The shortened 2020 season was a frustrating one for redshirt sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz. After a freak ankle injury sidelined Jack Coan earlier last fall, Mertz dazzled in his first career start against Illinois in week one, a Friday night kickoff that had the eyes of the nation watching the young QB. The former four-star recruit connected on 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns, leading then-No.14 Wisconsin to a blowout win over the Illini.
"We talked about all week just playing with swag," Mertz said postgame after his first win. "I was happy that we played with a little extra chip on our shoulder and a little extra swag."
It was mostly downhill from there. Mertz tested positive for COVID-19 the following Monday, and his return to action against Michigan a few weeks later showed that he was far from a polished product in Big Ten play.
He wasn't necessarily bad, but the former High School All-American Game MVP had Badger fans dreaming big about his potential. If Wisconsin wants to make their first College Football Playoff this fall, they'll need a lot more from their young quarterback than a 61.1% completion rate and a 9:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He'll get a chance to take down his predecessor in Coan and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Sept. 25 at Soldier Field.
The revolving door of Badger running backs to the NFL has its latest candidate in sophomore RB Jalen Berger, who lived up to his high-four-star label as a true freshman last season.
Berger shined against No. 23 Michigan last November, getting a chance to start thanks to lackluster performances by Nakia Watson — who transferred to Washington State earlier this year. The freshman gained 87 yards on the ground on 15 carries, added two receptions for 13 yards and a touchdown in the 48-11 UW victory.
He's not going to be asked to handle the three-down workload that Jonathan Taylor excelled in two seasons ago, but his speed and agility give the Badgers a real threat in the backfield against physical teams like Iowa and Northwestern. Berger will be working with Clemson transfer Chezz Mellusi, who announced he would be heading to Madison in early June with a tweet saying, "New beginnings!!! #RBU".
Mellusi saw very limited playing time in Dabo Swinney's offense last fall, playing behind first-round NFL Draft pick Travis Etienne and backup Lyn-J Dixon. His 32 touches from scrimmage went for 189 yards and four touchdowns, solid production for a third man on the depth chart. Whether those numbers were a product of Mellusi's skill, Trevor Lawrence's masterful quarterbacking, or some mixture of the two, we'll soon find out. He should see a much heavier workload this year, complimenting Berger's speed with a more physical, upfield approach in short-yardage situations.
Wisconsin heads into 2021 with an experienced wide receiver room, as both Danny Davis III and Kendrick Pryor will return for a fifth season under new COVID-19 eligibility rules. Injuries derailed their seasons a year ago, combining for just 11 receptions total across Wisconsin's seven games.
Both players were huge contributors to Wisconsin's Rose Bowl season in 2019; Davis III compiled 30 receptions for 250 yards, and Pryor added 23 grabs for 278 yards across 14 games. Their veteran presence might help uncork Mertz's elite potential –– he was forced to throw to a pretty dismantled set of weapons all last season. Both players are solid route runners and have been used dangerously in Chryst's end-arounds as well as creative rushing plays.
Sophomore Chimere Dike returns for his second season in Madison as the WR3 on the depth chart after an interesting freshman season a year ago. The speedster is much more of a home run threat than a constant target for Mertz, but injuries last year forced him into a role that didn't go well for him as the season progressed. With Davis III and Pryor receiving the majority of the targets, Dike can slide back into that deep-ball-threat role and show off his speed against some of the Big Ten's tougher secondaries.
Tight end Jake Ferguson will be back in red and white this fall for his fourth season. He became Mertz's life raft late in the 2020 season and was subsequently unable to pick up the yards-per-catch numbers that he did in years prior. Like Dike, Ferguson should benefit from a more well-rounded offensive attack this year should the unit stay healthy as a whole.
Wisconsin's defense was among the nation's stingiest last year, in part thanks to the fantastic play of linebackers Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn. The duo combined for 92 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, 4 sacks, and 4 forced turnovers. Chenal, who is entering his junior year, was particularly dominant down the stretch, earning defensive player of the week honors after a 13 tackle, 2 sack performance against Minnesota in Wisconsin's ax game victory. Sanbon, a senior, is one of the leaders of the defense and is projected to be selected in next year's NFL draft.
Junior nose tackle Keeanu Benton anchors the defensive line and might be the Badgers' best player on the defensive side of the ball. Benton doesn't put gaudy numbers but is one of the most disruptive players on the field and seems to have a nose for the ball, finishing with two forced fumbles in 2020. Like Sanborn, Benton is viewed as an NFL draft prospect, with speculation he could be selected in one of the first several rounds. Former walk-on Matt Henningson and athletic big man Isaiah Mullens will complement Benton on the defensive line, a unit defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard expects to make serious strides in 2021.
The Badgers return both of their starting outside linebackers in Noah Burks and Nick Herbig for 2021 and will count on the duo to generate a strong pass rush. Burks is entering his 6th year of eligibility with the program and will look to improve on a disappointing 2020 season, where he recorded just one sack. Herbig, who started last year as a true freshman, is among the players many Badgers fans are most excited about. A top 150 player in the class of 2020, Herbig lived up to his gaudy ranking with a 26 tackle freshman campaign. Big things are expected from Herbig, and he'll get plenty of opportunities to rush the passer in Jim Leonard's blitz-heavy scheme.
Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams are the likely starters for Wisconsin at outside cornerback. Hicks, who is entering his senior season, defended a career high four passes despite the shortened season in 2020 and is among the most experienced players in a Badger secondary loaded with veteran depth. Williams, a fifth-year senior, is looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2020 season. His NFL dreams were put on hold after he managed to defend just two passes last year, down from 9 as a junior in 2019. Alexander Smith and Donte Burton will compete to play alongside Hicks and Williams at nickel cornerback, with the two likely splitting reps to begin the season.
Lastly, Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder return to solidify the safety position for the Badgers. The two combined for three interceptions and three passes defended in 2020 and were a tenacious duo against the run. Wilder, in particular, is considered a veteran leader on the team and will help bring energy to the defensive unit on gameday.