The 2019 University of Wisconsin football team finished their year off with a bad taste in their mouth after losing to the No. 8 Oregon Ducks 28–27 in the Rose Bowl.
After losing a close battle, key offensive weapons running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Quintez Cephus both announced their declaration for the NFL Draft this April. Losing both of these players creates big shoes to fill for their teammates in the upcoming season as the Badgers try to make a leap into the College Football Playoff.
Knowing Wisconsin’s traditional ground-and-pound style of play, who will need to step up next year? How will the offense adjust to losing their premier back of the last three seasons? In what looks to be a fairly favorable schedule for the Badgers, a playoff run is more likely than ever, as long as the defense remains stout and the offense is able to continue its momentum.
After finishing the season 10-4 with significant wins over ranked Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota teams, the Badgers finished at the top of the Big Ten West and earned a ticket to the Rose Bowl. Surprising many college football experts, the Badgers finished the 2019 campaign ranked No. 8 and will surely start the 2020 season ranked very highly. But there are still player competitions in virtually every offensive position.
Let’s take a look at a few of those, starting with quarterback.
After Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State University following last season, former backup Jack Coan was poised to start and prove all of his doubters wrong. Many thought Wisconsin was incapable of recruiting quarterbacks who can truly make a difference in the passing game, knowing the ball was primarily going to the offense’s workhorse, Jonathan Taylor.
Coan was able to finish his season passing for 2,727 yards, 15 touchdowns, and only five interceptions. Though not flashy, this play at quarterback was a massive upgrade from years prior with about 1,200 more yards, two more touchdowns, and eight fewer interceptions compared to Hornibrook in 2018.
The stats don’t lie — Coan had a terrific year leading the offense behind Taylor’s monster rushing season. That being said, questions still arise as to how Wisconsin can prove to be less reliant on the run and provide a better air attack down the field to ease the pressure off the run.
I believe Coan will remain the starter next season — but not without his backup, four-star recruit Graham Mertz, giving Coan a decent fight for the job. Mertz, the highly touted “future” of Wisconsin football, was a proven pocket passer in high school, going on to winning the MVP at the 2019 All-American Bowl, passing for 5 touchdowns and putting the world on notice.
After receiving offers from 15 schools including powerhouses like Alabama, LSU, The Ohio State University and Michigan, Mertz signed with the Badgers with the hopes of leading the team to a playoff. With all this being said, it is likely Coan will continue to start, but don’t be shocked if a few bad games leads to a switch at the quarterback position.
Replacing an All-American, multiple Doak Walker award-winning running back on top of over 2,000 rushing yards per year is nearly an impossible task.
With Nakia Watson returning along with Garrett Groshek and highly-touted recruits in Julius Davis and Jalen Berger, the running back position is likely going to be a shared position.
It will be a huge spring season for this running core as the incoming freshman have a real chance at getting first-team reps and touches. It is unclear as to whether or not one back will emerge and take a leading role in touches, but as the offseason progresses, it is certain we will see a different backfield to start the 2020 season.
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Following the departure of Quintez Cephus, the Badgers receiving core is still very strong. Though they lost their No. 1 target to the NFL Draft, Danny Davis is looking at a potential breakout season as the emerging new No. 1 on the depth chart.
After posting over 500 combined receiving yards, seniors Davis and Kendric Pryor are looking to be a lethal 1-2 punch for the passing attack, along with tight end Jake Ferguson.
Much like the running back core, this spring is very big for the wide receiver depth chart as there is no clear “guy.” But it can be anticipated that Davis emerges as the No. 1 target with Pryor getting many touches as well, not to mention Pryor’s versatility on offense as a rusher, providing just under 200 rushing yards via the jet sweep.
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Finishing the 2019 season as semifinalists for the Joe Moore Award given to the best college football offensive line, the offensive big men continued Wisconsin’s ground-and-pound culture.
By wearing out the opposition, this unit led the way for Jonathan Taylor and are the main reason for the offense’s success.
With the exception of Tyler Biadasz — who declared for the NFL Draft — the line next season will consist of mainly the same core. Each season, the front five is made up of players who can play anywhere on the line and that is likely to continue into next season with junior lineman Tyler Beach likely to join the remaining core.
If the Badgers re-discover their identity before the 2020 season begins, Wisconsin has a real shot at a dominant season with crucial games against Michigan in the Big House, Notre Dame at Lambeau Field, a home date with Minnesota and a season-ending matchup on the road with Iowa.