This is the last week of the Maize n Brew Big Ten Preview, and what better way to close it out than with a Q&A with Louis of the Wisconsin SB Nation site Bucky's 5th Quarter. Be sure to check out the work Louis and the other guys are doing over there.
The Wisconsin offense loses some important pieces in 2012, but perhaps none will be bigger than the loss of Russell Wilson at quarterback. Wilson provided a new dimension to the offense, set the NCAA single season record for pass eff., and was capable of everything from managing games against sub-par opponents with ruthless efficiency to sparking impressive comebacks late in games. Danny O'Brien has talent and experience, but what do you see his role being in the Wisconsin offense, and will that be enough given the losses elsewhere?
Danny O'Brien won't be Russell Wilson or Scott Tolzien. That is simply too much to ask of a guy hovering just below a 57 percent career completion rate. The good news is that Wisconsin has been doing more with less at the position for years. If the running game is effective, a mistake-adverse quarterback can win a lot of games. For example, Wisconsin went 12-1 in 2006 with John Stocco completing 59 percent of his passes and throwing for 1,000 yards less than Wilson. He threw just six interceptions to 17 touchdowns, however, while P.J. Hill averaged 5.0 yards a carry on his way to over 1,500 yards rushing. O'Brien struggled with turnovers last season, but he was forced into a QB-centric spread system that was outside his wheelhouse. With Montee Ball behind him O'Brien can simply play caretaker this year, and perhaps by his senior season morph into a very valuable asset.
The one place Wisconsin doesn't lose anyone is at running back, and the returning contributors there combine to form one of the best backfields in the country. Montee Ball was a touchdown machine in 2011 and eventually replaced Wilson as the Badger's Heisman candidate. James White had a down year, but that is only once you consider that he didn't hit 1000-yards again after a breakout freshman campaign. There are losses all over the offensive line and the passing game will have a hard time staying at the same level of production and efficiency with Wilson and Nick Toon gone. Do you think Ball can have another year as successful as last, or will the Wisconsin running attack take a step back?
I believe the offensive line can and will reload, but without Russell Wilson at quarterback Montee Ball will almost assuredly take a step back. Even if Wilson found an extra year of eligibility, it would be asking a lot of Ball to replicate the ridiculous numbers he produced. Ball will be the focus of the offense this year. Full stop. Without the added balance of an efficient passing attack, defenses will be keyed on stopping Ball first and foremost. I still think he puts up great numbers, however. If Ball only averaged 5.0 yards per carry last season instead of 6.3, he would have had 1,535 yards rushing. I think that's a good benchmark for this season.
This seems like a good time to say that I think the offense will be fine next season. Considering how absurdly good the offense was last season, "fine" is still a big step back. Wisconsin should be able to score enough to make its way back to the B1G Championship game, however.
Wisconsin has been producing NFL-sized offensive linemen for years now, and three just left for the league at the end of last year. With offensive line coach Bob Bostad gone to the Tampa Bay Bucs, can Wisconsin keep rolling out draft picks on the offensive line?
Todd McShay released a disgustingly early mock draft right after the 2012 NFL Draft that had Ricky Wagner going No. 2 overall to the St. Louis Rams. That might have been a bit ambitious, but everything I've seen has him going at least in the late first round, which is where Kevin Zeitler went. So for the immediate future the answer is "yes," and beyond that I'll say "probably." Mike Markuson produced three second rounders and a first rounder (Shawn Andrews) when he coached the offensive line at Arkansas from 1998-2007, and he was on board at Ole Miss for Michael Oher's development. He oversaw six All-Americans and a Rimington Award winner in his last nine seasons. I don't know if his track record is as sterling as Bostad's, but it's pretty darn good.
Bostad isn't the only member of the coaching staff to move on from the sidelines of Camp Randall. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst is now the head coach at Pittsburgh, and has taken few position coaches with him. Chris Ash is back to run the defense, but it will be up to new coordinator Matt Canada to keep the offense performing at a high level. What kind of growing pains do you expect with the new faces on the sideline this year? Will there be any changes in game plan or philosophy?
Matt Canada has been adamant that he won't be changing a single thing about Wisconsin's offensive philosophy this year despite his experience with the spread at Indiana and NIU (not that Bret Bielema, Barry Alvarez or millions of Badger fans would let him). The decision is a wise one, considering how finely tuned Wisconsin is to a run-first pro-style offense. We will have to wait to see what Canada's tendencies are as a play-caller, and further down the road how players develop under the new staff. In theory, absolutely nothing will change and Wisconsin won't skip a beat.
Wisconsin returns two of the better linebackers in the conference in Mike Taylor and Chris Borland. However, there don't seem to be many well-known players around the rest of the defense. Who will be the next big name to step up on the defensive line, and who will do so in the secondary?
