For a sixth time in the last seven seasons, the Wisconsin Badgers hit the offseason having won their bowl game, this time a 20-13 win over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl. It marked the end of Paul Chryst’s seventh year as coach, a season that saw Wisconsin not live up to preseason expectations in finishing 9-4. The win also signaled the start of the 2022 season, and with that in mind, we take a look at what next year’s Badgers might look like.
(For the purposes of this article we will refer to each player’s class as it will be in 2022. Meaning if they were a junior this past season, they’ll be listed as a senior in this piece.)
1) Graham Mertz (JR)
2) Chase Wolf (SR)
3) Deacon Hill (RS FR)
New additions: Myles Burkett
Wisconsin’s passing game wasn’t good enough in 2021. It ranked 13th in the Big Ten at 160.2 yards per game and only two teams threw fewer touchdowns than the Badgers 11. Those numbers are bad enough but Wisconsin also had the third-most interceptions and the fewest plays of 20-plus yards, 30-plus yards and 40-plus yards.
If the Badgers have any hope of competing for a Big Ten title in 2022, it will largely fall on Chryst and junior quarterback Graham Mertz to improve those numbers. The latter showed flashes of being capable of doing that, especially in the second half of the season. After throwing two touchdowns and seven interceptions in the first six games, he had eight touchdowns and four interceptions in the final seven. But there were still too many mistakes and missed throws that a Wisconsin quarterback can’t afford to have.
Those hoping for someone to challenge Mertz for the starting job might be disappointed. Senior Chase Wolf showed the last two years in limited action that he probably isn’t the answer. There is also redshirt freshman Deacon Hill, who has a cannon for an arm but has a ways to go in mastering the offense and gaining the trust of the staff. Three-star quarterback Myles Burkett will join the team next month but a true freshman hasn’t started a game at Wisconsin in more than 30 years. It’s possible the Badgers go into the transfer portal for competition but it’s unlikely a quarterback good enough to unseat Mertz will come to Madison without a guarantee of playing time.
In the end, the best hope for an improved passing game is an improved Mertz.
1) Braelon Allen (SO)
2) Chez Mellusi (SR)
3a) Isaac Guerendo (SR)
3b) Brady Schipper (SR)
3c) Julius Davis (JR)
It was a difficult year for the running back room. When fall camp started Wisconsin had 10 scholarship players at the position. Through a mix of injuries, players getting kicked off the team and a transfer, only four were available when the Badgers took the field against Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Yet for all the hardships at the position, it’s clear they found their next superstar in Braelon Allen. He became just the fourth true freshman in school history to run for 1,000 yards, finishing with 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns. The exciting thing for Wisconsin is he’s not a finished product. He’s got room to grow in the passing game and will also need to take a step in pass protection to consistently be a three-down back.
The questions at the position — and there are a lot of them — are behind Allen. When will senior Chez Mellusi be healthy enough to play after tearing his ACL in early November? Can senior Isaac Guerendo get healthy and stay on the field to capitalize on his electric speed? Can junior Julius Davis take advantage of the likely absences of Mellusi and Guerendo in the spring? Is redshirt freshman Jackson Acker staying at running back or moving to fullback? If he is staying at running back, is redshirt sophomore Riley Nowakowski the replacement for John Chenal if he decides not to return for a fifth year? With no scholarship running back in the 2022 class, could the Badgers look to the transfer portal again?
There is plenty to sort through for running backs coach Gary Brown and the offensive staff.
1) Chimere Dike (JR)
2) Markus Allen (RS FR)
3) Skyler Bell (RS FR)
4) Stephen Bracy (JR)
5) Haakon Anderson (RS SO)
6) Jordan DiBenedetto (SR)
New additions: Vinny Anthony, Tommy McIntosh
Wisconsin loses its top three pass catchers in Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor and tight end Jake Ferguson. That means a lot of opportunities available for those returning to make an impact. At the head of that group is Chimere Dike. The junior had 19 catches for 272 yards and a touchdown this season. Those numbers figure to grow as he becomes the top option for Graham Mertz.
