A few weeks ago, this site discussed the trend of quiet high achievers in the B1G, focusing on Nebraska at the time. While they may not get the publicity of the top tier like Ohio State does, the consistently high winning percentages over the past decade make schools like the Huskers and Wisconsin an attractive opportunity for prospects. Perhaps the facilities aren't as flashy and maybe the coach is best known for winning MWC championships instead of national ones, but you can be pretty sure you'll get a good education and win your share of ballgames.
This safe bet is especially true for offensive linemen and running backs. Like, REALLY true for running backs. Take a stroll through the last few Wisconsin recruiting classes with me, won't you?
2013: 4* RB Corey Clement rushes for 547 yards and 7 touchdowns on 67 carries, averaging 8.2 (!!) yards per carry. Already considered one of the top RB NFL prospects in his class.
2012: 4* RB Vonte Jackson enters the program with lots of hype before suffering three torn anterior cruciate knee ligaments in two years, is now attempting a comeback at safety.
2011: 4* RB Melvin Gordon gradually saw his role grow as successful backs trickled out into the NFL, to the point where he ran for 1609 yards this past season on 206 carries. Figures to be one of the first backs drafted if he leaves after this season.
2010: 3* RB James White bursts onto the scene with a 1000 yard rushing season during his freshman campaign. Although his productivity dips a bit in his sophomore and junior seasons, he finishes his career by running for 1444 yards on 221 carries with 13 touchdowns. He was drafted in the fourth round by the Patriots in May.
2009: 4* RB Montee Ball runs for 1923 and 1830 yards in his junior and senior seasons, scoring 55 rushing touchdowns as an upperclassman. He was selected in the second round of the 2013 draft by the Broncos, where he ran for 559 yards and 4 touchdowns.
It's an incredible run of productivity, one that likely would have sent five running backs (Jackson was pretty highly touted coming out of high school) into the NFL in consecutive years if not for an unfortunate injury bug for Jackson. The best part? It's certainly not over. This year's addition to recent Wisconsin RB studs is MD RB Taiwan Deal, a big-bodied bruiser from powerhouse Maryland high school DeMatha. I could tell you all about his game in nuanced detail, but I don't think anything I say would do him as much justice as this play does.
With Clement hoping to replace White in Wisconsin's 1-2 punch, Deal will likely try to recreate a freshman season like his.
The strong talent development tradition, of course, is also alive on the offensive line. The two position groups have created an incredibly strong, mutually beneficial relationship- the big uglies give the backs the space to make plays, the backs make big plays when nothing is there. This year's class features 6 new linemen to bolster the position group and is headlined by hometown (kind of) product Jaden Gault. The versatile tackle chose the Badgers over offers from the likes of Ohio State, Tennessee and Oklahoma. As everyone knows, offensive line recruiting is a crapshoot and evaluation is mostly bullshit, but I do also really like the tapes from OL Michael Deiter and George Panos.
On the offensive side of the ball, Wisconsin will also be looking to replace the production of chronic overachiever Jared Abbrederis. One talent they could look at to aid in that regard is OH ATH Dareian Watkins. The former Northwestern commit is still raw, but has deceptive speed and a heady knowledge of the game (since he played QB in high school). Watkins might not be alone in making an early splash, however. The thin receiving corps will need other members of the '14 class to step in early. GA WR Krenwick Sanders is likely the most physically prepared for B1G play, but I'm partial to FL Natrell Jamerson's speed and upside at the position in the long term.
Perhaps the most interesting signee in the class, however, is FL QB DJ Gillins. The dual-threat signal caller from Florida enrolled early and is trying to get in the mix for the starting role. While he's too raw to be much of a threat this year, his lightning quick athleticism will make an intriguing option down the road. It should be pretty far down the road, though, because Gillins still has a lot to learn about being a QB. His arm strength is decent but nothing special, he stands in the pocket far too long, and he seems to lock onto his first read. QB Coach Andy Ludwig has his work cut out for him- best case scenario, Gillins could develop into one of the most dangerous weapons in the B1G by the time he's an upperclassman. Worst case? His athleticism could translate to any number of other positions, most likely WR.
Of course, the Badgers didn't exclusively recruit the offensive side of the ball. WI DEs Billy Hirschfield and Conor Sheehy are two big, semi athletic DE/DT hybrids who likely heard the words "JJ Watt" during their recruitment more times than they can count. Sheehy's highlights are a joy to watch, if only because his competition is so bad that it looks like they released Watt on a Pop Warner field after someone called him fat. The DLine group missed out when WI DT Craig Evans ultimately decommited and signed with Michigan State, but it sounds as though academics played as much of a role as anything in that decision.
Between Gillins, the WR group, and the LB/DB group, it's clear that a main focus of this recruiting class was to increase team speed. IL LB TJ Edwards still has a lot to learn about what it means to be a linebacker, but his raw natural ability could be formed into a very proficient asset against some of the up-tempo, spread teams on Wisconsin's docket. I also think the underrated S D'Cota Dixon stands a good chance of being Wisconsin's next under-sized standouts at safety.
All in all, it's a very strong class that sets up plenty of successors for the future and shows Andersen's desire to speed up with the rest of college football. It's not surprising that Wisconsin has stayed strong in the face of rising B1G schools like Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State- Andersen is one of the few coaches in this league that I've seen from every angle who I'd still want to play for.