Unlike in basketball, the athletes who play football are never at their physical peak right out of high school. For that reason, and because there has been less time to examine and judge their talent, underclassmen are frequently unpredictable; many vastly overachieve, but still more underperform. Thus, the roster turnover (10 seniors exhausted their eligibility, in addition to the early draft declarations of playmakers Michael Bennett and Jamar Fletcher) leaves Wisconsin with much to be debated about where the Badgers’ strengths will lie.
Offensive line: The staple of UW’s Rose Bowl champion teams of 1998 and 1999 was the front five, the big uglies plowing holes for Dayne and company. The last remnant of those stalwart lines left with Casey Rabach, Bill Ferrario and Dave Costa. Still, Barry Alvarez has produced few things more effectively than big, well-coached linemen. Ben Johnson and his cousin Al, along with Jason Jowers, bring experience that ought to aid in the development of two freshman starters at guard. Backup center Donovan Raiola is a freshman blue-chipper from Honolulu.
Running backs: Michael Bennett’s not back, but at least Broderick Williams will be. The questions surrounding the backfield: How well will freshmen Anthony Davis and Jerone Pettus fare before Williams’ scheduled Sept. 22 return, and how will Williams’ acceleration be after coming off his second knee operation? Early indications are that Davis and Pettus can share the load admirably, rushing for over 200 yards against Virginia. If those two backs can provide a consistent ground game while the coaches experiment with the spread offense, the questions about Williams’ return will shrink in urgency.
Receivers and tight ends: Lee Evans chose early on to craft himself not as the reliable possession receiver, but as the flashy game-breaker. The speedy Evans has shown a knack for catching the deep ball, while Mark Anelli’s clutch third-down catches have made him a favorite target for UW’s scrambling quarterbacks, especially when on the run. Sophomore Nick Davis, though briefly considered a game-breaker during his sophomore season, is neither reliable nor opportunistic and is in danger of losing time to David Braun and a massive 6-foot-6 true freshman, Darrin Charles.
Quarterbacks: The controversy has been on a simmer since Jim Sorgi led Wisconsin to a spectacular win in his first college game. But Brooks Bollinger was 17-3 as a starter heading into this year. The coaches have backed Bollinger since the beginning, though they have been known to rotate Sorgi in even when the starter hasn’t been knocked out of the game with one bizarre injury or another. Both have tools to be good, with Bollinger’s mobility and knowledge of football fundamentals counterbalancing Sorgi’s passing efficiency and bravado. The sophomore would like to earn the job straight out, without having to relieve his injured teammate, but he may not need that chance.
Defensive line: The most talented part of Wisconsin’s defense will perhaps be its weakness. For sophomores Darius Jones and Erasmus James, the sky is the limit. Unfortunately, just as often as the defense seems to stop runs at the line of scrimmage and chase down opposing quarterbacks, it fails to get penetration or gives up huge cracks. Wendell Bryant is as good as anyone in the country, but has been known to give up when double-teamed and play beneath his capabilities — something that hurt his draft status last spring and may have kept him from turning pro. Time will tell. He and senior Ben Herbert get one more season to terrorize Big Ten passers.
Linebackers: Badger linebackers prefer to run into ball carriers rather than run after them. Hence, they are proficient at collecting tackles in the middle of the field (Nick Greisen led the Big Ten in total tackles in 2000). But the crew tends to be lax in scraping outside the ends, leaving a lot of pickups for UW’s corners. Greisen is better and can be seen running to all edges of the field, even though Jeff Mack and Bryson Thompson are speedier. These guys get the job done, though, and are the Badgers’ most experienced unit when the other team has the ball.
Defensive backs: Mike Echols is a candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award, which his teammate Fletcher won last year. Joey Boese is a leader and has had plenty of time to see how an undersized safety can play phenomenally by watching Jason Doering the last few years. The rest of the players are young, but they looked solid against Virginia. Ryan Aiello and Michael Broussard provide depth, whereas B.J. Tucker can’t tackle or cover very well. Scott Starks might someday be the best Wisconsin cornerback to wear the number 2.
Special teams: The loss of a big-legged kicker and the nation’s best punter don’t help a team that need stability. Without the talents of Vitaly Pisetsky and Kevin Stemke, Mike Allen will kick field goals and extra points, Mark Neuser will handle kickoffs and sophomore Kirk Munden will punt. Returners will be fast as usual.