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Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor is averaging 21.2 carries per game.

Wisconsin mailbag: New roles for basketball players, Jonathan Taylor’s workload, impact of schedule on playoff path

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 which basketball players will step forward from the 2015 recruiting class, what weaknesses can prevent Wisconsin from reaching the College Football Playoff and whether tailback Jonathan Taylor is taking too many carries.


Question 1

Answer: Wisconsin signed five players in its 2015 class: Alex Illikainen, Charlie Thomas, Brevin Pritzl, Khalil Iverson and Andy Van Vliet. Of those five, Iverson has played the most, having appeared in 69 games the past two seasons. But with four starters gone off last year’s team, it’s time for all five to take major steps forward.

I think Van Vliet, Pritzl and Iverson are the three that we’ll see make the most significant strides this season, as I expect them to start alongside point guard D’Mitrik Trice and forward Ethan Happ. Badgers coach Greg Gard heaped a tremendous amount of praise on Van Vliet during local media day on Friday. Van Vliet appeared in only 14 games last season, averaged 1.3 points and contemplated transferring in the offseason.

“The steps he’s taken is what you want to see,” Gard said. “It’s what you hope to see as a coach that somebody would grow as their experience — or lack thereof — motivates someone to make changes and make improvements in their game and their approach. Andy has done that. That’s a credit to him.

“I thought we saw signs of it early last spring as the season ended, and he decided this is where he wanted to be and wanted to stay. There were things that were going to have to change. The only one that was going to be able to change them was him. So credit to him that he to this point has made significant changes, and it’s showed in how he’s played.”

I’d expect Pritzl to be much better this season as well. He really struggled with his 3-point shot during games last season, connecting on 5 of 21 attempts (23.8 percent). But the Badgers will be relying on him to be more consistent. Gard has high expectations of Pritzl as well.

“He’s had some very good players move on in front of him,” Gard said. “So he understands this is his time. I think towards the end of last year, probably middle of the Big Ten season and on, that you saw some of those things come to fruition a little bit. He started having a better understanding that the game was way more than just scoring and how there were other ways he could impact the game that didn’t involve scoring. And he started to embrace some of those things, whether it’s simply diving on the floor.

“I think he took his first charge ever in his life at Nebraska. So there’s been more of that type of growth. He also understands too, ‘I’m in Year 3 here.’ Even though we have a relatively younger roster, that guys like him that have been here, if you’ve been here two or more years, you’re considered an elder statesman. He also in his own way has kind of grown into a role that people expect him to be consistent. I think that’s the one thing with Brevin is now he’s got to find that consistency level to play at and to perform at with the understanding that it doesn’t always involve putting the ball in the basket.”

Question 2

Answer: Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal wrote an excellent article on Van Vliet last month that details his renewed commitment to the program. Off the court, Van Vliet paid greater attention to his diet and sleeping habits. On the court, he focused on becoming a better defender, which had kept him from seeing more time.

“I wasn’t into it,” Van Vliet told Polzin. “I didn’t really buy into the whole system, honestly. At the end of the season, I was really thinking about leaving. I was pretty much set on leaving. And then I really started thinking about, ‘OK, is this really what’s good for me? Is it really not my fault, or is there something I could do more?'”

Based on Gard’s comments at media day, it certainly seems as though Van Vliet has positioned himself to make one of the biggest leaps on the team from last season.

Question 3

Answer: I really don’t have any problem with Wisconsin being ranked No. 5 in the country right now in both major polls. There are only eight undefeated teams left in the FBS, and Miami, South Florida and UCF started the season ranked much lower than Wisconsin. Four other unbeaten teams are ranked ahead of Wisconsin.

Based on my social media interactions with fans, there have been a lot of gripes about Wisconsin’s inability to consistently play a four-quarter game. Those are understandable concerns, particularly considering the level of competition at the halfway mark of the regular season. But, as you pointed out, the key word is “winning.” That was one of the stories I wrote following Wisconsin’s 17-9 victory against Purdue on Saturday.

Winning college football games every week is not easy. And all you have to do is look last weekend at Clemson losing to Syracuse, Washington losing to Arizona State and Washington State losing to California. Wisconsin’s victories haven’t always been pretty, and the team must play better if it wants to qualify for the College Football Playoff. But the Badgers are still 6-0, which means they have at least given themselves a chance as we hit the home stretch.

Question 4

Answer: I wrote a story about Groshek on Tuesday that detailed his path to playing time at running back for the Badgers. It’s truly remarkable what he has been able to accomplish considering coaches moved him from quarterback to tailback in March for spring practice. He had two big-time carries against Purdue for 32 yards to help salt that game away on Saturday. But in terms of moving ahead of healthy running backs, I don’t see it.

Jonathan Taylor and Bradrick Shaw are still the top two tailbacks. A healthy Chris James is ahead of Groshek, and Rachid Ibrahim likely is as well. James missed the Purdue game with a left ankle injury, so that elevated Groshek on the depth chart. Ibrahim bobbled a pass that was intercepted in the game, and Shaw didn’t appear to be at his best. That meant Groshek was in the game on the final drive.

