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College Football Preview 2022: 23. Wisconsin Badgers

Braelon Allen, Wisconsin

23. Wisconsin Badgers

One of the nation's top RB combos will keep Wisconsin in the Big Ten Title race, but significant defensive losses could hold them back

2021 Review
Wisconsin opened up their 2021 campaign with a conference game against Penn State, a low-scoring affair that saw the Nittany Lions win 16-10. The loss opened up a rough first month for the Badgers, who also dropped games to Notre Dame at Soldier Field and Michigan, beginning 1-3. Once Wisconsin was able to hit the bulk of their Big Ten schedule, they took advantage, winning their next seven games to move to 8-3, with a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in play. The Badgers finished the regular season in Minneapolis, where the offense sputtered in a defeat at the hands of arch-rival Minnesota. They would recover by rolling past Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl, leaving them at 9-4 on the year. Considering the slow start, it was a solid season for the Badgers, but leaves the program hoping for a return to the Big Ten Championship Game after a two-year hiatus.

2022 Outlook
Offense: There are important changes to the Badger offense, beginning with the coaching staff. Paul Chryst took back play-calling duties during the 2021 season but will relinquish them this year, as he brought in Bobby Engram to serve as the team's offensive coordinator. The hope is that Engram will help Wisconsin open up the offense, but it's fair to wonder whether the personnel is in place for him to do so.

Engram will absolutely need more from quarterback Graham Mertz, who enters a make-or-break year in 2022. Mertz was a highly touted recruit who had a smashing debut against Illinois to open up his Badger career, but since then? The results have been... less-than-stellar, to put it nicely. He's got a career 18-15 TD-INT ratio, while completing 60% of his throws. You can occasionally see the arm talent with some of the throws he makes, but the decision-making has been questionable and he seems to have lost confidence in himself. If there isn't growth early on this fall, it isn't crazy to speculate Wisconsin may try out backup Chase Wolf, who has been featured in several unique packages during his time in Madison.

The good news is that, once again, the quarterback is unlikely to be the focal point of the Badger offense. That honor will fall to tailback Braleon Allen, who took over feature back duties midseason and finished with 1,109 yards and 12 scores. He is now unquestionably "the guy" in this offense and will benefit from a full offseason learning the position, as he's a converted linebacker. Allen is also still growing, only 17 years old during his impressive run in 2021 (in case the broadcast didn't inform you enough), meaning there is likely plenty of untapped potential there.

Allen's dominance down the stretch overshadowed just how strong of a season former Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi was having before a season-ending knee injury. Mellusi totaled 815 yards over nine games for the Badgers, but struggled against elite defenses, particularly Notre Dame and Michigan. He's set to be 100 percent for the opener and while he'll be second-fiddle to Allen this year, don't overlook the role he'll play in this offense. There's depth behind Mellusi as well, with Brady Schipper and Isaac Guerendo back in town. Schipper saw an expanded role a season ago due to injury and proved to be at least capable, while Guerendo missed most of 2021 and spring camp. With so many options back at tailback, Wisconsin should be able to keep Allen relatively fresh, which could be a major advantage in 2022's second half.

The biggest question on Wisconsin's entire team, even more than quarterback, is the receiver corps. This wasn't exactly an elite group in 2021, and now loses their top three pass-catchers, including tight end Jake Ferguson. Junior Chimere Dike is set to take over as their top option after flashing the last two seasons. He had 19 receptions for 272 yards a year ago and has proven to be a tough cover, but is he ready to take an even larger load? His play is going to be a major X-factor for this entire offense. Behind him, there's very little, to no, proven commodities. Their top returning pass-catcher that isn't a back or tight end is redshirt freshman Markus Allen, who had three catches for 65 yards. Allen will get an opportunity to show what he can do, but other names to watch include Stephan Bracey Jr., Keontez Lewis, and Dean Engram. 

Tight end has long been a strength in the Badger offense, but losing a program staple like Ferguson stings. Expect the Badgers to lean on a committee approach to replace him, relying on Clay Cundiff and Jack Eschenbach in particular. Neither are the playmakers that Ferguson was, but Cundiff has flashed upside and has some shiftiness in the open field.

