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Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook's ability to limit interceptions will be a big point of emphasis in 2018.

Wisconsin mailbag: Top 3 football needs for success; DJ Carton or Nobal Days; future NFL prospects

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 what new football commit Marcus Graham is bringing to the program, potential basketball graduate transfer options, where things stand with hoops recruits DJ Carton and Nobal Days, top three needs for football success next season, Bryce Benhart’s recruitment, future NFL draft picks and more.


Question 1

Answer: 1. Third down conversions: Wisconsin didn’t go 13-1 without ranking near the top of several statistical categories. One such category was converting offensively on third down. Wisconsin ranked No. 4 in the FBS by converting 48.6 percent of the time. The Badgers excelled in this area because they were able to generate a strong push at the line, run the ball effectively and face manageable third-down distances. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook did an excellent job with his third-down completion percentage. Plus, Wisconsin had a stable of running backs and fullbacks from which to choose from to carry the ball. Moving the chains on third down was a big reason Wisconsin ranked No. 2 nationally in time of possession. That obviously will help keep opposing offenses off the field in 2018.

2. Fewer offensive interceptions: Quarterback Alex Hornibrook put together a solid sophomore campaign from a statistical standpoint. But the biggest knock on him was his high interception rate. Only four FBS quarterbacks threw more than Hornibrook’s 15 interceptions last season. Wisconsin’s defense was so good that it often didn’t matter how far backed up it was following a Hornibrook pick. But with a less experienced defensive unit in 2018, the Badgers can’t afford to give the ball away so freely. The defense isn’t as likely to hold other teams out of the end zone. Last season, Wisconsin’s defense allowed 18 total touchdowns, the second-best mark in the country behind Alabama’s 17.

3. Opportunistic defense: Ever since Jim Leonhard arrived two seasons ago, Wisconsin’s defense has been an interception-making machine. In 2016, Wisconsin recorded 22 interceptions as a defense — the highest since the Badgers registered 22 in 2002, when Leonhard was a Wisconsin defensive back. In 2017, Wisconsin added another 20 interceptions and ranked tied for second nationally. If the Badgers’ defense can maintain that pace in 2018, opponents had better beware. Wisconsin has the potential to have one of its most potent offenses in school history. Giving the Badgers a short field is the last thing other teams want to do.

Question 2

Answer: Marcus Graham, a 6-foot, 175-pound junior from Mount Holly, N.C., committed to Wisconsin last week and became the ninth member of the 2019 recruiting class. Graham is another player in what’s becoming a string of prospects who provide athleticism and versatility to the Badgers’ program.

Most high school football teams put their best athlete at quarterback, and that’s where Graham has played for Mountain Island Charter. He completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 1,270 yards with 16 touchdowns and 1 interception during his junior season. He ran for 858 yards with 15 touchdowns and averaged 8.3 yards per carry. Graham also played some wide receiver and caught 13 passes for 265 yards with 4 touchdowns.

“He has unreal talent from the standpoint of pure athletic ability,” Mountain Island football coach Robert Washington Sr. told me in a story that ran Tuesday.

Wisconsin’s coaches have done a pretty good job of trying to project where talented high school athletes might fit in college. As it stands now, Graham is set to come into Wisconsin as a wide receiver, but defensive coaches would love for him to be a cornerback. Graham told me he would prefer playing receiver because he has spent his entire football career on offense.

The Badgers signed two players listed as athletes in the 2018 class and ultimately placed Aron Cruickshank at receiver and Jaylan Franklin at tight end. Cruickshank, an early enrollee, already has demonstrated his speed as a slot receiver during spring practice. Wisconsin has signed receiver Isaac Guerendo, one of the fastest high school track stars in the country, in the 2018 class as well. It’s clear the Badgers’ staff is building up depth and speed at receiver.

“I think he’ll be a great fit because Wisconsin is smash-mouth,” Washington said of Graham. “It’s a good brand of smash-mouth ball. Marcus is a physical kid, so I think he’ll be a great blocker for Wisconsin if he has to block for the running backs or quarterbacks. Plus I think with his speed, it allows Wisconsin to have a different dynamic. You could put Marcus in the slot. You put a linebacker on him, it’s going to be a nightmare for him.”

