INDIANAPOLIS — Wisconsin won a school-record 13 games last year, beat Miami in the Orange Bowl and finished sixth in the coaches poll.
The scariest part for their Big Ten rivals? The Badgers could be even better this year, their former teammates said last week at the NFL combine.
“I feel like they’re going to exceed what we did last season, especially with the whole offensive line coming back,” former Wisconsin safety Nate Jamerson said. “The offense is going to be explosive. The receivers are all young, they’ve been balling all season. Quintez [Cephus], he’s coming back. That’s another big bonus.”
Every starter returns on the offensive line, with tackles Michael Deiter and David Edwards both earning All-Big Ten and All-American honors. Same with guard Beau Benzschawel. Center Tyler Bladasz was a freshman All-American. Guards Jon Deitzen and Micah Kapoi both have starting experience. The unit helped the Badgers finish second nationally last year in time of possession at 35 minutes, 29 seconds per game and 23rd in rushing yards per game at 223. Few teams were better than Wisconsin on third down with a 48.7 percent conversion rate.
Oh, and there’s running back Jonathan Taylor who set the national record for freshmen with 1,977 rushing yards. Taylor was a second-team All-American and a Doak Walker Award finalist. Wisconsin’s top-4 receivers return, as does quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
All of this from a team that finished 13-1 and was 6 points from a College Football Playoff berth.
“They’ve got three All-American linemen coming back,” former Wisconsin linebacker Garret Dooley said. “The entire offensive line starting. Jonathan Taylor is just going to keep getting better and better. Obviously that receiving corps, those young guys showed out last year. They’re behind a guy in Alex Hornibrook who’s got a lot of experience now.”
Hornibrook was inconsistent for much of the season with 15 interceptions but still passed for 25 touchdowns and 2,644 yards. In the Orange Bowl, a 34-24 win against Miami, he completed 23-of 34-passes for 258 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Catching 3 of those scores was wide receiver Danny Davis, a sophomore. Junior A.J. Taylor hauled in 8 passes for 105 yards that game. The Badgers’ best receiver was Cephus, who played only nine games and missed the last month with a right leg injury. Cephus, a junior, had 30 catches for 501 yards and 6 touchdowns. Kendrick Pryor also returns.
Wisconsin’s former players are confident Hornibrook — now a junior — can become more consistent after last season.
“He’s a guy who’s not scared to make mistakes, and he’s going to learn from those mistakes,” Dooley said. “Even if he has a bad ball in a game, he’s not going to go out and do the same thing again. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around. The amount of time he puts in, I know in the offseason, he spends so much time developing his body to lose body fat and just trim down. Just watching him develop as a player, as a football player, has been tremendous. I just know he’s going to continue to grow.”
“I feel coming off the Orange Bowl win, going into next season, he’s going to have a lot of confidence,” Jamerson said. “As long as he keeps that confidence going, he can be the best he can be. There’s no limit to what he’s going to do.”
The defense loses a ton, but also returns several major performers. First-team All-American linebacker T.J. Edwards, a Butkus Award finalist, comes back after 11 tackles for loss. Linebacker Ryan Connelly led the team in tackles with 88 and also had 11 tackles for loss. Reserve outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel should thrive with more playing time. Van Ginkel split snaps last year and put up 10 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles. Against Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, Van Ginkel returned an interception for a touchdown and forced a fumble. He also had an interception and a sack against Miami in the Orange Bowl.
“There’s a lot of players on that defense who have played a bunch of football, especially at the linebacking group,” Dooley said. “It’s going to be exciting watching them next year.”
The defensive line lost two starters, but primary clogger Olive Sagapolu comes back at nose guard. Three starters left the secondary, including first-team All-Big Ten cornerback Nick Nelson, but perhaps the most important piece returns in first-team All-Big Ten safety D’Cota Dixon.
“Defense as well, they may be a little young, but that won’t take nothing away from them,” Jamerson said. “Still got D’Cota back there. D’Cota’s a general. He’s going to get those guys right regardless. I’m excited to see what they’re going to do. I know they’re going to do good things.”