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Wisconsin wideout A.J. Taylor is one of several young talents at the position for the Badgers.

Wisconsin mailbag: Comparing schedules with Alabama; under-the-radar impact player; was Andrew Van Ginkel’s hit dirty?

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 Wisconsin’s wide receiver talent, which under-the-radar player could impact the Badgers’ final few games, how Alabama’s schedule strength compares to Wisconsin, the Andrew Van Ginkel hit on Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters and Paul Chryst’s ability to connect with families of recruits.


Question 1

Answer: Wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore deserves a ton of credit for his ability to identify talent in high school and develop players once they arrive on campus. He saw something special in Quintez Cephus, even though he was primarily a basketball player who was once committed to play at Furman. Cephus caught 4 passes for 94 yards as a freshman last season and quickly developed this season into the team’s No. 1 receiver before he suffered a season-ending right leg injury.

Sophomore A.J. Taylor was primarily used as a running back in high school and caught 3 passes for 53 yards for the Badgers last season. Now, he has become one of the most important receivers, particularly given the injury to Cephus. Taylor caught 3 passes against Michigan for a career-high 79 yards and hauled in his 4th touchdown of the season.

Freshman Danny Davis had as much raw potential as any receiver in the unit, and when he committed to Wisconsin in February during his signing day ceremony, it was a major “get” for the Badgers. He has become the Badgers’ big-play threat and is averaging 20.9 yards per catch. No other player on the team is averaging more than 17.5 yards per catch.

As you mentioned, there is plenty more wide receiver talent on the way. Aron Cruickshank (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Isaac Guerendo (Avon, Ind.) could be the fastest players on the team next season. Guerendo was absolutely dominant in his senior season, and most opponents on the field couldn’t catch him. Taj Mustapha and A.J. Abbott, teammates at West Bloomfield (Mich.) High School, also are committed to the Badgers in the 2018 class.

There is as much receiver depth and talent at Wisconsin as the Badgers have had in years, and the future is bright.

Question 2

 

Answer: I’m going to take a flyer on tight end Zander Neuville for this one. His statistics obviously don’t jump out, but he quietly has caught at least one pass in each of Wisconsin’s past five games. He caught a 28-yard touchdown in the Badgers’ season-opening victory against Utah State and another touchdown against Maryland.

The more Jonathan Taylor decimates opponents in the trenches, and the more Alex Hornibrook plays inconsistent football, the more likely it seems that opponents will try to make the Badgers beat them through the air. Wisconsin’s three young receivers, as well as tight end Troy Fumagalli, have all shown what they can do. But Neuville is my sneaky pick to make a big play or two while the focus is on those other four targets.

Question 3

Answer: I’ll give punter Anthony Lotti some love here because punters don’t really garner much attention. His overall punting average of 37.2 yards per attempt won’t wow anybody. But the Wisconsin-Michigan game was a field position battle for long stretches, and Lotti was able to flip the field several times. He also punted a career-high 8 times in the game.

Lotti’s first punt traveled 53 yards. Three times he pinned Michigan inside its 20-yard line. This season, Lotti is averaging 39.8 yards per punt, which ranks 10th in the Big Ten. That’s an improvement over last season, when he averaged 37.7 yards per punt as a freshman. Lotti continues to get better, and he has two more seasons to improve.

Question 4

Answer: Alabama is ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff Top 25, while Wisconsin is No. 5. But your point about comparing schedule strength is a valid one. Alabama just pasted FCS foe Mercer 56-0, which dropped the Crimson Tide’s schedule strength to No. 63 in the country, according to the Sagarin Ratings, which you can find here. Alabama also has only two victories against top-30 teams in those Sagarin Ratings: a 24-10 victory against No. 20 LSU and a 31-24 victory against No. 15 Mississippi State.

Wisconsin’s strength of schedule has improved the past two weeks and is up to No. 55. Wisconsin now has three victories against top-30 teams: a 33-24 victory against No. 21 Northwestern, a 38-14 victory against No. 27 Iowa and a 24-10 victory against No. 19 Michigan.

Part of the reason Wisconsin isn’t in the top 4 of the playoff rankings yet is that the Badgers didn’t play their toughest games until after the first ranking came out. Wisconsin entered the poll at No. 9 behind six one-loss teams, and the major complaint from the 13-person playoff committee was that the Badgers hadn’t played anybody. But victories the past two weeks against Iowa and Michigan have demonstrated that Wisconsin is a legitimate playoff contender.

Ultimately, Alabama and Wisconsin still have to take care of business in its next two games in order to reach the playoff. And if both teams are undefeated, then schedule strength shouldn’t be all that important. Alabama has an incredibly difficult close to its season and plays Auburn in the Iron Bowl during the regular-season finale. The winner of that game will capture the SEC West and earn a spot in the league championship game against Georgia.

Wisconsin is guaranteed a spot in the Big Ten championship regardless of its outcome with Minnesota in the regular-season finale. Of course, the Badgers must win that game and beat Ohio State in the league title game in order to reach the playoff.

If Alabama and Wisconsin both win the next two games, we could see a national semifinal matchup between the programs, with the Crimson Tide at No. 1 and the Badgers at No. 4. When the teams last played, Alabama defeated Wisconsin 35-17 in the 2015 season opener and went on to win the national championship.

Question 5

Answer: I didn’t see anything malicious with the hit, nor did the officials. Van Ginkel reached Peters just after he released the pass, but it appeared to be an aggressive rush rather than a blatant late hit. The hit knocked Peters out of the game late in the third quarter, and backup John O’Korn finished the game for the Wolverines.

The force of Van Ginkel’s hit drove Peters into the ground, which might have contributed to the injury. But Van Ginkel expressed concern immediately and waved to the Michigan sideline to alert team trainers. Peters had played well to that point, and it’s unfortunate when any player suffers an injury. But when the objective in a sport is to tackle people, these things are bound to happen.

Question 6

Answer: One of the recurring pitches prospects tell me they hear is the importance of committing to a program and not a coach. The idea is that coaches come and go, but the education and football team will be there no matter what. That is sound advice. But the reality is that we’re talking about 16-, 17- and 18-year-old players who undoubtedly will form bonds with the coaches who recruit them.

To have someone like Paul Chryst in charge at Wisconsin has to be a major bonus. It certainly appears as though this is a job he wants for years to come. In terms of Chryst’s personality, I just wrote a story about that Saturday after Wisconsin’s victory against Michigan. It’s interesting that Chryst and Jim Harbaugh are so different. Harbaugh’s program has thrived the past couple years on gaining attention for unique approaches to practicing and recruiting.

As I wrote, he had the rap group Migos appear at a national signing day ceremony, traveled with his team to Rome for spring practice and slept over at a kicker’s house so he could be the first coach to recruit him when the NCAA recruiting period arrived. By the way, that kicker is Quinn Nordin, who now starts for the Wolverines. We don’t hear hardly anything about Chryst’s recruiting pitches, but he builds trust with families by being genuine and down to earth. I’m not saying one method is better than the other. If I were a prospective recruit, I might be drawn to the energy around Harbaugh, too.

Badgers players all talk about what a good man Chryst is to them. One thing that can’t be denied is that Chryst is a great coach. Those two traits should sell themselves to recruits and their parents.

Have a question about Wisconsin football or basketball? 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.