20 on '20: Wisconsin's Recruiting 'Upswing' in Recent Years

Jake Kocorowski

With the news of Wisconsin football student-athletes planning to kickoff "voluntary athletics activities" on June 15 -- 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.

I had some questions here, however. 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. For those needing to catch up, here is the series so far:

Topic No. 4: Wisconsin's recent recruiting "upswing" in recent years and its on-the-field effects

Monday's topic revolves around a section of college football starting off-the-field at first, but many hope it translates to on-the-field success years later. That is recruiting.

Since Memorial Day, to say Wisconsin is firing on all cylinders may be an understatement. Four announced commitments for the 2021 class have come during that timespan -- tight end Jack Pugh, outside linebackers Darryl Peterson and T.J. Bollers, and defensive lineman Mike Jarvis.

Looking at the team recruiting rankings for 247Sports composite, ESPN and Rivals, Wisconsin is currently situated 13th, 18th and 15th, respectively, with its 14 known verbal commits.

For simplicity sake, let's just look at the 247Sports composite rankings (and for an explanation as to what "composite" means and how it incorporates all the respective services' rankings, see here). At the moment as of June 15, Wisconsin currently boasts five four-star recruits for the 2021 cycle -- Bollers, Pugh, offensive linemen J.P. Benzschawel and Riley Mahlman and safety Hunter Wohler. 

Last year's class also saw a handful of four-star commits sign while 2019's group had three (two four-star and one five-star in Logan Brown, to be precise).

For comparison's sake, here is a breakdown of the last four recruiting classes, their respective rankings and average ratings according to 247Sports composite:

Wisconsin Recruiting Class
National Ranking
Big Ten Ranking
No. of Four-Star/Five-Star Commits Combined
No. of Three-Star Commits
Avg. Rating

2018

46

9

1

19

0.8648

2019

29

6

3

16

0.8786

2020

26

5

5

15

0.8782

2021 (as of June 15)

13

4

5

9

0.8865

All that being said, Wisconsin has been known in many circles as a program that can develop players not as highly-touted into significant contributors, collegiate starters and even NFL prospects. During Paul Chryst's head coaching tenure in Madison, UW has compiled a 52-16 record, three Big Ten West division championships and three New Year's Day bowl berths. That was with classes which from 2011-17 were ranked by 247Sports composite as 44th, 65th, 40th, 32nd, 41st, 35th and 39th, respectively.

The future Badgers of 2021 will not affect the outcomes of this season, of course, but it should be interesting just how it finishes next February once the actual National Signing Day takes place. Cornerback Ricardo Hallman recently experienced a "virtual" visit to Wisconsin, and he told AllBadgers.com a couple of weeks ago that UW is "definitely at the top of my list." He is a four-star recruit and the No. 28 cornerback in the 2021 class according to Rivals.

Offensive lineman Nolan Rucci, a five-star recruit by 247Sports composite, placed Wisconsin as one of his top nine schools earlier this year. Of course, his older brother, tight end Hayden Rucci, is now back on campus as the team prepares to start voluntary strength and conditioning work this week. 

Another highly-recruited player who has an older sibling in the Big Ten, linebacker Yanni Karlaftis noted the Badgers were among this top four programs last month. His brother, Purdue defensive lineman George Karlaftis, put together a solid freshman season in West Lafayette with 7.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss in 2019. 

California cornerback Robert "R.J." Regan listed the Badgers among his top seven schools this spring, and Colorado tight end Terrance Ferguson recently told AllBadgers.com that UW is among his 'top three, top two' schools (for what it's worth, both 247Sports's crystal ball and Rivals's FutureCast projections predict Oregon for Ferguson).

Great for 2021, but what about now?

This could be a very special class for Wisconsin depending upon whom decides to come to Madison and continue a positive trend for landing those big-time recruits. When looking back at the previous three recruiting cycles, however, who appears to be in position to make a splash this season? To be honest, spring ball reps could have given the staff (and even us media members) a better indication.

A question also to pose here is if these higher-rated classes by the major recruiting services -- who for that matter put in tireless hours evaluating players at the prep level and deserve a lot of credit -- will yield greater on-the-field success in college? Injuries and unforeseen events can pop up and alter the trajectory of what could be a promising group.

For sake of comparison, 2018's class has seen Jack Sanborn, Nakia Watson, Aron Cruickshank (now at Rutgers), Donte Burton, Cormac Sampson, Reggie Pearson, Rachad Wildgoose and Bryson Williams already receive significant snaps on either side of the ball. Will offensive lineman Michael Furtney, outside linebacker Jaylan Franklin, running back Isaac Guerendo, quarterback Chase Wolf, cornerback Alexander Smith or wide receivers Taj Mustapha and A.J. Abbott emerge this summer and fall?

With the 2019 class, Keeanu Benton was a three-star recruit that was not highly-touted out of Janesville (WI) Craig. However, he earned a role in the two-deep at nose tackle before taking over the starting spot after Williams went down with an injury. Based on his freshman output, he could have a very bright future ahead. Cornerback Semar Melvin started two of the four contests he played in at Minnesota and against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game. That particular position group could have a three-deep of starting-capable players in 2020.

Among the others in that group who will either have "true" sophomore or redshirt freshman eligibility, there could be several who could compete for spots. Jack Coan asserted himself well last season under center (and out of the shotgun or pistol). Will four-star quarterback Graham Mertz show that he is at the level of the senior in guiding the offense and make a play for the starting job? 

With the departure of key players after the 2019 campaign, competition in the two-deep for the offensive line could allow Logan Brown and Joe Tippmann to vie for roles. The tight ends need someone to emerge behind redshirt junior Jake Ferguson, and both Hayden Rucci and Clay Cundiff are intriguing prospects entering their second year in Madison. 

Stephan Bracey is a name to watch at the wide receiver position, and keep tabs on just how Julius Davis looks in his second year with UW despite a loaded backfield.

Defensively, Zack Baun and Tyler Johnson are gone, so outside linebacker Spencer Lytle may have an opportunity to find a role in the two-deep after redshirting last season. Chris Orr now is with the Carolina Panthers, so the physically-built Leo Chenal will likely receive a chance to earn significant reps and the starting spot opposite Sanborn at inside linebacker after playing in 11 games in 2019. Can Maema Njongmeta, who traveled with the team for a few games, also work into the two-deep within Bob Bostad's group?

Benton, Melvin, Chenal, running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Danny Davis all have played and contributed significantly as true freshmen in recent memory. With this 2020 class, can someone break through the roster and show they are physically ready and can digest the playbook enough? We have already discussed John Settle's crowded running back room with a couple of players, but will four-star signee Jalen Berger turn heads quickly? 

At inside linebacker, Wisconsin welcomes early enrollees Jordan Turner and Preston Zachman, along with Malik Reed to a group that needs to replace the heart of its defense in Orr. Jack Nelson also came to Madison in January, and he appears to be an impressive offensive line recruit (as is Trey Wedig).

Whether on-the-field success will be seen immediately or down the road, it will take time to sort out depending upon how camps and the season(s) progress. Also one has to compare to the other teams in the conference and just how the Big Ten as a whole has elevated its recruiting presence nationally. 

That being said, Wisconsin seems to be in prime position to continue its good fortunes in the last decade on the field and the recruiting trail, particularly under Chryst.

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