Sports

Breakout Badgers: Incoming freshmen looking for an impact in 2018, beyond

Jonathan Taylor made a huge impact during his freshman season. Wisconsin's new class of freshmen have potential to see lots of reps this season, especially on defense

Image By: Brandon Moe

The 2018 Wisconsin Badgers have a unique luxury when it comes to their incoming freshmen: If all goes according to plan, they may not be needed at all. The coaching staff, led by head coach Paul Chryst, has emphasized development and deference to the best interests of the team, which creates an ideal situation for upperclassmen to pay their dues and earn playing time as they progress. Even some of the program’s most highly touted recruits are expected to redshirt their freshman years to learn and mature. Yet in recent seasons, some players have proven to be too valuable to keep off the field, including Jonathan Taylor and Danny Davis in 2017 and Quintez Cephus and Bradrick Shaw in 2016. This year’s freshmen class, too, may have some players who will contribute sooner rather than later.

While the spring practice sessions only showcased early enrollees — players who graduated from high school early in order to gain an additional semester of conditioning and practice reps — the limited glimpses offered to the media showed a group of new players hungry for competition and playing time.

The offense, which will already benefit from the return of every major contributor aside from tight end Troy Fumagalli, adds several highly touted players at the skill positions. Three-star signal caller Chase Wolf joins a talented quarterback room. The Cincinnati, OH native reportedly fought off a late push from Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and stuck with his commitment to the Badgers. He will likely sit for a year behind incumbents Alex Hornibrook, Danny Vanden Boom and Jack Coan.

Although the Badgers have a workhorse in sophomore Jonathan Taylor, Austin, TX product Nakia Watson could challenge for carries. The former four-star recruit (according to 247 Sports) compiled nearly 4,000 total yards and 55 touchdowns in his last two years at Westlake High against some of the strongest competition in the football-crazed Lone Star State. Even with Taylor serving as the bell cow, running backs coach John Settle may allow Watson to show what he can do, particularly at the end of blowouts.

The wide receiver position recently became a strength for the Badgers, and several freshmen add to the embarrassment of riches. New Yorker Aron Cruickshank has shown his rare athletic ability, drawing praise from veteran leaders. Senior linebacker T.J. Edwards called him “straight lightning,” while other coaches and players have commented on his speed and elusiveness. He fielded some kicks in spring practice and has expanded on that role in the first week of fall camp. With a crowded depth chart at wide receiver, Cruickshank’s best shot at seeing the field is likely on special teams, and at the moment he appears to be the favorite to return both kickoffs and punts in the fall. The Badgers also add Isaac Guerendo from Indiana and high school teammates A.J. Abbott and Taj Mustapha. Talented as the newcomers are, Wisconsin’s returning wide receivers are as deep and talented a position group as there is on the offensive side of the ball — offensive line excepted — and Badger fans will likely have to wait to see these freshmen earn consistent playing time on Saturdays.

On the defensive side of the ball, there are several players who may be more likely to see the field early on due to injuries and attrition. Recent injuries to Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand may force players like Cormac Sampson and Boyd Dietzen, the two highest-rated players from the state of Wisconsin in the 2018 class, into immediate action. Isaiah Mullens also bolsters the line. Early enrollee Bryson Williams, who joins the Badgers despite the best efforts of new Nebraska coach Scott Frost to coax him to his hometown school, may be especially crucial to fill the hole left by Loudermilk and Rand. He is already slated to be the backup at nose guard, and appears to be physically ready for the task: his weight room exploits have drawn praise and been featured on social media. That strength and physical maturity may come in handy while the rest of the freshmen continue to develop.

Linebacker is another position that is full of talented upperclassmen. Illinois native Jack Sanborn, a four-star inside linebacker, is the highest rated player in the freshman class, but will likely sit behind the likes of T.J. Edwards, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly. C.J. Goetz and Mason Platter are the other two scholarship linebackers from this year’s group.

The secondary, a group that has the most to replace this season, adds five players who will hope to make an early impact. Cornerback Donte Burton will fight for the fourth cornerback spot, while Alex Smith, Travian Blaylock, Rachad Wildgoose, Jr., and Reggie Pearson round out the list of newcomers. Though it appears most of the freshmen class will require some time, Badgers fans have seen time and again that players who show undeniable talent and determination will always find a way to make an impact. Certainly, the 2018 team will be no exception to that rule.

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