20 on '20: Wisconsin's Deepest Position Groups
With the news last week of Wisconsin football players being allowed to return to campus starting this week -- and a plan to kickoff "voluntary athletics activities" by June 15 unveiled on Monday -- AllBadgers.com wanted to begin a series dedicated to the program entering a 2020 season that is supposed to start on Sept. 4 against Indiana.
Do we highlight breakout or "most important" players according to a specific set of standards? Perhaps we look at the biggest concerns with a team returning many starters and contributors but has specific questions needing to be answered at key positions?
In that light, AllBadgers.com presents its "20 on '20" series where we dissect (you guessed it) 20 topics pertaining to the football program.
Topic No. 1 of 20: Which Position Groups are the Deepest for Wisconsin?
Well, let us define the terms deepest. At this moment, I will say position groups that have players who appear game-ready and return those on last year's depth chart.
Based off of that, one can immediately look at a few different positions, mainly in the defensive backfield. Wisconsin's cornerbacks boast at least six different players who have started a game -- Faion Hicks, Caesar Williams, Rachad Wildgoose, Deron Harrell, Donte Burton and Semar Melvin. The ability of those like Hicks and Wildgoose -- who can play both on the outside and in the slot -- allow for a lot of combinations with UW's safety group in different subpackages like the nickel. That flexibility I believe also goes for Alexander Smith, who will be a redshirt sophomore.
Look at the safeties here as well in this category. Eric Burrell, Reggie Pearson, Scott Nelson, Collin Wilder, Madison Cone and John Torchio have started games over the past couple of years (though Cone was a cornerback for his starts).
Burrell and Pearson took hold of the first-team spots after Nelson's injury at South Florida, but both were hit with third-quarter targeting penalties in a blowout win against Michigan. Having to subsequently sit out the rest of that game and the first half of the following contest, Wilder and Torchio then started against Northwestern.
Whenever camp starts, it will bear watching how defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jim Leonhard mixes and matches within those position groups -- as has been seen in years past during particular springs and summers. The depth allows for a lot of combinations, strong communication and also competition to strengthen those particular rooms.
One could make an argument for the defensive line. UW has three starting-caliber ends within its 3-4 scheme in Isaiahh Loudermilk, Garrett Rand and Matt Henningsen. They have combined to play 102 games heading into 2020 in what feels like shades of another strong trio at that position from 2017 in Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy. The only question for this group revolves around who fills out the two-deep -- can someone like redshirt sophomore Isaiah Mullens or redshirt freshman Rodas Johnson do so?
At nose tackle, Keeanu Benton emerged in his freshman season and showed potential in being a substantial impact-maker after Bryson Williams went down with injury. If the latter returns 100% for the fall, Wisconsin could have an impactful two-deep filled out for Leonhard and position coach Inoke Breckterfield -- especially if they utilize just two lineman in nickel looks.
On the offensive side of the ball, let us chat about the backfield ... with the fullbacks.
Both Mason Stokke and John Chenal played well during the 2019 campaign in replacing the versatile Alec Ingold. Barring injury or any unforeseen circumstance, "Fullback City" should thrive once again with those two bruisers plus redshirt freshman Quan Easterling, who played and line up out of 32 personnel at Illinois last season.
Thoughts on Other Position Groups
The running back position group has experience within it, and there is talent in John Settle's room, but it feels like some is unproven at this point. Though not the main foci with Jonathan Taylor racking up yardage on way to his second straight Doak Walker Award, Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek played last season in various roles and should be able to contribute more. Isaac Guerendo received touches in the Rose Bowl, and I feel he could be an explosive option.
However, spring ball really could have helped Guerendo continue to receive valuable reps as a back.
Julius Davis redshirted in 2019, and like Guerendo could have used March and April to showcase his skill set more and accumulate more snaps. Then there's four-star 2020 signee Jalen Berger. With those in front of him, can he ascend the depth chart?
What about the wide receivers? Despite losing Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor, new position coach Alvis Whitted will have the opportunity to develop seniors in Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor, Jack Dunn and Adam Krumholz.
However, we have seen Wisconsin use at least six receivers in meaningful game time last season. Who else steps up behind them?
Lastly, could we include quarterbacks? I have contended often in the past year that Jon Budmayr's room has the most talent seen in that position group in recent memory when looking at numbers. Jack Coan asserted himself well as a starter in 2019 with his 69.6% completion percentage, 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns. However, there is also Graham Mertz and Chase Wolf, who despite only playing when games were already in hand have flashed potential during fall camp last August.
The offensive line could have a starting five boasting starting experience in Cole Van Lanen, Josh Seltzner, Kayden Lyles, Logan Bruss and Tyler Beach. For that matter, re-converted lineman Cormac Sampson played in 13 games as a tight end last season that included two starts. However, who steps up in that two-deep if injuries arise?