The final positional preview with the spring practice season now in the books turns focus to two unheralded, yet pivotal positions to Wisconsin’s success on the football field — special teams and tight ends.
Many of the questions coming into the spring about Head Coach Paul Chryst’s team were about who will follow in Alex Hornibrook’s footsteps at quarterback and who will fill the holes left at linebacker, on the offensive line and at defensive end.
One positional unit being overlooked right now, though, whose performance was detrimental to the Badgers’ success a season ago, are the specialists.
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Rafael Gaglianone and his 58.8 percent field goal conversion rate are gone from Chryst’s specialist unit.
One thing Gaglianone was good for last season, however, were attempts within 30 yards — his five makes in six tries within 30 yards were good for an 83 percent conversion rate.
But from beyond 30 yards, Gaglianone was only 5-for-11 on field goal attempts, including an unforgettable 42-yard miss at Camp Randall against Brigham Young University that sealed the Badgers’ first loss of the season.
With much to be desired in the kicking game going into the 2019 season, redshirt sophomore and former walk-on Collin Larsh is the frontrunner to take the job going into the season.
Larsh didn’t play during the 2018 season, but was listed No. 2 on the depth chart behind Gaglianone before the season and is known to be more than capable beyond 40 and even 50 yards.
Larsh talked to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before the 2018 season.
“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity, kind of following Raf’s footsteps,” Larsh said. “He has been teaching me since the day I got here, how to handle every situation.”
Chryst finding consistency at kicker would be a crucial step forward from last season where games were lost due to Gaglianone’s inefficiency.
The rest of the special teams unit is shaping up to have senior Anthony Lotti and redshirt Connor Allen work as the primary punters, redshirt senior Zach Hintze as the kickoff specialist, Adam Bay as the long snapper and Aron Cruickshank, Jack Dunn and others as kickoff and punt returners, respectively.
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The tight end position looks straightforward entering the 2019 season.
After seeing Troy Fumagalli go to the NFL after the 2017 season, Jake Ferguson stepped into the role and played well as only a redshirt freshman. Now a sophomore, Ferguson will look to build upon the 36 catches, 456 yards and four touchdowns he had a year ago.
Behind Ferguson on the depth chart will be redshirt junior Luke Benzschawel, redshirt junior Gabe Lloyd and redshirt freshman Cormac Sampson.
Season Preview and Prediction
I’ve spent this spring diving into each positional unit on the team, trying to project how each group and team as a whole will look come August.
Now, with the season about four months away, here are some predictions — bold predictions, as some would say — on where I think the Badgers will rank when next season is all said and done.
- Jonathan Taylor is a Heisman Trophy finalist but falls second to Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Taylor has demonstrated Heisman-like talent and production during his first two seasons. The presence of Jack Coan, Graham Mertz or another candidate under center should help Taylor immensely and could further vault him into the Heisman conversation.
- Coan surprises everyone and finishes the year as the second-most productive quarterback in the Big Ten behind Justin Fields of Ohio State. Coan has low expectations coming into the year with Mertz right behind him. I can see a situation where Coan takes a massive step forward from last year and leads the Badgers to a season comparable to 2017 — that is, a lot more winning than 2018.
- A.J. Taylor becomes a first or second round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. A.J. Taylor has all the talent in the world to play in the NFL. Now, with a quarterback under center who can stretch the field and who doesn’t lock on to receivers, he should have an amazing year. I can see him getting drafted early next year.
- Jack Sanborn leads the team in tackles. Sanborn was a highly-touted recruit in last year’s recruiting class. Everyone is raving about him replacing T.J. Edwards in the middle of the defense and I see a huge year ahead for him.
- The Badgers either lose against a good South Florida team week one and end the season 8-5 again — with their other losses coming against Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State — or they win the Big Ten West with a 10-2 record and face Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
A 10-2 record with losses at Ohio State and home against Michigan. Wisconsin wins the Big Ten West but falls to Ohio State, once again, in the Big Ten Championship Game.