Badger fans, mark your calendars — it’s almost here. Oct. 24 the University of Wisconsin football team will take the field at Camp Randall against Illinois. In a year where the Badgers look to get back to the Big Ten Championship Game, the Badgers are faced with the difficult task of replacing key players on both sides of the ball.
Though the season is nearly here, there remains a lot of uncertainty surrounding this team. Here are the top three storylines for the Badgers heading into the 2020 season.
Filling the void of Jonathan Taylor
Regardless of UW’s storied success at the running back position, replacing the two-time Doak Walker Award winner is no easy task. In his three years, Taylor rushed for over 6000 yards, a sizable loss.
Though senior Garrett Groshek has the most career rushing yards out of all the backs in the returning stable at 916, expect him to appear more frequently on third downs and in the passing game. The player expected to take the load of the carries in Wisconsin’s offense is redshirt sophomore Nakia Watson.
The former highly-touted recruit from Westlake, Texas is ready to emerge as the next Badgers workhorse running back. In a backup role last season, Watson rushed for 331 yards on 74 attempts and two touchdowns.
Watson has great qualities for running back, including an aggressive running style that compliments the offensive line. Badgers fans have hoped freshman running back Jalen Berger would be able to make an immediate impact similar to Jonathan Taylor. But, the unconventional off-season has not made it easy for freshman players to be prepared enough to earn starting reps. In a Badger 247 article, Head Coach Paul Chryst urges fans to be patient with Berger.
“Jalen is new to this,” Chryst said.
Who will be playing quarterback?
News of Jack Coan injuring his foot at practice over the weekend has suddenly made the Badgers quarterback situation even more complicated. Coan is set to undergo surgery and is expected to be out for multiple weeks.
With the season opener looming, Graham Mertz would be in line to start if Coan is forced to miss time. The 2019 season was a strong one for Jack Coan.
Even with slight chatter about Mertz potentially overtaking Coan at some point in 2020, the veteran has been the expected week one starter.
Mertz appeared in two games as a freshman last season looking very serviceable, albeit they were both in late game blowouts. Though there will be excitement surrounding Mertz if he is forced into action, it would add to the inexperience that the offense is already littered with.
In a season with few returning starters at the skill positions, the experience and leadership that Coan brings to the table is incredibly important.
Coan helped lead the Badgers to the Big Ten Championship game in 2019 as well as the Rose Bowl, earning losses in each. Individually he put up really solid numbers, throwing for 2727 passing yards on a 70% completion percentage and adding a strong touchdown-interception ratio of 18-5. As the season gets closer, the timeline on Coan’s return should be clearer, but for now the team must carry on.
Mertz will look to give the offense some juice and prove he should be the Badgers’ long-term option if given the opportunity, but he will need to show the poise of a seasoned veteran.
Replacing the receiving core
The wide receiver position is another void that must be filled this season. The Badgers lost star receiver Quintez Cephus to the NFL as well as his running mate A.J. Taylor. Cephus was a dependable option for Coan last season, finishing with 901 yards on 59 catches and seven touchdowns.
Over the last three seasons, Taylor was a model of consistency, catching over 30 passes in two of his final three seasons. Slated to replace these pass catchers are Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, two players with experience for the Badgers.
For the team to be successful, either Davis or Pryor need to develop a connection like Cephus’ with Coan in 2019. A player expected to ease the pressure of the receivers is tight end Jake Ferguson. In each of his last two seasons, the junior has caught over 30 passes for over 400 yards, making him a reliable option.
With the uncertainty surrounding who will be Coan’s number one option, look for Ferguson to be a security blanket for the quarterback. Other receivers who will be looking to capitalize on playing time are Jack Dunn and Adam Krumholz. It will need to be a group effort from these pass catchers to replace the production of Cephus and Taylor.
These storylines will be worth watching throughout the season. The Badgers’ offensive targets may not be household names yet, but they will have the opportunity to become just that this season.
For Chryst to lead this team back to the Big Ten Championship these questions on the offensive side of the ball will need to be answered. New names, new season. Football games at Camp Randall are right around the corner.