Question 3

Answer: As I’ve said before, if ever there was a year in which the Badgers could use a graduate transfer, this is it. Wisconsin has an open scholarship in 2018 and clearly needs help in the front court. Assuming Ethan Happ comes back for his senior season and does not enter the NBA draft, then Wisconsin’s top two front-court options would be Happ and Nate Reuvers. Aleem Ford is an excellent 3-point shooter but doesn’t really play like a big man. Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas need to take major steps forward in their senior seasons to consistently help the team.

As for potential transfer options, one player to watch is Wyatt Walker, a 6-9, 240-pound center who is transferring from Samford. Walker is a grad transfer who has two years of eligibility remaining. He only played in two games this past season because of a knee injury. But as a sophomore in 2016-17, Walker averaged 12.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Walker is expected to visit Wisconsin’s campus next week. He recently started following Wisconsin’s basketball account on Twitter, as well as Badgers assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft.

If we’re looking for other connections, an argument could be made for pursuing someone like Illinois transfer Michael Finke, a 6-foot-10, 235-pound forward. Wisconsin actually offered Finke a scholarship way back in 2012. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as a junior for the Illini last season.

Question 4

Answer: I’ve spoken to both players, as well as their coaches and family members in the past few weeks. Neither DJ Carton nor Nobal Days is tipping their hand about which direction their recruitment is headed. But I think that’s mostly a product of the fact that they don’t yet know where they’re going. With the AAU basketball season here, they’re focused on helping their teams win and then evaluating their options after the summer.

Wisconsin offered scholarships to both players well before other programs came on board. I think Wisconsin was in the lead for Carton early, but it has since become muddled because he’s up to 14 offers. Five other Big Ten teams have offered him: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio State. Indiana is interested in him as well. Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski visited him Sunday. Coaches from Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin will visit him in the next week. It’s an insane level of interest.

One thing to consider with Carton is Wisconsin’s guard depth. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, but Badgers guards D’Mitrik Trice, Trevor Anderson, Kobe King, Brad Davison and Tai Strickland would each have at least two years of eligibility remaining in 2019 when Carton enters college.

Carton told me he is paying attention to which prospects commit in front of him at various programs as he makes his decision.

“You’ve just got to look into that,” Carton said. “I feel like you have to look at the way the coaches play, whether it’s having two point guards out on the floor or things like that. You’ve got to see the other person’s game and see how well you can fit in with their game. I’m not going to go somewhere where I don’t think I will be able to compete for a starting spot or good minutes. So it’s definitely something you’ve got to look into in the process.”

As for Days, it doesn’t seem as though his recruitment is as intense as Carton’s right now, although more offers will likely come as he plays for the prestigious Howard Pulley AAU team out of Minnesota this summer. Days is a unique prospect whose offensive game needs to develop. He is an exceptional student and wants a school with a strong academic reputation in addition to fielding a winning basketball program. Wisconsin would seem to check all the boxes for him.

One of Wisconsin’s biggest selling points to Days has been the program’s ability to develop prospects over time. When I spoke to Nobal’s father, Al Days, he cited Frank Kaminsky’s rise from little known high school prospect to national college player of the year in 2015.

“The thing with them is, ‘You know what? This is what we do at Wisconsin is we make kids better,’” Al Days said. “And they do. They make bigs better. You look at Frank the Tank. It went from like, ‘Who is this kid?’ to ‘Wow.’ Nobody knew where he came from. And the next thing you know, he’s an NBA player. They develop players.”

It’s difficult for me to say which player I would personally prefer for Wisconsin’s program. Carton obviously is one of the top point guards in the country and more likely to be college-ready earlier. If he’s as good as we think, then it shouldn’t matter how many guards are ahead of him on Wisconsin’s roster.

But Days has such tremendous upside. He may not be a strong scorer now, but the Badgers’ coaching staff can hone those skills. What can’t be taught is his length, court vision and ability to be a point-forward. Days is a stat-sheet stuffer whose versatility could really help Wisconsin.

If I had to pick right now, I’d say Wisconsin winds up with Days and not Carton. It’s possible the Badgers could also get both or neither, of course, given that there is still about five or six months to go in the recruitment of each player.

