Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Top 120 countdown
No. 49 Wisconsin
Coach:Bret Bielema (28-11 in three seasons). | Staff In 2008: 7-6 overall, 3-5 in Big Ten (tied for sixth in league). Lost to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 6. Defense: 4. Special teams: 2. | Depth Chart Final 2008 Rivals.com ranking: 48th. | Complete Final 2008 Rankings Past four Rivals.com national recruiting rankings: 43rd in 2009, 41st in '08, 34th in '07, 42nd in '06.
THE SCHEME: This is Wisconsin, so the ground game always will be emphasized. With RB P.J. Hill off early to the NFL, coaches will turn to John Clay to carry a big load, with help from Zach Brown and Erik Smith. Once again, the Badgers will have one of the biggest lines in the Big Ten. Three starters – including the right side – need to be replaced, but there is lots of talent and potential for a unit that is relatively young and inexperienced. T Gabe Carimi is a star.
John Clay is the heir apparent to Wisconsin's running back tradition.
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
STAR POWER: Since Barry Alvarez took over in Madison in 1990, the tailback has been the Badgers' marquee player. There has been Terrell Fletcher, Brent Moss, Ron Dayne, Anthony Davis, Brian Calhoun and Hill, among others. Now, Clay is the BMOC. He showed flashes of big things last season as a redshirt freshman, when he rumbled for 884 yards and nine touchdowns. Clay closed the season with a bit of a flurry, with three 100-yard games among the final five. Plus, Clay is tough, showing the grit to play through bumps and bruises.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman WR Kraig Appleton is talented enough to play from day one. His ability to grasp the offense will be the key. In addition, the staff loves RB Montee Ball, but there might not be enough carries to go around in the backfield.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Keep an eye on redshirt freshman QB Curt Phillips. The staff has praised his skills, and he's an exceptional athlete. If Phillips shows a knack for making the smart decision and limits mistakes, he may win the starting job.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: It's simple – Wisconsin needs better play at quarterback. Coach Bret Bielema didn't name a starter exiting spring drills, meaning Phillips and incumbent Dustin Sherer will continue to battle in fall camp. Sherer had his moments in 2008 and has improved his release and mechanics, while Phillips is a nifty, mobile athlete whose passes lack zip. The M.O. in Madison has been the same for almost 20 years – pound the rock. While that remains a staple in Wisconsin's attack, coordinator Paul Chryst has opened things a bit and dressed up the offense with myriad formations and shifts. This year's offense features good skill-position talent and another solid line. But like last season, it all could be undermined if the quarterback play is shoddy.
THE SCHEME: The Badgers became a bit more aggressive after Dave Doeren took over coordinator duties from the departed Mike Hankwitz. Wisconsin plays a standard 4-3 scheme that relies on the line tying up blocks, freeing linebackers to make plays. With the pass rush lacking, Doeren hasn't been afraid to take chances with stunts and blitzes in hopes of generating pressure.
Jaevery McFadden moves outside in the Badgers new 4-3 scheme.
(AP Photo/Morry Gash)
STAR POWER: E O'Brien Schofield is the emotional leader, and he also has a quick, explosive first step off the edge. Schofield's presence should draw frequent double-teams, opening room for a group of tackles that has much to prove.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Many expect every incoming recruit on defense to redshirt. But there's a chance T Jordan Kohout could see some playing time, primarily because he graduated early and took part in spring practice.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: LB Jaevery McFadden has moved from the middle to his more natural weakside slot, where he can use his closing speed to help a linebacking corps that has lost DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas. McFadden's nose for the ball should make him one of the Big Ten's top tacklers this fall.
STRONGEST AREA: The secondary is as deep as it has been in Bielema's tenure, with seven players who have started at some point. CB Aaron Henry is poised to break out after a knee injury forced him to the sideline last season. Former walk-on Chris Maragos has emerged as a viable safety, a position filled with potential playmakers in Shane Carter, Aubrey Pleasant and Jay Valai. Wisconsin has the makings of a strong back seven, so the onus will be on the line to become more active and to make more plays.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Insiders are fretting about the tackles. Bielema likes seniors Jeff Stehle and Dan Moore, who are the typical lunch-pail/try-hard guys that the Badgers have had success with in the past. The staff won't be afraid to rotate players, meaning senior Dan Cascone and sophomore Patrick Butrym must step up, too. If Wisconsin gets mauled inside and is unable to stop the run consistently, it will be a long season in Madison.
There are few worries here. Philip Welch is back after hitting 20-of-24 field-goal attempts in 2008, when he was a Groza Award semifinalist. Brad Nortman emerged as a steady punter as a true freshman last season, averaging 41.8 yards per boot. Gilreath is primed to leave Madison as one of the school's best return men. He already has 1,751 kick-return yards and 522 punt-return yards.
As Alvarez's surprise successor, Bielema enjoyed a smashing debut in 2006, posting a 12-1 record. But since then, the Badgers have won fewer games each season, slipping to 9-4 in '07 and 7-6 last fall. That steady slide has caused some to think Bielema needs to have a strong season or face a make-or-break 2010. One area that must improve is penalties, which were a bugaboo last season. Bielema has built a strong staff and has one of the top coordinator tandems in the Big Ten.
Opening with four home games is a recipe for a fast start, which this program needs after a dubious showing against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. The last of those games is a visit from Michigan State, which will be a bellwether game. If the Badgers can beat the Spartans and somehow win at Ohio State on Oct. 10, this could be a special season. The Badgers catch a break with Penn State and Illinois off the menu.
There's a sense of urgency in Madison. The Badgers ended last season with a 42-13 beatdown at the hands of an average Florida State team in the Champs Sports Bowl. But Wisconsin was oh-so-close to breaking though to big things. The Badgers played a school-record six games that were decided by three or fewer points, going 3-3 in those contests. The offense ranked third in the Big Ten, while the defense was fourth. But mistakes, penalties at key times and not making plays when needed ruined the Badgers, who forced just 22 turnovers last season. Now, Wisconsin faces a season at the crossroads. The talent is there to be a dark-horse Big Ten contender, especially if Wisconsin gets better quarterback play. But another average season and middling bowl trip will mean 2010 will be a critical season for Bielema.