Spring practice for the University of Wisconsin football team this year is more notable for who hasn’t been working out than who has.
On any given day, four of the five returning starters on the offensive line, three of the top four wide receivers and two or three tailbacks either won’t be practicing or will be seeing limited work. And that’s just on offense.
A few years ago, UW would have been hard-pressed to line up and run an offense during spring ball with that many talented players on the sideline. The offensive roster coach Paul Chryst inherited from Gary Andersen in 2015 had talent and depth at tight end and fullback but nowhere else. Acute shortages at quarterback, tailback, wide receiver and the line hindered progress when players couldn’t participate in practice.
That’s no longer the case at UW. Despite the many injury-related absences, this spring’s practices haven’t missed a beat. Indeed, it seems the coaches would rather use the time to work with young players anyway, a sign of how much things have changed.
It has taken almost four years for Chryst and his staff to stock UW’s offensive roster, but the transformation from barren position groups to competition at every position has been nothing short of amazing. The Badgers now have impressive talent, experience and depth in areas that were sorely lacking just a few years ago.
So what happened?
First, UW has recruited better and with more purpose since Chryst arrived. There have been fewer swings and misses on recruits than in the past. Also, the staff targeted the positions of greatest need and signed multiple players at those spots.
Second, Chryst’s staff has done a superb job of developing players. There’s not a single position group on offense where the players haven’t shown steady improvement. Andersen’s staff shined at developing defensive players but struggled on the offensive side, leaving many positions dangerously thin.
No position illustrates the retooling of the offense better than the line. In Chryst’s first season, it had few experienced players and those who did return had to ask directions to the weight room. Now, five starters are back and three of them — Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards — were All-Americans last fall.
After scratching to find enough competent starters in 2015, when the line consisted of senior Tyler Marz and four redshirt freshmen for a good portion of the season, UW has at least 14 linemen who look like starters, now or down the line. The line is so deep that Micah Kapoi, who started 10 games in 2015 and has been a reliable fill-in ever since, is battling to hold a spot in the two-deep. So deep that Kapoi, Jon Dietzen and Brett Connors, who have 39 starts among them, could be backups this season.
Besides the five returning starters — Dietzen and Tyler Biadasz also started last season — plus experienced veterans Kapoi, Connors and Jason Erdmann, linemen such as Cole Van Lanen, Patrick Kasl and David Moorman have been patiently waiting their turn. Meanwhile, Kayden Lyles, Tyler Beach and Logan Bruss are pushing for spots in the two-deep after redshirting as freshmen. No wonder UW had only one scholarship lineman in this year’s recruiting class.
A year or so behind the line in terms of its development is wide receiver. Since Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis teamed up in 2011, the Badgers have usually had a strong No. 1 receiver but struggled to find a consistent No. 2. Last season, four young playmakers emerged in Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor. All are back and there’s more on the way.
Although they haven’t always been able to practice, Texans Cade Green and Emmet Perry, who redshirted as freshmen, are intriguing prospects and early enrollees Aron Cruickshank and Taj Mustapha already look the part. Another freshman, speedy Isaac Guerendo, hasn’t stepped foot on campus yet. There are also some capable veteran walk-ons at the suddenly deep position.
Still another improved position is tailback. Remember 2014 when UW was so thin there Dare Ogunbowale switched over from cornerback during the season? Or 2015 when Ogunbowale led UW in rushing?
Now, the Badgers have a returning All-American in Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for 1,977 yards as a true freshman, and plenty of choices behind him. Veterans Taiwan Deal, Chris James and Bradrick Shaw have rushed for 2,402 yards as Division 1 tailbacks, though Deal and Shaw have been slowed by injuries. Also, Garrett Groshek emerged as a versatile contributor in 2017 and incoming freshman Nakia Watson is expected to push for early playing time.
Quarterback is quietly becoming a position of strength as well. Joel Stave was the starter in 2015, but once he graduated only Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook were left behind. Slowly but surely, though, the quarterback room is filling up.
Hornibrook has 23 starts entering his junior year and many thought Jack Coan, the backup last fall as a true freshman, might challenge him for the starting job. Hornibrook’s brilliant play in the Orange Bowl quieted that talk, but Coan, with his agility and quick release, has the potential to be a starter. Danny Vanden Boom’s size and understanding of the offense eventually could give him a chance, too. Incoming freshman Chase Wolf is another pocket passer and highly rated Graham Mertz has committed for the 2019 class, turning a formerly short-handed position into a team strength.
Of all the players mentioned above, only Deiter, Benzschawel, Kapoi, Connors and Deal were on campus when Chryst was hired. The makeover is complete and the sky is the limit for UW’s offense.