Badgers: 2024 commits that could see the field early

Wednesday was a time for celebration for Wisconsin and the newest members of the Badgers. Coach Luke Fickell and his staff got signatures from 22 scholarship players that included nine 4-star recruits. With five offensive linemen, a highly-rated quarterback and a number of intriguing developmental pieces, the future appears bright, at least on the surface.

But college football is all about the here and now, so it was worth wondering which of the true freshmen could come in and help right away next fall. It’s not necessarily something that Wisconsin’s staff is looking at when targeting recruits, but they do see some common traits among those that end up playing early.

“You can kind of tell with the kids who love ball, naturally it kind of clicks a little sooner,” said Pat Lambert, Wisconsin’s Director of Recruiting. “Being able to find kids that it’s really important to, guys that love the game and that’s where it tends to naturally show up.”

On signing day last year, the names most talked about as guys that could come in and compete right away revolved around wide receiver Trech Kekahuna, safety Braedyn Moore, cornerbacks Jonas Duclona and Jace Arnold, and later nose guard Jamel Howard when he signed in February. Names like tight end Tucker Ashcraft and linebacker Christian Alliegro were afterthoughts by those outside the program. But those inside the building saw something in what the two did in their final prep seasons that led to bigger-than-expected roles this fall.

“Their senior film is the biggest indicator,” UW’s Director of Player Personnel Max Steinecker said. “When you turn on Christian Alliegro’s or Tucker Ashcraft’s senior film, you had a good idea these guys were going to come in and be some players that can see the field. A lot it’s based off need, but seeing an upward trajectory from the sophomore to junior to senior years, is an indicator for us as well.”

The returning talent at a particular position also plays a role, obviously. With Tyler Van Dyke transferring in from Miami and three other quarterbacks still in the room, it’s unlikely that 4-star recruit Mabrey Mettauer will play. The same likely goes for all of the offensive linemen and others that need time in the weight room to become college ready. Yet even if we think we know who has a chance and who doesn’t, Casey Rabach — a 9-year NFL veteran and Wisconsin’s Director of Scouting — says we don’t.

“There’s going to be a surprise in camp. There definitely is,” Rabach said. “As much film as we watch, and as much football as we’ve watched over the years, you can never predict 100-percent for sure.”

With that in mind, here’s a look at some 2024 commits that could potentially contribute early for the Badgers.

RBs Darrion Dupree, Dilin Jones

These two are obvious when it comes to making an early impact. Braelon Allen is off to the NFL, and though Chez Mellusi announced he would be returning in 2024, he has had two season-ending injuries in the last three years. The rest of the running back room has combined for 394 yards in their careers. Enter two 4-star commits in Dupree and Jones. Dupree was electric for Mt. Carmel (Chicago, Ill.) in his senior season accounting for 1,760 yards and 24 touchdowns as his team won a state title. Playing for an extremely talented Good Counsel squad in Maryland, Jones had 820 yards (8.2 ypc) and 12 scores in his final season. The two, and potentially 3-star running back Gideon Ituka, will have a huge opportunity to play in their first years on campus.

What Fickell said:

“Dilin is an all-around really, really good back with a lot of versatility that is just scratching the surface to the size that he can be. Darrion is a guy that I think is very unique and his ability to not just play in the backfield, but play outside the backfield, to catch the ball, I mean, incredible ball skills. And then Gideon is a guy that’s just different than those two. He’s more of the physical guy, that’s going to be 230 some pounds, that is a really downhill physical run guy that that gives us some balance to that room. So three guys, they bring some different attributes, but all three I would expect, should and could have a great opportunity to play next year.”

EDGE Anelu Lafaele

Wisconsin has become an attractive option for kids from Hawaii and that history certainly played a role for Lafaele, who looks up to former Badgers outside linebacker Nick Herbig. Back in 2020, Herbig came in and established himself as a force off the edge very early and went on to start for three years while racking up 21 sacks (eighth-most in school history) and 36 tackles for loss. It’s a different defensive system and Lafaele isn’t as highly rated as Herbig was, but it’s clear based on what they’ve done in the transfer portal that the Badgers are desperate for help on the outside. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Lafaele may be another answer for defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, especially as a pass rusher after accounting for 7.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss as a senior. He, like Stec, is expected to enroll early.

What Steinecker said:

“That was something we were kind of blown away with that there was that (Polynesian) pipeline here. They’re just tough kids that fit in at Wisconsin. Anelu is a twitched up kid who brings something that maybe we weren’t great at this past year and that’s pass rush. We’re excited about him continuing (that tradition).

DT Dillan Johnson

The defensive line is another position of need with key pieces of the front moving on, including Rodas Johnson and Gio Paez. The Badgers do get James Thompson Jr. and Curt Neal back, along with Cade McDonald and walk-on Ben Barten. They also have an intriguing piece in freshman Jamel Howard, a guy they won a hard-fought recruiting battle for last winter. Still, outside of Thompson Jr., there isn’t a lot of production and proven options for defensive line coach Greg Scruggs. That’s why it’s possible that Johnson could make some noise. A former Northwestern commit, he appears physically ready to play in the trenches where his wrestling background could come in handy. It’s one thing that Fickell, who is considered one of the best prep wrestlers in Ohio history, liked about the 6-foot-1, 285-pound Johnson.

What Fickell said:

“When he walks in the door here, he is the culture of what it is that we’re continuing to push here. I think when he walks in, he has a chance to thrive. He’s a very physical guy. I’m not saying he has the length and athleticism that maybe we were talking about (wanting), but a guy that has incredible amount of intangibles to be able to come in and I think be able to contribute and play right away.”

LB Thomas Heiberger

Fickell said Wednesday the goal in the class was to add length and athleticism. That’s exactly what they did in Heiberger at 6-foot-4, 210-pounds. He has drawn comparisons to Alliegro, who the Badgers ended up using in a third-down role as a pass rusher and quarterback spy over the last half of the season. Ranked as the No. 1 player in South Dakota, Heiberger will arrive in Madison next month.

What Fickell said:

“He’s got some length, he’s got some athleticism, now we just got to find kind of the fit, the position and continue to build. The great thing about Thomas is he gets to come in here in a few weeks, gets a jumpstart on not just being in the football program, but training with our guys. So we’ll get a better idea of where we can kind of get him positioned in the spring to give him as much of opportunity at as many reps as possible, because he’s another guy that I would say needs to help us and play next year. Just got to figure out where.”

TE Grant Stec

Wisconsin offensive coordinator Phil Longo loves slot receivers. He’s said that many times. But he’s also pretty fond of using tight ends and it was a part of the offense that was lacking in the first year for the Badgers. The trio of Riley Nowakowski, Hayden Rucci and Ashcraft combined for 24 catches, 254 yards and two touchdowns. That’s not nearly enough production, so even with at least two of the three returning next fall, Stec could fight for time. His highlight is littered with pancakes on running plays, while also showing off his skills as a pass catcher. Steinecker said Wednesday two things that could help Stec contribute early are the fact he’s 6-foot-6, 247 pounds and will be part of a group of early enrollees arriving next month.

A couple more that the staff mentioned: WR Kyan Berry-Johnson, LB Landon Gauthier