He certainly showed he is capable of performing well when given an opportunity. But unless there are further injuries, it would appear he will still just be a complementary player this season — which is more than many would have anticipated a few months ago.

Question 5

Answer: The BCS is no more, but if you’re referring to the College Football Playoff, I think it starts with penalties and turnovers. I wrote about those issues on Monday, and here’s part of what was in the story:

“Last season, Wisconsin was one of the least-penalized teams in the FBS, committing 48 penalties in 14 games. The 3.4 penalties-per-game average ranked second in the country. This season, Wisconsin already has committed 37 penalties in six games, an average of 6.2 per contest. That number ranks tied for 64th in the FBS. Wisconsin hasn’t committed more than six penalties per game since 2000.

“In three games this season — against Utah State, Nebraska and Purdue — Wisconsin was been flagged for four penalties in the first quarter alone.

“Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s turnover margin is even — 11 takeaways, 11 giveaways — which ranks No. 59 nationally. Last season, the Badgers ranked tied for seventh in that category with a turnover margin of plus-12. Wisconsin committed 16 turnovers the entire season.”

Those numbers are alarming at the halfway point of the season. There will come a game in which some of the team’s mistakes could ruin a chance at a playoff appearance. One would think the defense can’t bail out the offense on every drive.

The other potential weakness has more to do with Wisconsin’s strength of schedule, which is not all that impressive. Wisconsin’s first six opponents have a combined record of 16-23, and none of them have a winning record. Michigan is the only remaining team on the regular season schedule that even has a chance to be ranked in the top-25 when the teams play.

I firmly believe if Wisconsin wins out, which would presumably include a victory against Penn State or Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, there is no way the Badgers get left out of the playoff. However, ESPN recently published a story that outlined a scenario in which Wisconsin could be 13-0 and not make the playoff. That scenario would have Alabama at 13-0, Georgia at 12-1 with a loss to Alabama, Notre Dame at 11-1 with a loss to Georgia and Miami at 12-0.

That doesn’t make any sense to me, but imagine the outcry if the undefeated Badgers finished fifth.

Question 6

Answer: Those are two good players to start with when it comes to the underrated discussion. Austin Ramesh isn’t heard from much as the fullback, but he plays a vital role in blocking for the running backs and picking up protections for quarterback Alex Hornibrook. He has carried 7 times for 23 yards with 1 touchdown, so at least he sees some glory. Tight end Zander Neuville is another strong example. Troy Fumagalli has earned the majority of Hornibrook’s targets to a tight end. But Neuville does have 3 catches for 33 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown reception. Both Ramesh and Neuville fulfill their responsibilities without complaint.

If we’re adding players to the underrated list, you can’t go wrong with nose guard Olive Sagapolu and long snapper Adam Bay. Sagapolu has only 3 tackles this season, but he occupies double teams and frees up space for teammates. You never hear about Bay, which is a good thing because it means he isn’t making any mistakes. Bay was actually the No. 1-ranked long snapper at the Kohl’s specialist camp his senior year of high school Here’s my story on Bay and his path to Wisconsin.

Question 7

Answer: I’ve heard this question several times in recent weeks, as it has become clear that no other team on Wisconsin’s schedule will be ranked. Michigan is currently ranked No. 19 in the AP Top 25 poll and No. 15 in the Amway Coaches Poll. From a fan’s perspective, it makes complete sense to want Michigan to win its four games before the Wolverines play at Wisconsin. That’s going to be awfully difficult because Michigan must play at No. 2 Penn State on Saturday.

Even if Michigan beats Penn State this weekend or Ohio State in the regular season finale, I can still see a scenario where that could somehow hurt Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Penn State and Ohio State are the most likely candidates to win the Big Ten East. But it would be better for Wisconsin if the Nittany Lions were undefeated or the Buckeyes had only one loss to Oklahoma when the the Badgers played one of those teams in Indianapolis.

Ultimately, I fail to comprehend how a 13-0 Wisconsin team does not participate in the College Football Playoff. No undefeated Power 5 conference champion has missed the playoffs yet.

Question 8

 

Answer: Freshman running back Jonathan Taylor has carried 127 times in 6 games, an average of 21.2 per game. Only 10 other running backs in the FBS have as many attempts as Taylor so far. That number obviously is high for any college tailback, let alone a freshman. But with injuries in different weeks to Shaw and James, it’s understandable why coaches would lean on their best tailback even more. Plus, Taylor has provided no reason to believe he can’t handle that workload. He is strong, fast and powerful and just earned his third Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor.

There aren’t many Wisconsin freshmen that even earn the type of opportunities Taylor has had. But a good one to look at is Ron Dayne’s freshman season in 1996. Dayne carried 325 times in 13 games — an average of 25 attempts per game. That workload didn’t seem to affect the rest of Dayne’s college career on his way to a Heisman Trophy as a senior. Based on the way Taylor has played, don’t be surprised to see him in the Heisman discussion the rest of this season and beyond.

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.