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College Football Preview 2015-2016: 21. Wisconsin Badgers

Corey Clement
21. Wisconsin Badgers

2014-2015 Record: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten)
Coach: Paul Chryst, 1st year (0-0 overall)
Recruiting Rundown
Key Losses: RB Melvin Gordon, S Peniel Jean
Heisman Hopeful: RB Corey Clement
Breakout Player: RB Corey Clement

It really wasn't a fun end to 2014 in Madison. Following yet another strong regular season that included a 10-2 record and a 7-1 conference mark, disaster struck in December. First, the Badgers were slaughtered by Ohio State 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship Game and then just mere days later, lost their head coach, Gary Andersen to Oregon State. A season-ending victory in the Outback Bowl made some fans forget, but a new coach will need a transition. Though, Paul Chryst, who arrives from Pittsburgh and is a former assistant, won't change too much. He will keep Wisconsin running the ball, playing efficiently and working hard on defense. Even without record-setting back Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin is extremely talented and yet another young ball carrier is ready to star. It appears Wisconsin is once more ready to return to the Big Ten Championship Game, this time with hopefully a better performance.

Backfield: No program in college football has had the success the Badgers have had with so little at the quarterback position. With the exception of Russell Wilson in 2011, Wisconsin has not had much of a difference maker behind center but still finds ways to make it to Rose Bowls and win double-digit games. Once more, the Badgers won't have too much of a star at quarterback. But, senior Joel Stave at least brings plenty of experience. After losing his job to begin 2014, Stave took back over and was decent. Even so, he completed just over 53 percent of his passes and had 10 interceptions to his nine touchdown passes. Stave will rarely if ever throw the ball down the field but he has a quick release and pretty strong accuracy. He also has decent dual threat ability if needed. Though, as a senior he must cut down on his mistakes. Though, Stave won't have to be Superman for Wisconsin, as Chryst and new offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph will keep the Wisconsin way going: run the ball, run the ball and run the ball some more. Wisconsin has long had a long list of stud backs from Ron Dayne in the 1990's to Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon more recently. The next in the long line of stud backs? Junior Corey Clement, who is ready for an absolute monster season. Even backing up Gordon, Clement rushed for 949 yards and nine scores, averaging 6.5 yards every time he touched the ball. Clement is just as explosive as Gordon and even has a little bit more power and strength. He is clearly ready to be the feature back in Madison and ready to become a household name. Also making his return is Dare Ogunbowale, who made the switch from cornerback to tailback before 2014, and saw success, rushing for 193 yards in just 34 opportunities. Chryst and Rudolph can't use Clement every single rush, so expect Ogunbowale and others to see plenty of chances. True freshmen Bradrick Shaw and Jordan Stevenson were two steals from SEC and Big 12 territory (Shaw from Birmingham, Alabama and Stevenson from Dallas). Both will look to see chances, especially Stevenson who is generally viewed as the higher-rated prospect. Fullback is in good hands with the return of senior Derek Watt, a steady veteran. The younger brother of former Badger and Houston Texan superstar J.J., Watt is a sturdy blocker who will look to add something as a rusher.

Receivers: Wisconsin is never going to be the home of elite receivers, but there is some significant talent in the unit this year, which could help diversify the Badgers' offense. Stave, if he does hold on to the quarterback job, has the services of players like Alex Erickson and Jordan Frederick returning. Erickson quietly had a breakthrough in 2014, reeling in 55 receptions and 772 yards, for an average of 14 yards a reception. Those are strong numbers for any team, but on a power running offense like Wisconsin, it is even more impressive. Erickson and Stave seemed to grow a strong connection throughout last season, and he could be in store for an even bigger 2015, in his senior campaign. Joining Erickson, will be options like Frederick, who was solid last year, along with playmaking junior Reggie Love. Frederick had 13 catches for 126 yards a season ago, but he has all the tools for a stronger year. He has capable hands, deceptive speed and is a strong route runner. Love showed flashes of serious potential last season, but he also was relatively quiet. While Erickson and Frederick are talented, they aren't the deep threats that Love is. He can beat most defenders down the field and has the size and strength to make plays on jump balls. Sophomore George Rushing had as much rushes as receptions a season ago, but he also appears ready to step up. Rushing is a speedy quick target, who is an underrated blocker. Junior Robert Wheelwright is also ready for an expanded role, after recording just one lone catch in the 2014 campaign. Wheelwright has pretty good size at 6'3", but is prone to drops and will need time to develop into a stronger overall receiver. The tight end position could be a strength, with the return of senior Austin Traylor. Wisconsin's tight end position has been downright average since Travis Beckum years ago, but Traylor could change that. He isn't the quickest or smoothest receiver, but he is a big, capable target. Even if Traylor doesn't break out, sophomore Troy Fumagalli or true freshman Kyle Penniston could add some playmaking potential. Penniston, who came over from Mater Dei High in California (where a number of impact college football players have played high school ball) and he has the potential to be a very strong weapon in the passing game or as a blocker.