The biggest news on the offensive line is the departure of offensive line coach Joe Rudolph, who also served as associate head coach and offensive coordinator. It's a major loss and a surprising one; Rudolph has been with Chryst going back over a decade, serving as TE coach when Chryst was OC here and then following him to Pittsburgh. Rudolph took a similar position on Brent Pry's new staff at Virginia Tech, leaving Chryst without one of his most loyal and trusted assistants.

New O-Line coach Bob Bostad has previously served in the same role and has plenty to work with here. Tyler Beach, Jack Nelson, and Joe Tippmann are proven veterans who should start once again in 2022, although they could shift around on the line based on team need. Don't be surprised if the young guys start to show what they can do, including Logan Brown and redshirt freshman Riley Mahlman. Brown was the second highest-rated recruit in program history but has had an injury-plagued career up to this point, while Mahlman had a dominant spring that's likely to secure his spot on the two-deep.

Even with Engram now in the fold, I don't suspect a major evolution of this Badger offense, at least in 2022. They are going to ground-and-pound behind the 1-2 punch of Allen and Mellusi, who should have plenty of fun running behind this offensive line. That formula has worked for Wisconsin in the past, but if this team wants to win a competitive Big Ten West, they absolutely need more from Mertz. It's his fourth year on campus and third as starter; if it doesn't come together this fall, it never will.

Defense: Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard remains one of the hottest names on the coordinator market, but is back in Madison to run the Badger defense. He ran another dominant group a season ago, but this year's defense may be a challenge. There are significant losses at every level, including a linebacker corps that was among the best in the country last year.

The defensive line may end up being the backbone of the defense, even if it's a group short on star power. Seniors Isaiah Mullens and Keeanu Benton have played a lot of football in their Badger career and will be leaned on not only to help in run support and pass rushing, but leadership. The final starter in this 3-4 look isn't as clear, with several players likely to battle it out for starting snaps. Isaac Townsend, Rodas Johnson, and Gio Paez are the trio set to compete, none of them with extensive experience. 

It's not hyperbolic to say that Wisconsin had one of the best linebacker groups in the country a year ago. Unfortunately, both Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn are off to the NFL after combining for 204 tackles and 34.5 TFL. Their departures open the door for Nick Herbig to take center stage, coming off a 2021 season in which he finished third on the team with 61 tackles. Herbig, a Hawai'i native, is a better athlete than many of the past linebackers we've seen pass through Madison and a proven pass rusher, but he'll be asked to do even more this fall. Don't be surprised if he's a regular on Butkus Award watch lists as he takes on a leadership role.

Behind Herbig there's plenty of potential, but a real shortage of experience. Senior C.J. Goetz is expected to break into a starting role after playing as a reserve for several years, likely to fill in at the outside linebacker spot opposite of Herbig. The two inside linebacker spots are complete mysteries at this point in the offseason; junior Tatum Grass is a good bet to see plenty of snaps, but it's anybody's guess beyond him. Keep an eye on youngsters Kaden Johnson and T.J. Bollers, two guys who had superb springs and should ascend up the depth chart in short order. Johnson was a pretty big get for the Badgers out of the state of Minnesota, but hasn't seen much playing time so far. He saw a bunch of playing time in the spring and could push Goetz out of a starting role.

There's substantial questions in the secondary as well, with the foursome of Caesar Williams, Faion Hicks, Scott Nelson, and Collin Wilder off chasing their NFL dreams. Wisconsin hit the transfer portal hard looking for quick fixes and were able to find several pieces that should contribute right away. Most notable among them is UCLA transfer Jay Shaw, who played 43 games with the Bruins. He's a favorite to start right away, and could be the team's top corner. In addition to Shaw, Cedrick Dort and Justin Clark arrived over the offseason, bringing with them plenty of experience. Dort in particular is a big get, as he notched 25 starts with Kentucky and brings SEC-levels of toughness and ferocity. Expect homegrown defenders like senior Alexander Smith and redshirt freshman Richardo Hallman to also see opportunities at the corner spots. 

