Where things stand: Offense
MADISON — Wisconsin closed out spring practice Friday night with a nearly three-hour session. It was the 15th practice and the 12th that reporters were allowed to watch. There were plenty of questions answered during the spring period, but there still remain some that need to be resolved before the Badgers take the field Sept. 3 against Illinois State.
Here is where things stand on offense:
Projected depth chart:
1) Graham Mertz (JR)
2) Chase Wolf (SR)
3) Deacon Hill (RS FR)
4) Myles Burkett (FR)
Those hoping that Mertz would take a significant jump this spring as he prepared for his third year as Wisconsin’s starter will be disappointed to learn that did not happen. That is not to say the junior had a bad spring. He was solid and had plenty of good moments, including hitting on more deep passes than in any other spring/fall camp that the media has seen, and protecting the ball for the most part. But the inconsistency that was prevalent last season is still very much a concern.
The optimist would point to him adapting to a new offense and coaches, along with an inexperienced wide receiver room and an injury-depleted tight end group for that. The pessimist would point to a career’s worth of evidence that maybe this is just who he is. For Wisconsin to contend for a Big Ten title the optimists better be right.
All that said, the starting job is Mertz’s and he is unlikely to be unseated. Wolf closed spring really strong and his last two practices were among the best the media has seen from him. He hit on a couple of deep passes, navigated the pocket well and seemed to have a clear grasp on where the ball needed to go each play. But he also threw two interceptions in Friday’s session, something that has happened a lot when he gets into a real game. It’s tough to see him ascending to the top spot without cutting those kinds of mistakes out in practice.
Hill has the talent to eventually be the starting quarterback, but his game still needs a lot of refinement before he can be ready. That is especially true with him knowing when to unleash the rocket attached to his right shoulder, and when to instead take something off his throws to make it easier on the receiver.
Burkett did not get a ton of reps during the spring, making it difficult to really evaluate what his prospects are for the future.
Projected depth chart:
1) Braelon Allen (SO)
2) Chez Mellusi (SR)
3) Isaac Guerendo (SR)
4) Julius Davis (JR)
5) Brady Schipper (SR)
6) Grover Bortolotti (RS FR)
1) Jackson Acker (RS FR)
2) Riley Nowakowski (RS FR)
3) Garrison Solliday (RS FR)
A huge surprise here, but Braelon Allen is still great. The sophomore appears more explosive when he hits the hole and it also looks like he is going to have a sizable role in the pass game, too. One issue that did pop up near the end of spring was putting the ball on the ground. That was a concern early last season for him, though he was able to rectify it as the year went along.
Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo are question marks. Both missed spring while recovering from injuries that ended their seasons early last year. Mellusi said his goal in returning from a torn ACL is to be ready for the Sept. 3 opener, while Guerendo is hopeful to be cleared by the time summer workouts start in June. If healthy, both are more than capable of spelling Allen. That is especially the case for Mellusi, who gave Wisconsin a very good one-two punch with Allen during the team’s seven-game winning streak.
Brady Schipper was unable to take part in spring due to an injury but he gives Wisconsin another guy with experience and someone that seem to trust in the backfield on passing downs.
With those guys out, Julius Davis got more reps than ever before in his first mostly healthy spring. He definitely took advantage of those opportunities and showed some of what made him a coveted recruit coming out of high school. If Mellusi or Guerendo are not available to start the year, Davis could be a capable No. 2 behind Allen. Davis did miss the last practice with what appeared to be a right hand/wrist injury. He was in street clothes and wearing a cast.
Jackson Acker spent time at running back and fullback, but it is the latter where he could make an impact this fall.
Riley Nowakowski worked with the tight ends throughout camp due to shortages there and shined late with some nice catches. Depending on the health of that position, he could stay there or return to fullback when fall comes around.
Projected depth chart
1) Chimere Dike (JR)
2) Skyler Bell (RS FR)
3) Keontez Lewis (SO)
4) Dean Engram (JR)
5) Markus Allen (RS FR)
6) Stephan Bracey (JR)
Chimere Dike had a fantastic spring. He was every quarterback’s favorite target on both short, intermediate, and deep routes. The junior was able to create separation on a play-to-play basis and is poised to be the first legit No. 1 wide receiver the Badgers have had since Quintez Cephus in 2019.