Offensive Line: As a whole, Wisconsin's offensive line is full of experience, and some real talent. There is size, and great run blockers all over the unit, not surprising at all, considering that is how Wisconsin recruits linemen. Up the middle, there may not be a better center in all of college football than junior Dan Voltz. The veteran started all 14 games for the Badgers last season and he helped lead Melvin Gordon to absolutely crazy numbers. At 6'3", 311 pounds, he is a powerful player who excels as a run blocker, not surprisingly. Another strength should be at the left tackle position, where senior Tyler Marz is back. Marz is a versatile linemen who can help a lot at pass blocking but is also adept at run blocking. The 320-plus-pounder moves very well for his size and he will be huge for Wisconsin against some of the conference's pass rushers. Wisconsin does lose starters beyond Marz and Voltz but there are players ready to step up that have waited for their time. Senior Ray Ball is slated to start at one of the guard spots. Ball is absolutely massive at 6'7", 325 pounds but has great vision for a linemen and can still get out and make blocks down the field for Clement and the Badgers other backs. The other guard spot, on the right side, is more of a question mark. Junior Logan Schmidt has experience, but Michael Deiter and others could give him a run for his money. Schmidt fits the mold of a Wisconsin linemen; a sturdy, stout linemen with a lot of ferocity and power. Deiter is a redshirt freshman who used his redshirt to get even larger, but may need some time to get fully adjusted to the Wisconsin offense. At right tackle, a number of people are also competing for the job, including junior Walker Williams, Hayden Biegel and incoming Jon Dietzen. Williams is a 6'7"  veteran with long arms and loads of potential. Biegel is a sophomore who is also huge but possesses a little more athleticism. Dietzen is just one of several linemen coming into Madison who could compete for snaps. Dietzen is a three-star prospect from inside the state (Seymour, Wisconsin) who joins others such as three-star David Moorman and Kevin Estes.

Defensive Line: Ever since J.J. Watt left town, Wisconsin has searched for another dominant pass rusher to anchor their defense. While the search still continues, they certainly have a player with the potential to have a breakout year. Sophomore Chikwe Obasih appeared in 14 games (started seven) for the Badgers in his redshirt freshman season and showed flashes of serious potential, despite recording just 1.5 sacks. Obasih was a pretty big recruit for the Badgers in 2013, rated as a four-star recruit by, and he could soon be the team's top playmaker on defense. Wisconsin will also be searching for a greater contribution from the likely starter at defensive end across from Obasih: senior Jake Keefer. Keefer had just eight tackles and one sack in 2014, but he is a hard-working end with good instincts. He isn't as explosive or flashy as Obasih can be, but he has all the tools to be a solid starter for the Badgers and defensive coordinator Dave Arranda. Sophomore Alec James will also search for snaps at either end spot. James saw two starts last season, but struggled to really make much of an impact. With more opportunities, he could also be a player with breakout potential. Up the middle, Wisconsin possesses some pretty good athletes at nose tackle. Junior Arthur Goldberg is ready to start. At 6'3", 290 pounds he is a little bit undersized for the position, but he is quick and is a strong tackler, even in space if needed. Sophomore Conor Sheehy will also compete for snaps at the spot, and he has the size at 6'5" to get in the quarterback's eyes and be very disruptive. Newcomer Olive Sagapolu was yet another find from the West Coast, who will also hope to show coaches enough to see some chances in his first season in Madison.

