After weeks of promotion, social media hype and anticipation, Wisconsin Badgers football fans returned to Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday to get their first glimpses of the Luke Fickell era at an event appropriately named ‘The Launch.'
Prior to the official 1 p.m. start, University of Wisconsin-Madison Athletics hosted the Badgers Kids’ Combine at the McClain Center. Families were invited to bring young Badger fans to the state-of-the-art indoor practice facility to participate in field games, win prizes and interact with Badger athletes.
As game time approached, students and fans joined families and migrated to the east stands to watch the new era of Badger football kick off.
Notable alumni, including current Dallas Cowboys tight end Jake Ferguson and projected 2023 NFL Draft pick Nick Herbig, were among the crowd Saturday. Future Wisconsin football prospects were also in attendance, roaming the sidelines and connecting with the athletes and coaching staff.
New coaching staff, transfer acquisitions on both sides of the ball and a return to Camp Randall all provided reasons for fans to attend 'The Launch.' Plus, the Badgers are landing comfortably in almost every early ranking circulating around the internet.
The punt team took the field to begin the practice, followed by multiple Badger breakthroughs for big returns. Afterwards, Fickell and his new staff — including offensive coordinator Phil Longo from North Carolina and defensive coordinator Mike Tressel from Cincinnati — set up shop behind the offense to observe play.
The main event featured two 20-minute halves with points for touchdowns, interceptions and field goals in an offense versus defense format as opposed to full teams. Also mixed in were random “resets,” where Fickell moved the offense to different spots on the field and observed the team’s flexibility on both sides of the ball.
In the opening minutes of the first half, quarterback Tanner Mordecai — a redshirt senior transfer from SMU and projected starter — led the first-team offense alongside Braelon Allen, an early top-20 Heisman Watch candidate. Wide receiver transfers C.J. Williams, Will Pauling and Bryson Green worked alongside Keontez Lewis, Skylar Bell and Chimere Dike in cycles with the first-team offense, previewing the “air-raid offense” Longo is known for.
On the second-team offense, redshirt freshman transfer Braedyn Locke worked with Chez Mellusi, Quincy Burroughs and Hayden Rucci to record the first touchdown of the practice.
However, the starting defense was the main story of the first half.
Safety and defensive leader Kamo’i Latu intercepted Mordecai on the second play of the game before Ricardo Hallman did the same shortly after. The defense recorded a second straight stop on the first-team offense on the next drive.
After two straight stops, Oklahoma transfer quarterback Nick Evers replaced Mordecai, and Allen switched out for the likes of Cade Yacamelli and Zach Gloudeman.
Mordecai and Allen retook control of the first-team offense at the end of the first half, but Hallman recorded his second of three interceptions of the day on Mordecai. However, Mordecai and Allen responded with a full-field drive dominated by the run game and capped off by an Allen touchdown.
After a flurry of snow paired with exciting halftime entertainment courtesy of the t-shirt cannon and famous “Jump Around” tradition, the Badgers retook the field for similar patterns of gameplay in the second half of practice. One notable addition to the rotation was the field goal unit, including the Ohio transfer Nathaniel Vakos, who nailed a 47-yard kick.
Receivers Tommy McIntosh and Locke connected for electric back-to-back bombs near the end of practice, much to the excitement of cheering fans. Allen and Mellusi continued to slice through the defense, and Marshall Howe became the fourth Badger quarterback to toss a touchdown in the practice.
Fickell ran a two-minute drill to finish practice. After the team breakdown at midfield, players went to the stands to sign autographs, grab pictures and meet up with family and friends in attendance.
While we are still months away from the 2023 college football season, 'The Launch' provided an early insight into the dominant defense and ground-air combination offense ahead of Fickell’s Camp Randall debut in September. And, while Tressel’s defense dominated the day, fans should have hope for Longo’s balanced playcalling and Fickell’s vision for success.