Looking ahead to the Badgers in 2015: Offense
The book has barely closed on Wisconsin’s 2014 football season, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look ahead to 2015. After all, it’s already been seven days since the Outback Bowl.
The Badgers will lose several key pieces off a team that finished 11-3, won the Big Ten West Division and captured its first bowl victory since 2009. Other players will return to try and solidify their roles as starters. So, who is in a position to step up? Let’s take a look at what we should expect from Wisconsin’s offensive position groups first. On Friday, we’ll examine Wisconsin’s defense and special teams.
Joel Stave finished the 2014 season 8-1 as the starter, but those aren’t the numbers most Badgers fans will examine as Wisconsin heads into the offseason. Instead, they’ll point to the fact Stave threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine) and completed only 53.4 percent of his passes. How much was Stave responsible for Wisconsin’s success, and how much of the credit belongs to the offensive line and tailback Melvin Gordon?
There’s no question Stave improved as he gained confidence after being named the full-time starter in the sixth game of the season. In wins against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, Stave completed 29 of 45 passes (64.4 percent) for 400 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. But then he threw one touchdown and six interceptions against Ohio State and Auburn.
Which version of Stave will show up next season? And will it be enough to fend off several challengers? The biggest feather in Stave’s cap will be his 28 career starts. You simply cannot replicate all that game experience, no matter how much talent someone else might have. Stave did not play like a man with that many starts in Wisconsin’s final two games, but new coach Paul Chryst — an offensive guru — could help showcase Stave’s strengths more while concealing his weaknesses.
Perhaps no players were happier about Chryst’s hire than Stave and Bart Houston, who would seem to have his best chance at dethroning Stave this fall. Stave and Houston are the only two full-fledged pocket passers on the roster, and Houston just may have the best arm on the team. Houston, who will be a fourth-year junior next season, has thrown only four career passes. His window of opportunity is slim, but it is here.
The Tanner McEvoy experiment at quarterback, it would seem, could be over. Barry Alvarez acknowledged after the Outback Bowl that McEvoy needed to be on the field somewhere because of his value to the team and mentioned wide receiver or safety. It seems hard to believe Chryst would want to implement some type of two-quarterback system that involves different styles with the potential to disrupt the flow of the offense. McEvoy likely would have more value at safety, though he remains an excellent running threat at quarterback.
D.J. Gillins will learn plenty from playing under Chryst, and he is a pass-first quarterback who runs second. Gillins spent last season on the scout team learning the terminology and the way this program operates. But he’ll also be only a redshirt freshman, and it would appear highly unlikely coaches would start him over Stave. Perhaps Gillins’ time will come in 2016, when Stave and McEvoy are gone.
Finally, Austin Kafentzis will make his long awaited appearance in Madison during spring ball, which will be extremely beneficial for him. He’ll have an opportunity to learn the system of this new coaching staff months before other freshmen and see where he stacks up in the quarterback competition. Like Gillins, Kafentzis possess a world of talent but does not have the type of experience that Stave has. The ceiling for Gillins and Kafentzis is much higher than Stave, who was a walk-on that didn’t receive any college scholarship offers. But for now, Stave seems to have the edge in the starting quarterback competition.
Melvin Gordon is gone, and that sentence may take a while to settle in for Badgers fans. Gordon produced one of the finest seasons we’ll ever see by a college football running back. The question now is: How in the world does Wisconsin replace his production?
When Montee Ball left, there was Gordon and James White. When White left, there was Gordon and Corey Clement. Now, there is Clement and a bunch of unproven players.
Clement has earned the opportunity to be Wisconsin’s No. 1 tailback after rushing for 949 yards with nine touchdowns as a sophomore. He averaged 10.5 carries per game, and one has to figure that number will at least double. But Clement cannot single-handedly carry the Badgers in the run game, and that’s where things become tricky — at least as we stand in January.
Dare Ogunbowale will be a redshirt junior, and last season was his first at tailback after he was switched from cornerback because of the Badgers’ depth issues in the backfield. Ogunbowale rushed for 193 yards with a touchdown and averaged 5.7 yards per carry in mop-up duty. Still, this is not his natural position, and there are several other talented tailbacks that could earn backup carries.
Taiwan Deal, a 6-foot, 216-pounder, has the tough, downhill running style of a traditional Wisconsin tailback. He likely would have earned Ogunbowale’s third-string carries if not for an injury that forced him to take a redshirt season as a freshman. Caleb Kinlaw also could be another option. He took a redshirt year while battling an injury and is more of a shifty, change-of-pace runner.
Incoming freshman Jordan Stevenson has generated plenty of buzz, as high school prospects tend to do. He rushed for 2,511 yards and 31 touchdowns this season at South Oak Cliff in Texas and de-committed from the Texas Longhorns before picking the Badgers. Could he be mentally strong enough to leapfrog the rest of Wisconsin’s depth chart? He’ll certainly have a chance to prove himself in fall camp, as will fellow incoming freshman Davon Crookshank, a three-star tailback from Missouri City, Texas.
One has to imagine the wide receiver group is sick of hearing about how it is one of the weak links in Wisconsin’s offense. But this unit didn’t do much to dispel that notion in 2014, when only three receivers caught at least 13 passes. And one of those players, Kenzel Doe (17 receptions), has used up his eligibility.
Alex Erickson deserves credit for stepping up in a big way to try and replace the productivity of Jared Abbrederis. Erickson caught 55 passes for 772 yards and three touchdowns to become Wisconsin’s No. 1 threat. The majority of UW’s other pass plays went to tight ends and running backs. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. But the wide receivers need to play more of an integral role in 2015, particularly with the departure of tight end Sam Arneson and tailback Melvin Gordon.
Who is in a position to contribute? Well, everybody. Let’s start with the upperclassmen: Jordan Fredrick, Reggie Love and Rob Wheelwright.
Fredrick is best known for his exceptional blocking skills, but he recognizes he needs to contribute more as a pass catcher as well. He caught 13 passes for 126 yards but hasn’t caught a touchdown pass since he was a freshman in 2012. In fact, his freshman numbers — 17 catches, 196 yards, one touchdown — remain the best of his career. If he could become a viable No. 2 option, it would take significant pressure off Erickson.
Love and Wheelwright, meanwhile, produced perhaps the most disappointing 2014 seasons. Love excelled during fall camp, scored a 45-yard touchdown run on a fly sweep against LSU and then essentially disappeared. He caught two passes for 15 yards and seemed to drop on the depth chart as the season progressed. Wheelwright, one of the most highly regarded wideouts in recent memory, dealt with a preseason injury and took time to return to full strength. But he caught only one pass for 17 yards and barely saw the field. It’s time for both players to take a significant step up in their junior seasons.
Krenwick Sanders, George Rushing and Natrell Jamerson will be sophomores, and all three showed their potential in 2014. Rushing is probably the most big-play-ready player among the three. He caught five passes for 62 yards and could leapfrog Love and Wheelwright if they’re not careful.
Wisconsin has two wide receiver commits in the Class of 2015 — Brandyn Lee and Andrew James. Both players should help eventually, but the Badgers rarely have freshmen contribute in a meaningful way at that position. Sanders and Jamerson, for example, combined to catch one pass for 10 yards.
Wisconsin is absolutely loaded at this position because it returns Derek Watt, Derek Straus and Austin Ramesh. Ramesh caught three passes for 18 yards with a touchdown this season and gained valuable experience while Watt and Straus were out with injuries. Watt has so much versatility that he could play some more tight end, as the previous coaching staff had hoped.
These players happen to play a position that goes unnoticed. But blocking for the running backs and protecting the quarterback is just as important from the fullback position as it is from the offensive line. And Wisconsin should feel good about its depth here, barring any significant injuries in 2015.
The trio of Rob Havenstein, Kyle Costigan and Dallas Lewallen was exceptional last season. They’ll leave Wisconsin having started a combined 98 games on the offensive line. How the heck do the Badgers maintain that level of success? We’re about to find out.
What we know is that left tackle Tyler Marz will be the unquestioned leader of the offensive line. Marz will be a senior with 38 games under his belt — including the last 27 as a starter. Dan Voltz, who suffered a broken leg against Auburn, will be the team’s center, assuming he is healthy at the start of the season. The rest of the offensive line will be comprised of players with no starting experience.
Ray Ball figures to step in at left guard and replace Lewallen. Ball played well as a fill-in against Auburn after Voltz suffered his injury and Lewallen shifted over to center. He has appeared in 31 career games, though he has yet to make a start, and seems the most ready among Wisconsin’s backups.
Michael Deiter, who will be a redshirt freshman, is a likely candidate to step in and play, perhaps at right guard. Deiter was a backup center last season and impressed former offensive line coach T.J. Woods. But that still leaves right tackle as a major concern. Whoever earns the job will have a tough time comparing to Havenstein, but the Badgers need somebody who can simply keep the quarterback upright.
In a perfect world, perhaps Jaden Gault could be ready to play in time for the 2015 season. Gault missed last year while battling depression but is one of the most highly touted linemen on the team. The recruiting website 24/7 Sports rated him as the No. 4 tackle in the nation for his class. Other players who could be in the mix for playing time on the line are Hayden Biegel, Walker Williams, Micah Kapoi, George Panos, Jacob Maxwell, Beau Benzschawel.
Wisconsin is adding a nice haul of offensive linemen in the Class of 2015, including David Moorman, Sam Madden, Kevin Estes and Jon Dietzen. But true freshmen aren’t generally ready to play at the level Wisconsin needs out of its offensive linemen.
Wisconsin will miss the leadership and production of Sam Arneson, who finished second on the team in receptions (29) and yards (387) and first in receiving touchdowns (four). Still, the Badgers should have no shortage of options among its returning tight ends.
The name at the top of that list is Troy Fumagalli. As a redshirt freshman, he caught 14 passes for 187 yards and actually caught a pass in 10 consecutive games. Fumagalli became one of the most reliable safety valves for Wisconsin’s offense. Against Ohio State and Auburn, he caught four passes for 42 yards, including a huge 14-yard catch on third-and-8 during overtime against Auburn. And with Arneson gone, he’ll be the team’s top pass-catching tight end. Another name to watch could be T.J. Watt, who dealt with injuries that kept him out last season.
Austin Traylor, who will be a redshirt senior, is not particularly consistent as a pass catcher. He caught three passes for 24 yards in 2014. But he excels as a run blocker and pass protector and will be counted on to continue in that role next season.
Wisconsin does have one incoming tight end in the Class of 2015, and he’s a good one. Kyle Penniston is one of two four-star recruits for the Badgers in the class, according to Rivals.com, and picked Wisconsin over big-time offers from the likes of Florida State, Miami and Oklahoma. He caught 31 passes for 419 yards with two touchdowns at Mater Dei High School in California. If he’s as good as many people expect, he could be the next in a long line of NFL tight ends from Wisconsin.
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