There are few big names, but also few crippling losses. I expect the defensive line to even improve. Louis Nzegwu (4.5 sacks, 7.0 tackles for loss) is gone, but defensive tackles Ethan Hemer, Beau Allen and Jordan Kohout all return with plenty of experience, as does steady defensive end Brendan Kelly (3.0 sacks, 5.0 TFL). The biggest addition may be the return of David Gilbert, who was injured for the season against South Dakota. He had three sacks in the four games he appeared in before he broke his foot, albeit against wimpy competition. Still, many expect Gilbert to be the Badgers' best pass-rusher along the line next season.
The secondary will be a little shakier, but again they get some help from a returning injured player. Devin Smith started opposite Antonio Fenelus at cornerback before being lost for the season early with a broken foot of his own. He was able to get a medical redshirt, however, and is expected to start once again. Marcus Cromartie, who stepped up in place of Smith last season, will man the other spot, and the Badgers have good depth with Peniel Jean and Devin Gaulden. At safety, the Badgers lose a reliable stalwart in Aaron Henry. Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson should improve the position from an athletic standpoint, but both were also responsible for major lapses last season.
The one area where Wisconsin was lacking in 2011 was on defense. The defense as a whole was solid and often put the offense in good positions, but against good offenses the Badgers had problems, and the defense was unable to carry the load in games when the offense struggled to get itself going. The two regular season losses ultimately came down to the defense's inability to get a stop late in the game after the offense took the lead. Will the Badgers be able to improve on defense this year, and will it be enough to offset the losses on the offensive side of the ball.
The losses on defense are hardly catastrophic, and given the return of key injured players and another year of experience I think the defense will improve for the 2012 season. As you said, Chris Borland and Mike Taylor are playmakers, and Wisconsin should once again be tough to run against inside. They still don't have the athleticism to take on a speedier spread offense, however. Forget Oregon for a second. Wisconsin was down 17-7 at halftime to Illinois last season. The Illini averaged 5.4 yards per carry in the first half beating Wisconsin to the corner with Jason Ford and Donovonn Young. If Ron Zook hadn't decided to hold quarterback tryouts in the second half, Wisconsin may have lost that game. Heading into next season, speed once again looks like an Achilles heel.
With that said, Ohio State is out of the postseason and Penn State and Illinois are both in transition. Wisconsin doesn't have to be that good to be good enough to make the Championship Game. Thankfully, I think they are a bit better than that.
Wisconsin's recruiting has never been elite -- and frankly never needed to be with the way the Badgers develop talent -- but last year had to be a disappointment. The class ended up being very small (partly because of the small outgoing senior class), and the Badgers lost a recruit to the Urban Meyer snake-oil. What do you see developing in the 2013 class right now, and what needs are most important for Wisconsin to fill after such a small 2012 class?
Wisconsin's 2012 class was a disappointment in size only. There was still plenty of quality talent with offensive lineman Dan Voltz, linebacker Vince Biegel and running back Vonte Jackson, all of who were consensus four-stars I believe. Wisconsin has redshirted a lot of players over the last 4-5 years, resulting in what will be two back-to-back small classes.
Wisconsin is always in the market for quality linemen on both sides of the ball and recently they picked up four-star defensive tackle Darius Latham, who had offers from Michigan and Notre Dame among other big-name programs. They have also addressed a clear need with two wide receivers. Rob Wheelright, a Rivals three-star, sported a Michigan offer before committing to the Badgers. Otherwise, quarterback depth may be the biggest issue with O'Brien and Jon Budmayr set graduate following the 2013 season. The Badgers don't appear to be high on the list of any top prospects this year, however, so they may hold off until the 2014 class to address the need.
I wrote about this earlier in the week, but Wisconsin under Bret Bielema has taken another step forward from the Alvarez years. Once a solid middle-tier Big Ten program capable of making a run at the conference title every so often, Wisconsin is now one of the heaviest hitters and enters a second year as the odds-on favorite to win the Leaders division. Do you think this kind of success is sustainable, or do you think Wisconsin is susceptible to an Iowa-like backslide in the coming years because of turnover in the coaching staff and the graduation of so many great players?
I think about this question a lot and still don't really have a clue. Wisconsin really had a tremendous offensive staff in Madison. Nearly every departed offensive coach made an upward move. Paul Chryst became the head coach at Pitt, Bob Bostad is now the O-line coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and tight ends coach Joe Rudolph became Chryst's offensive coordinator. At the same time, I think the new staff has a lot of potential.
I'd be disappointed if Wisconsin doesn't compete for the Rose Bowl the next two seasons. After that, I think we will see how much we really miss Chryst and Co. once the offensive line turns over and Bart Houston (or whoever) is broken in as the starting quarterback under Matt Canada's tutelage.
Staff turnover really stilted what should have been tremendous momentum heading into recruiting for the 2013 class. The good news is that another Rose Bowl season could pay big dividends for a large 2014 class that may prove critical to the program's future.
Iowa's slide is always in the back of my mind because both teams followed such similar models of success. There is nothing that says Wisconsin has to follow the same sort of descent, however.