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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Football offseason storylines as 2022 opener nears

After an underwhelming 2021 season, the Wisconsin Badgers football team will look to return to form despite drastic change.

Three months from now, the University of Wisconsin-Madison will open its 2022 season at Camp Randall Stadium against Illinois State University. 

Last fall, the Badgers transformed from inept to stellar before ultimately disappointing with a late-season loss at the University of Minnesota. In that November defeat, Wisconsin lost not only the Paul Bunyan Axe but a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game. Instead, they settled for a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl, where they defeated Arizona State University to end 2021 on a positive, albeit disappointing, note. 

Now, Wisconsin will return to action without a number of departing seniors. Linebacker Leo Chenal, tight end Jake Ferguson and cornerback Caesar Williams make up the list of longtime Badgers whose contributions will be sorely missed. Now, the team must lean on younger, lesser known talent in order to remain competitive.

Here are some key storylines as the Badgers hit the field this summer and continue preparing for the 2022 season.

The 2022 schedule

Wisconsin begins its season with three consecutive home games versus Illinois State (4-7 in 2021), Washington State University (7-6) and New Mexico State University (2-10). These three unranked opponents should provide a nice runway for the Badgers as they adjust to their fresh roster and look for a better start to this campaign than 2021. 

On Sept. 24, the Badgers head to Columbus for a daunting showdown with the Ohio State University Buckeyes. A factory for NFL talent, Ohio State features a star quarterback in C.J. Stroud and a perennially strong defense, so Wisconsin will have its hands full with this early-season matchup. 

The Badgers return home to face the University of Illinois before visiting Northwestern University and Michigan State University. The Michigan State Spartans excelled in 2021 and figure to be ranked before this season, but losing running back Kenneth Walker to the NFL could cause considerable regression for a team which, like Wisconsin, lived and died with its ground attack. A home tilt versus Purdue University followed by a bye week close out October. 

In November, Wisconsin hosts the University of Maryland, then plays at the University of Iowa and the University of Nebraska. The regular season ends, as usual, with the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe against Minnesota, which will take place at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers will seek revenge for last year’s defeat, and it wouldn’t be shocking if this game has implications for the Big Ten West title. 

Overall, the schedule appears less challenging than 2021, when Wisconsin faced Michigan, University of Notre Dame and Iowa, among other respectable opponents. While the Badgers must improve greatly upon last season’s performance, they may have an easier path to a berth in the conference championship game. 

No Williams, but pressure builds as Mertz enters third year

In late January, reports surfaced that Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams, a sophomore Heisman candidate who was then in the transfer portal, was strongly considering becoming a Badger. He did not, instead following his coach Lincoln Riley to the University of Southern California. 

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It’s unclear how legitimate a shot Wisconsin had at landing Williams, but there’s no doubt quarterback Graham Mertz heard the rumors of his potential replacement. It remains to be seen how Mertz handles the rising pressure to perform in his third year under center. 

Through two seasons, Mertz has completed 61 percent of his passes for 3,269 yards, 19 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. While he’s certainly flashed the accuracy and arm talent that made him a lauded recruit, he has yet to find any real consistency.

Luckily for Mertz, he can continue playing second-fiddle to running back Braelon Allen in the Badgers’ run-heavy offense. That said, he’ll have to lead a competent passing game and do so with mostly unfamiliar pass catchers.

Bobby Engram’s hire and the receiving corps

Wisconsin hired Bobby Engram as its new offensive coordinator in January. Engram, whose son Dean plays for the Badgers, has served as wide receivers and tight ends coach in the NFL, most recently with the Baltimore Ravens. His expertise figures to better incorporate Wisconsin’s pass catchers into the offense and make for a more balanced unit than last year, when Allen was the only truly impactful Badger skill player. 

Who are those receivers, though? 

Wideouts Danny Davis and Kendrick Pryor have moved on, as has Ferguson. In 2021, the trio combined for 110 catches (of the team’s 177), 1,344 yards (of 2082) and eight touchdowns (of 11). 

Receiver Chimere Dike, who caught 19 passes for 272 yards and a touchdown last season, is now Wisconsin’s top wide receiver, at least in terms of experience. Markus Allen returns, too, after recording 65 receiving yards on three catches in just two games in 2021. 

Newcomers to the group include Dean Engram, who impressed as a slot cornerback a year ago and has converted to wide receiver. It’s unclear how impactful he’ll be in his new role, but his familiarity with the system is a plus. University of California, Los Angeles transfer and former three-star recruit Keontez Lewis brings good size at 6’2,” although he appeared in only one game for the Bruins last season. 

As for tight ends, Clay Cundiff and Jack Eschenbach are the only returners who caught a pass in 2021 — each tallied three receptions last season.

Preseason practices will be crucial for Mertz to establish a rapport with returning Badgers as well as new teammates. Although Wisconsin opens its schedule with three manageable opponents, Engram’s offense can’t completely rely on the running game while the passing game adjusts. 

Holes to fill across the defense

The defensive line will be without defensive end Matt Henningsen, a major factor in Wisconsin’s formidable run defense last season. Lineman Isaiah Mullens, an honorable mention for the All-Big Ten teams, figures to emerge from his rotational role and become an every-down staple. 

Wisconsin’s linebacker corps must fill the massive voids left by Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn, standout players who both landed on NFL rosters this spring. Their excellence as run defenders and pass rushers made them the centerpieces of defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit. 

Jordan Turner could emerge as the primary inside linebacker. He played only three games in 2021, recording six total tackles and a pair of garbage-time interceptions. Sanborn’s brother Bryan, a redshirt freshman, should also see plenty of action. It may take some unexpected breakout performances in this group for the Badgers to replicate their absurdly good 2021 run defense. 

Edge rusher Nick Herbig returns after leading the team with nine sacks and he appears primed to lead in that stat once again. That said, he’ll likely face stiffer pass protection with the loss of key pass-rushers. 

Starting safeties Collin Wilder and Scott Nelson, as well as starting cornerbacks Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks, have all graduated. Engram, as mentioned, now plays offense. Thus, Wisconsin’s base and nickel defenses will feature an entirely different secondary in 2022. 

UCLA transfer Jay Shaw, a senior with 88 tackles, 12 pass breakups and six interceptions in 43 games (16 starts) at his former school, will presumably step in as a starting cornerback. Justin Clark (Toledo) and Cedrick Dort (Kentucky) are another couple transfer cornerbacks who will bring much-needed experience to the Badger secondary.

Among returning cornerbacks, senior Alexander Smith led the team last season with 11 games played while recording an interception and nine tackles. Sophomore Amaun Williams is another cornerback who, despite appearing in just one game a year ago, could see substantial playing time in 2022. 

As for the starting safety positions, one will surely belong to John Torchio. The senior is coming off a 30-tackle, two-interception campaign in which he generally played when Wilder or Nelson needed a breather. Senior Travian Blaylock missed some time during spring practices but should play plenty of snaps alongside Torchio. The 5’11” safety sparingly appeared in just seven games last season. 

As a whole, Leonhard’s defense could feature fewer consistent pieces, at least earlier in the 2022 campaign. Rather, the unit may utilize its solid depth and rotate players at several positions until clear starters emerge. 

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