The safety spots didn't see a wave of incoming transfers like cornerback, but should be in a fairly okay spot even with Nelson and Wilder gone. Senior free safety John Torchio is a former walk-on who seized on injuries on the back-end last fall, seeing an increase in snaps. He had 35 tackles and three interceptions in 2021, earning the nickname "Jewelry Thief" from his Badger teammates. Expect him to be one of the most important defenders on the team this year. Senior Travian Blaylock is a good bet to join Torchio as a starter, with Blaylock likely to man strong safety. He's a converted corner with elite athleticism who will undoubtedly make some level of impact. However, don't be surprised if sophomore Hunter Wohler pushes him for playing time. I featured Wohler on my "Ten Players Ready For the Sophomore Leap" list and I think he has a good shot to have a big 2022 campaign. 

It's a testament to Leonhard and the entire Wisconsin program that they lost Chenal and Sanborn, plus their entire starting secondary, and you still feel fairly good about this defense. A slight step back should be expected, as well as some initial growing pains, but the Badgers reload as well as anyone defensively. It's a good bet that this will still be at least a Top 25 unit, with the potential to be much better.

Special Teams: At times, placekicker has been a problem for Wisconsin and the absence of steady Collin Larsh throws the special teams into a level of disarray. Arkansas transfer Vito Calvaruso steps in as the early favorite to take over placekicking duties, although he was mainly just a kickoff specialist during his time in the SEC. Jack Van Dyke and Nate Van Zelst will compete with the newcomer, although neither bring much experience to the table. Punter is in good hands with the return of Andy Vujnovich, while Stephan Bracey and Dean Engram should spearhead the return game.

Bottom Line: Even though the coaching staff has been shuffled around, 2022's outlook looks like a prototypical one for Wisconsin. The offense will run the ball behind a strong offensive line and the defense should be stingy, although the new faces will have to acclimate quick. That should be enough to guarantee this team hovers around the 8-9 win territory, but the lack of a passing game remains a persistent problem in Madison. It's not just Mertz and his struggles, but the lack of any game-breakers at receiver, plus the lack of a security blanket at tight end, like Jake Ferguson. Wisconsin also has to deal with a rapidly improving division and a tough schedule. Inside the West, Iowa has held steady, Minnesota & Purdue are on the upswing, and Northwestern should be back. Add in the fact the Badgers have to go to Columbus and East Lansing in crossover games and anything more than replicating last year's eight regular season wins could be a stretch.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Madison native Paul Chryst played for the Badgers in the late 80s and was previously the offensive coordinator here from 2006-2011. After a stint as Pittsburgh head coach, he returned to his roots, where he has been head man since 2015. He's led a stable coaching staff for the most part, with another alum, Jim Leonhard, running the defense since 2017. On offense, Bobby Engram replaces Joe Rudolph as offensive coordinator, fresh off a three-year tenure coaching with the Baltimore Ravens as their TE coach. Engram played in the NFL for a decade-and-a-half before beginning his coaching career in 2011.

Recruiting Breakdown
After landing one of the best recruiting classes in school history in 2021, Wisconsin's 2022 group took a step back, as the staff focused more on filling immediate needs through the transfer portal. The 2022 Class ranks 45th in the 247Sports composite, and per usual, is led by the offensive and defensive linemen. Joe Brunner, a 6'6", 300-pounder from inside the state, is their top-rated recruit, but he'll likely have to redshirt due to the team's depth in front of him. Defensive linemen Curtis Neal and Isaac Hamm highlight the defensive side of things. Neal was a pretty big get from ACC and SEC territory in North Carolina, while Hamm comes from a suburb of Madison. Another name to watch is Vinny Anthony, a three-star wide receiver out of Louisville. Anthony doesn't come in with the most fanfare, but he brings the type of explosiveness on the perimeter that Wisconsin has lacked for years and years.

2022 X-Factor: Chimere Dike, WR
With so much questions at receiver, Wisconsin needs a big season from Chimere Dike if this offense is going to succeed. Dike has flashed plenty of playmaking ability over the last two seasons, but is he ready to be the unquestioned No. 1 guy? I suspect new OC Engram will find every way possible to get Dike the ball, including utilizing screens and sweeps for the junior wide out.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-4 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: RB Braelon Allen
Defensive MVP: LB Nick Herbig
Breakout Player of the Year: S Hunter Wohler
Impact Freshman: WR Vinny Anthony

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