Wide receiver coach Alvis Whitted said during bowl prep in December he could not wait to see what kind of step the redshirt freshman duo of Skyler Bell and Markus Allen would make. After 15 practices it is clear that Bell took a significant one and it could be argued his spring was just one notch below Dike. An impressive athlete that can go up and get passes, Bell is also noticeably bigger since the end of the season. Meanwhile, it took a while for Allen to get going but he finished with a couple strong practices in the final week.
Keontez Lewis has all the intangibles you are looking for in a wide receiver – tall, fast, willing blocker and big-play potential. The UCLA transfer was on the receiving end of a bunch of shots down the field, which is an area Wisconsin desperately needs to improve after producing just two plays of 50 or more yards through the air over the last two years combined.
It was impossible not to be impressed with Dean Engram. He looks as natural at wide receiver as he did at cornerback and made noteworthy plays nearly every practice. The junior definitely gives the offense a different skill set than most of the other guys in the wide receiver room.
Projected depth chart
1) Jack Eschenbach (SR)
2) Clay Cundiff (JR)
3) Jaylan Franklin (SR)
4) Jack Pugh (RS FR)
1) Hayden Rucci (JR)
2) Cole Dakovich (SO)
3) Cam Large (SO)
This is easily the most uncertain position on offense after three of the tight ends missed all of spring and several more were lost at various points of the 15 practices. Putting together a depth chart at this point is a pure guess based on previous playing time.
Jack Eschenbach (shoulder) and Clay Cundiff (leg) should be ready for fall camp. Both have played meaningful snaps in their careers and offer new tight ends coach Chris Haering some experience. Due to the injuries, Jaylin Franklin was used a ton in the spring. Franklin’s athleticism is what catches your attention, but he’s coming around as a run blocker. Jack Pugh was turning heads late in the spring but went down with a right leg injury and missed the final two practices. It is unclear how serious that injury was. He is another really exciting athlete for the position.
Hayden Rucci missed the last seven games last year with a foot injury and was in and out of the lineup this spring. But when on the field, him and Cole Dakovich (returning from a knee injury) have a chance to be destroyers in the run game and could be involved in the play-action pass game. Cam Large was a potential answer at fullback last year before a knee injury at Purdue knocked him out for the season. He is still recovering but could figure in at FB if Jackson Acker does not come along as quick as the coaches would like.
Projected depth chart
1) Jack Nelson (RS SO)
2) Riley Mahlman (RS FR)
1) Tyler Beach (6th SR)
2) Dylan Barrett (RS SO) or Tanor Bortolini (JR)
1) Joe Tippmann (JR)
2) Tanor Bortolini (JR) or Cormac Sampson (SR)
1) Michael Furtney (SR)
2) Trey Wedig (RS SO)
3) JP Benzschawel (RS FR)
1) Logan Brown (JR)
2) Nolan Rucci (RS FR) or Trey Wedig (RS SO)
The first and second groups were essentially the same throughout the spring, but it is hard to imagine the lines looking the same in the fall. We know (or think we do) that Jack Nelson will be Wisconsin’s left tackle, and though he missed all of spring, Joe Tippmann will be at center. Tyler Beach and Michael Furtney seem to have the upper hand to be the starters at left and right guard, respectively. The biggest question remains at right tackle.
That is where former 5-star recruit Logan Brown lined up. Wisconsin moved Brown, whose development early in his career was hampered by a serious shoulder injury, to right tackle from the left side before spring. He mostly struggled during the period against Wisconsin’s very formidable front seven. He was not the only one to do so, but his mistakes were the most notable. The junior can be forgiven a little bit because he had never played right tackle before — high school or college — but the Badgers need more from him if he is going to be a starter.
If Brown is not the answer there, who would take his spot? Fellow 5-star recruit Nolan Rucci probably is not ready yet as a redshirt freshman. When Brown missed snaps in spring, it was Trey Wedig with the first-team offense. He could be an option. So, too, could Riley Mahlman. He backed up Nelson at left tackle and more than held his own there. The redshirt freshman spent much of his true freshman year playing on the left, but was on the right side almost exclusively in bowl prep.
The wildcard is Tanor Bortolini. He was the first-team center with Tippmann out this spring, but he has played four different positions already in his career. That includes at right tackle when he filled in for Logan Bruss in multiple games last season. If Joe Rudolph were still the offensive line coach, Bortolini would almost certainly be the right tackle. But because of his size, new coach Bob Bostad believes the junior is a better fit at one of the inside spots. Will he change his mind after what he saw from Brown this spring? That is a huge unknown.