Question 5

Answer: Now that Bryce Benhart’s high school wrestling season is out of the way, it’s time for him to go full throttle into college football recruiting mode. Benhart, a 6-foot-9, 285-pound tackle from Lakeville, Minn., has taken unofficial visits the past two weeks to Oklahoma State and Tennessee. He has earned scholarship offers this offseason from Michigan, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Oregon.

But I think Wisconsin still is in good shape for Benhart, who is a 4-star prospect and the No. 25 tackle in the country. I spoke with Benhart’s high school coach, Brian Vossen, in February. He said Badgers offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph had stood out among the dozens of coaches who visit the high school.

“Joe Rudolph has been awesome,” Vossen told me. “He’s done a great job of forming a relationship with Bryce. I know Bryce feels really comfortable around him. We had the opportunity to have Paul Chryst come visit the school. He watched Bryce in wrestling practice.

“I had never met him before. Just a really Midwestern, good laid-back guy. I know Bryce, he has Wisconsin very high on his list of schools he’s interested in, but he doesn’t give me a lot. … He’s already made it clear that that’s a place he’s highly interested in, and quite frankly, any lineman in the country, if you get an offer from Wisconsin, that’s a pretty big deal.”

Minnesota, Iowa State and Northwestern are among the other schools that were in on Benhart early and have continued to check up on him. I’d imagine Benhart will make his decision before his senior season begins. But the next few months will be crucial as he continues to visit schools.

Question 6

Answer: Spring practice is generally focused on individual development and internal prep. There are so many young players seeing their first significant reps as starters recover from injury. They need to learn the playbook and what is expected to be on the field more so than anything about future opponents.

Based on my experience watching practices, Wisconsin doesn’t generally turn its full attention toward the opponent until about two weeks before the first game, when practices are closed to the media. The early part of fall camp is more about installing plans and confirming a depth chart.

Question 7

Answer: Wisconsin should have no shortage of NFL draft picks over the next two years. Let’s start on the offensive line, where three players will absolutely be draft picks in 2019: Michael Deiter, David Edwards and Beau Benzschawel. Edwards has the highest draft stock of any of them, and will presumably leave after his redshirt junior season. WalterFootball.com released a 2019 mock draft and lists Edwards going in the first round at No. 20 to the Houston Texans.

There also are two potential first-round picks in the 2020 NFL draft, according to WalterFootball.com. The website lists center Tyler Biadasz going No. 18 overall in the first round to the Los Angeles Rams and running back Jonathan Taylor going No. 19 overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Of course, these are projections based on how well those players performed as freshmen. Biadasz and Taylor would each have to leave school a year early to be eligible for the 2020 draft, and there’s a long way to go before either of those players makes such a decision.

It’s tough to project how other Wisconsin players will develop, but several should have a good opportunity to be drafted in the next two years.

 

Question 8

Answer: Donovan Williams doesn’t have any scholarship offers yet, but he certainly is an emerging prospect in the 2020 class. Williams averaged about 18 points per game and earned honorable mention all-state in Class A while playing for Lincoln (Neb.) North Star last season. He put up some monster games that included 31 points against Millard West and 33 points against Lincoln.

Williams is a 6-foot-5, 190-pound combo guard and is the younger brother of Badgers nose guard Bryson Williams. Donovan began to draw interest from a few mid-major programs during his sophomore season and has continued to perform well on the AAU circuit with the Iowa Barnstormers.

Whether Wisconsin ultimately offers him remains to be seen. Wisconsin already has offered a similar player in combo guard Jonathan Davis (La Crosse, Wis.) in the 2020 class. That doesn’t preclude the Badgers from offering Williams if he shows he’s worthy of high-major status.

In terms of other 2020 prospects, Wisconsin has a number of them from which to choose. Shooting guard Gabe Madsen (Rochester, Minn.) could help to fill a void. He already has offers from Marquette, Northern Iowa and Green Bay. There are several potential forwards out there, including Ben Carlson (St. Paul, Minn.), Jamari Sibley (Milwaukee), Dawson Garcia (Prior Lake, Minn.) and Terrance Thompson (La Crosse, Wis.).

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.