Behind him is a talented young group of players headlined by redshirt freshmen Markus Allen and Skyler Bell. Coaches and players raved about Allen during bowl prep and he has a big future ahead. Bell got the first playing time of his career in the bowl game and flashed what he could do on a diving catch for a first down.
Stephan Bracey has struggled to stay on the field due to injuries, playing in just four games the last two seasons. Known for his kick return abilities, Bracey could give the offense a little something it is missing with his quickness and speed.
1a) Jack Eschenbach (SR)
1b) Jaylan Franklin (SR)
1c) Clay Cundiff (JR)
1d) Hayden Rucci (JR)
2) Cam Large (RS SO)
3) Cole Dakovich (RS SO)
4) Jack Pugh (RS FR)
5) TJ Bollers (RS FR)
New additions: JT Seagreaves
With a four-year starter in Jake Ferguson gone, the Badgers will be looking for someone to step into the void he leaves behind. As you can see with the depth chart, it’s really anyone’s guess as to who that will be.
Tight ends coach Mickey Turner mentioned senior Jack Eschenbach, junior Hayden Rucci, senior Jaylan Franklin and junior Clay Cundiff as guys that have played in big moments and would be the starting point for finding Ferguson’s replacement. But only one of those guys (Franklin) was healthy all year.
Eschenbach has the most experience with 18 games played and five catches. He missed five games due to injury in 2021. Cundiff showed flashes in the pass game, including a 43-yard catch and run, but suffered an ugly looking leg injury in late October. Turner is expecting him back in time for spring practice. Rucci is a prototypical in-line blocker and should play a ton after missing the final seven games with a foot injury. Franklin saw the most action of his career against Arizona State and remains an interesting prospect with his athletic ability.
After those four, it gets into guys we’ve barely seen. That includes Cam Large, who looked primed for a bigger role when he went down for the season against Purdue. The redshirt sophomore could be a potential option at fullback, too.
Wisconsin will also get redshirt sophomore Cole Dakovich and redshirt freshman Jack Pugh back after they missed much of the year with leg injuries.
We threw redshirt freshman TJ Bollers in at the bottom of the depth chart after he moved from defense to tight end during bowl prep but it’s unclear if that was just a temporary switch due to low numbers or if it’s something permanent.
LT Tyler Beach (SR)
LG Cormac Sampson (SR)
C Joe Tippmann (JR)
RG Jack Nelson (RS SO)
RT Tanor Bortolini (RS SO)
LT Logan Brown (JR) or Nolan Rucci (RS FR)
LG JP Benzschawel (RS FR)
C Sampson (SR)
RG Michael Furtney (SR)
RT Riley Mahlman (RS FR)
New additions: Joe Brunner, Barrett Nelson
Wisconsin’s new offensive line coach will inherit a lot of talent even with the loss of All-Big Ten linemen Josh Seltzner and Logan Bruss. The three returning starters — left tackle Tyler Beach, center Joe Tippmann and right guard Jack Nelson — also earned some form of All-Big Ten recognition, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be locked into those spots, especially with a new coach coming in.
Junior Logan Brown figures to give Beach a fight at left tackle. The second-highest rated recruit in program history, Brown has seen only spot duty in his first three seasons. Another five-star recruit, redshirt freshman Nolan Rucci, could also push for time.
The left guard spot will likely see competition between seniors Cormac Sampson and Michael Furtney, along with redshirt freshman JP Benzschawel. Sampson has the ability to play multiple spots and could figure in as the backup to Tippmann at center.
There are also a number of options at right tackle with redshirt sophomores Tanor Bortolini and Trey Wedig, as well as redshirt freshman Riley Mahlman. Bortolini can play any position on the line, so it’s possible he could be in the mix at both tackle spots, the battle to replace Seltzner or even at right guard if they want to move Nelson out to tackle. Mahlman played left tackle when practice was open to the media in fall camp but said he was working at right tackle during bowl prep.