Countdown to College Football Kickoff: Top NFL prospects at Wisconsin

Badgers inside linebacker Jack Sanborn celebrates a tackle during the first half against Michigan. © Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Rob Rang

Though the Big Ten announced its plans to play only conference games Thursday, college football  as a whole remains scheduled to return Saturday, August 29. Each day until then, will be evaluating the rosters of the best teams in college football, including all 64 within the Power Five conferences.

Wisconsin Badgers

Head Coach: Paul Chryst (sixth season)

2019 Record: 10-4

2020 NFL Draft Picks: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts – 2nd Round, No. 41 overall

Zack Baun, LB, New Orleans Saints – 3rd Round, No. 74 overall

Tyler Biadasz, C, Dallas Cowboys – 4th Round, No. 146 overall

Quintez Cephus, WR, Detroit Lions – 5th Round, No. 166 overall


For the fourth time in five years since taking over as the Badgers head coach, Paul Chryst guided Wisconsin to double-digit wins in 2019, including a berth in the iconic Rose Bowl.

Though the year ended on a disappointing note with a one-point loss (28-27) to Oregon in Pasadena, the Badgers were once again among the elite teams in college football. The Badgers ended the season ranked 11 in the final AP poll, averaging 34.1 points per game (23 out of 130 FBS teams) while allowing just 16.9, good for 10 in the country.

Programs with a track record of consistency like Wisconsin – which has qualified for bowl games 26 of the past 28 years – simply reload with NFL-caliber talent each year. Chryst has added to the Badgers’ sterling postseason reputation, winning the Holiday Bowl (2015), Cotton Bowl (2016), Orange Bowl (2017) and Pinstripe Bowl (2018) before last year’s loss to Justin Herbert and the Ducks.

Chryst will be challenged in 2020, however, as the Badgers will, indeed, be facing huge changes. Three-time All-American running back Jonathan Taylor is taking his talents to the Indianapolis Colts and his playmaking counterpart on defense, Zack Baun, also will be difficult to replace.

Redshirt sophomore Nakia Watson (5-11, 229) - who had 74 carries last season as Taylor’s understudy, rushing for 331 yards and two touchdowns – appears to be in position to take over as Wisconsin’s featured back. If he enjoys the breakout campaign expected, Watson could leap up draft boards and Wisconsin’s iconic running game could keep rolling, even without the supremely gifted Taylor. Though he rarely gets credit outside of the Big Ten, highly efficient senior quarterback Jack Coan (69.6% completion rate for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns vs. 5 interceptions) is a big part of that success, along with the quality offensive line play for which Wisconsin has long enjoyed.

Wisconsin’s reputation for producing burly blockers is well known – and redshirt junior right tackle Logan Bruss is currently the Badgers’ top prospect on offense – but it is worth noting that Madison is not quite the hotbed of talent for offensive linemen it once was. Most college football teams would love to have five offensive linemen drafted into the NFL over the past seven years, of course, but only one of those was a first round pick and that was when the New Orleans Saints selected Ryan Ramczyk 32 overall back in 2017.

That is a pretty stark contrast to producing first round picks along the offensive line three consecutive years like Wisconsin accomplished from 2011-2013 with offensive tackle Gabe Carimi (Chicago, No. 29 overall), offensive guard Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati, 27) and center Travis Frederick (Dallas, 31).

The change has come on defense, where the Badgers have consistently ranked in the top five nationally since Chryst took over, including leading the entire country with just 13.7 points allowed in 2015. From an NFL draft perspective, the change has been most obvious in Wisconsin’s production of linebackers with 10 former Badgers currently on NFL rosters.

Breakout campaigns from players like Baun, T.J. Watt and Joe Schobert in recent years have created a buzz in the scouting community with talent evaluators eager to see who leaps to the forefront at Wisconsin in 2020.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Jack Sanborn, ILB, 6-1, 232, 4.75, JR

Baun generated most of the headlines a year ago but Sanborn enjoyed every bit the breakout campaign with the former four-star recruit jumping from seven tackles as a freshman reserve to a team-high 80 stops, including nine for loss and 3.5 sacks last season.

