the secondary. With D’Cota Dixon out this spring (right shoulder), Patrick Johnson and Scott Nelson have been earning the bulk of the first-team snaps on defense. Nelson, who redshirted last season as a freshman, should play a ton. He is constantly around Dixon, picking his brain and learning the playbook.
Dontye Carriere-Williams figures to be one of the starting cornerbacks. He returned to practice in a limited capacity last week after being sidelined with an abdominal injury. Madison Cone has a chance to earn the other starting spot. But Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams also continue to push for playing time. Hicks had 2 interceptions during one practice and nearly picked off a third during red-zone drills.
Wisconsin’s early enrollees have serious talent
Watching the Badgers’ five freshmen enrollees go through spring practice certainly helps put in perspective the value of graduating from high school early. That option isn’t for everyone, but it does provide a great opportunity to learn the college system — and potentially set the stage for immediate playing time.
The five early enrollees are nose guard Bryson Williams, cornerback Donte Burton, safety Reggie Pearson Jr., wide receiver Taj Mustapha and wide receiver Aron Cruickshank. Pearson is a prime redshirt candidate as a number of safeties are ahead of him. Mustapha likely will redshirt as well, but he has a nice frame and already has flashed his potential. Check out this catch he made during spring practice:
We've got some new faces with us this spring. Meet one of our early enrollees, @taj_m22.
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) March 19, 2018
Williams looks the part of somebody who should see the field in 2018 and already is slotted in as the backup nose guard. It will be interesting to see whether Burton or Cruickshank can work their way onto the field as well this season, although there is a glut of players ahead of both.
Burton is battling for the fourth cornerback spot but could require a redshirt season. With Dontye Carriere-Williams, Madison Cone, Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams in the mix, there is a lot of talent at the position.
Cruickshank has such an interesting skill set and fits in as a slot receiver and a kick return man. Of course, Wisconsin already has four established receivers. He’s listed on the roster at just 152 pounds and is the lightest player on the team. But you can’t teach speed, and Cruickshank has plenty of it.
“He is straight lightning,” Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “I’m excited to see what he can do for us this year.”