Vince Biegel
Linebackers: While Arranda and Wisconsin are certainly hoping Obasih, James or Keefer could breakout on the defensive line, they will most likely lean more heavily on their linebacker corps for pass rushing and run defense. The unit loses the team's top player in sacks in Derek Landisch (16 tackles for loss and 9 sacks last season), but it still has talent and versatility throughout it. The top returning talent is junior Vince Biegel, who was an All-Big Ten linebacker last season. Biegel was also a disruptive force from start to end in 2014, recording 16.5 TFL and 7.5 sacks. Biegel is a strong-willed athlete with a great mind for the game and a well built frame. The outside linebacker will once more be returning to give opposing offenses problems, and expect Arranda to give him plenty of opportunities off blitzes. The other outside 'backer position should also be a strength, with the return of another senior, Joe Schobert. Schobert picked up 69 tackles over the course of last season, and 13.5 tackles for loss. Combined, him and Biegel, recorded 30 tackles for loss. Both are disruptive forces, and opponents will constantly have to be adding extra blockers or attempting plays away from them, but that won't be easy. The questions in the unit will be in the middle, where the lose of Landisch hurts a ton. Landisch helped ease the lose of four-year contributor at middle linebacker Chris Borland, but the middle of the unit is now very inexperienced. Junior Leon Jacobs is sure to see some chances in 2015, likely starting at one of the inside 'backer positions. Jacobs had 28 tackles a year ago, but he has talent. Jacobs is an athletic playmaker who helps a lot in coverage, which will certainly help with Biegel and Schobert looking to make plays in the backfield and in run defense. Sophomore Jack Cichy will also search for more snaps at either inside linebackers slots, but also impress if he gets chances on special teams, which may be more likely. Three-star recruit Nick Thomas was a quality pickup from Bradenton, Florida who should also fight for opportunities among others such as redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards and D'Cota Dixon. Edwards is a tremendous athlete who played multiple sports in high school and has the versatility to play either inside or outside for the Badgers this season. There is depth at the outside linebacker positions as well, with veterans like senior Jesse Hayes returning. While there are questions in the middle of the unit without Landisch, Arranda will let both Schobert and Biegel be very aggressive, and it could help Wisconsin's front seven grow into a very formidable unit.

Secondary: The strength of the Wisconsin defense, and possibly the team as a whole, will be their secondary, if they figure out the things that caused them to be humiliated in that 59-0 loss to Ohio State, a team led by a third-stringer QB making his first start (although Cardale Jones is clearly worlds better than most third-stringers). It starts with senior Michael Caputo, an All-Conference talent a year ago, who will once more leaned on to make plays for the Wisconsin defense. At free safety, Caputo has terrific range, and has no fear, despite him being smaller than most. Caputo is always ready to make plays, evidenced by his extremely impressive 106 tackles in 2014, six for loss and six pass deflections. The cornerback positions could also be considerable strengths, with talent like Darius Hillary returning. Also a senior, Hillary was also tremendous throughout 2014, recording 41 tackles and five pass deflections. Hillary is a disciplined talent, but is still incredibly quick and will battle with junior Sojourn Shelton for top cornerback duties. Shelton had six pass deflections last year, and also brings immense athleticism in a smaller package than Hillary. Both Shelton and Hillary are tremendous playmakers, but don't make too many mistakes. The Big Ten is not really a pass-happy league, but having veterans like them covering the talents inside the conference is definitely a plus for the Badgers. The strong safety position is the only real question mark in the defensive backfield, as the Badgers will miss Peniel Jean, who had 59 tackles and led the team with two picks last season. Former quarterback Tanner McEvoy is a legitimate candidate to win the job at strong safety (if he doesn't earn the quarterback job, which is a slim possibility). McEvoy is 6'6" and a tremendous athlete with good speed and agility. He just didn't have the arm to make it as a quarterback but he could be something as a defensive back. The former QB has an advantage; he knows what it is like to be the one throwing against safeties and other defensive backs. Sophomore Lubern Figaro could give him a push for the position though. Figaro showed flashes of something great last year, picking up 24 tackles and returning an interception 43 yards. Figaro is significantly smaller, but quicker and more natural at the position than McEvoy. Another possibility for the strong safety spot could be incoming Arrington Farrar. The College Park, Georgia native can possibly even see snaps at linebacker because he has the size and strength, but the Badgers will most likely use him more as a defensive back. He is rated as a four-star prospect by 24/7 Sports and he could really be something down the line. Depth across the unit shouldn't be too much of an issue with players like senior Devin Gaulden returning at cornerback after seeing some real action last year, along with rising sophomore Joe Ferguson, a Madison native. The goal for the secondary as a whole should be creating more turnovers, as it had just six interceptions throughout 2014, very unimpressive.

Special Teams: Incumbent starter Rafael Gaglianone, a Sao Paulo, Brazil native, is the most likely starter at kicker for Wisconsin, after knocking in 19 of 22 field goals in 2014. Though, junior Andrew Endicott could certainly push him. Senior punter Drew Meyer also returns to give special teams a major boost.

The formula for winning in Wisconsin won't change: the Badgers will run the ball behind a humungous offensive line and play well on defense. While the Big Ten East will be brutally tough this year, outside of likely Minnesota, the West looks like it is Wisconsin's to lose. Things start out tough with a meeting against Alabama in Arlington, Texas to begin the year. Even if the Badgers can't pull out a victory against yet another tough SEC opponent, they could still be in the CFP mix, because the rest of their schedule is pretty soft, with the exclusion of a trip to Lincoln against Nebraska and a meeting with Minnesota in the regular season finale that could decide the division. If Clement truly takes over Gordon's production, which he could legitimately do, and Stave perhaps takes some modest steps at QB, Wisconsin will once more be very dangerous and set themselves up for another double-digit win season.

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