Sanborn also showed impressive awareness and soft hands, tying for the team lead with three interceptions, including one of the Los Angeles Chargers’ first round quarterback, Herbert, in the Rose Bowl.

It had to be a powerful moment for Sanborn, whose late father, Paul, played at Oregon from 1980-1982.

Sanborn’s play in the Rose Bowl certainly helped create buzz for himself but it was the steady improvement he showed throughout his first season of starting play that has scouts excited. With more powerful hands to rip and release, Sanborn’s long arms and instincts should help him lasso that many more ballcarriers in 2020, setting him up for an even splashier second year as a starter.

Strengths: Classically-built linebacker with broad shoulders and a thick, well-built frame, as well as long arms. While perhaps not an elite athlete in terms of straight-line speed, Sanborn plays fast as he has terrific instincts, even among linebackers, consistently getting an early jump on the action. He sniffs out misdirection and screens nicely, showing impressive awareness, especially given his relative lack of experience and is at his best in close quarters… Sanborn’s blocky build may not look especially agile, but he has the lateral agility to dip and slip, showing that “sneaky” athleticism in close quarters that matter on the football field… Perhaps Sanborn’s best attribute, in fact, is his balance and spatial awareness, slithering through gaps like a running back, dipping under the reach of would-be blockers and meeting runners in the hole for efficient corral-style tackles. Sanborn’s fluidity to and through the hole shows up in his blitzes, helping him record 5.5 sacks last year with potential for much more in this area… Like a lot of young linebackers, he needs to get stronger but possesses long arms and powerful hands to rip free from blocks, flashing improved technique as the year went on… should only improve in this area… Quality tackler who hits what he sees, wrapping up ballcarriers securely and driving his legs through contact. Long arms to lasso ballcarriers out of the reach of most, showing good hand-eye coordination and timing to trip up opponents when in pursuit. Generates power with his collisions and has a knack for knocking out the ball as he arrives.

Sanborn’s awareness extends to coverage, where he provides stiff jams to backs and receivers crossing him as well as recognition of route combinations. He hustles to cut off angles, using his long arms and good hand-eye coordination to tip passes to teammates, as well as quickly react when they return the favor.

Weaknesses: One-speed runner with steady, but not explosive acceleration and average burst to close... Despite interception totals, Sanborn is more instinctive than athletic with just average straight-line speed for coverage duties. Quick to read run, flying upfield and leaving himself scrambling on play-action, with Sanborn shows some stiffness when reversing gears. Further, like most young linebackers, Sanborn needs to continue to improve his hand play, struggling, at times, to rip himself free from blockers once they latch on and relying on his agility and balance to instead spin away, sacrificing yardage.

NFL Player Comparison: Josey Jewell, Denver Broncos – The 6-1, 236 pound Jewel was a three-time all-Big Ten pick at Iowa, earning the conference’s Nagurski-Woodson Award as its best defensive player in 2017. Entering the 2020 season, Sanborn is not to Jewell’s level yet, but he certainly flashed last year, albeit with a very good supporting cast. Both are better football players than traditional NFL athletes, perhaps, but teams looking for immediate help inside will appreciate their subtle strengths.

Current NFL Draft Projection: Third Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Wisconsin:

1. Jack Sanborn, ILB, 6-1, 232, 4.75, JR

2. Logan Bruss, OT, 6-5, 310, 5.05, rJR

3. Scott Nelson, S, 6-1, 204, 4.55, rJR

4. Jack Coan, QB, 6-2, 221, 4.85, SR

5. Jake Ferguson, TE, 6-4, 246, 4.5, rJR

6. Noah Burks, OLB, 6-2, 245, 4.75, rSR

7. Cole Van Lanen, OT, 6-5, 312, 5.10, rSR

8. Eric Burrell, S, 5-11 195, 4.55, rSR

9. Nakia Watson, RB, 5-11, 229, 4.65, rSoph

10. Caesar Williams, CB, 6-0, 188, 4.50, rSR

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates