College football in 2023 is a universe of constant change. NIL, coaching changes, conference realignment and the transfer portal have uprooted the sport and flung it into chaos.
Few programs have undergone more change than the Wisconsin Badgers. With the exit of coaches Paul Chryst and Jim Leonhard, gone are the years of run-first, pass-second offenses. With the hire of new coach Luke Fickell, and mostly new offensive coordinator Phil Longo, the Badgers are going radical and embracing the Air Raid offense — a pass-first attack that relies on having multiple receivers who can be threats.
Fickell hit the ground running to improve the team, and these days, there’s no easier way to do so than to scour the aforementioned portal. With a new quarterback and several new players on both sides of the ball, Badgers fans are going to be dizzy at the Week 1 game against Buffalo.
Here are some of the newest Badgers who came from the transfer portal this offseason.
QB Tanner Mordecai, Redshirt Senior, Previous School: SMU
No transfer will have more eyes on him than Mordecai, the gunslinger who put on a show with the SMU Mustangs the past two years. Wisconsin has had some competent quarterback play but really hasn’t had a showstopper since Russell Wilson a decade ago. Perhaps Mordecai can be the one to truly transform the Badgers offense.
Mordecai was a four-star recruit out of high school, according to ESPN. Two years ago, he burst onto the scene at SMU, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 39 touchdowns, the latter being good for fifth best in the entire NCAA. His efforts placed him as a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award, given to the best player in college football.
Mordecai did not slow down last year and threw for over 3,000 yards once again and added 33 touchdowns, which set the SMU record for most career touchdowns. Wisconsin has had a lot of excellent players over the years. But the quarterback position has left a lot to be desired, and Mordecai will need to reverse Wisconsin’s fortunes at the position to have a successful season.
C.J. Williams, Sophomore, Previous School: USC
Williams doesn’t have the college pedigree like Mordecai, but that isn’t a slight since Williams is only a sophomore. He played sparingly in his one season at USC, but he was a very highly-sought after recruit in high school. He had offers from football powers such as Texas, Notre Dame, and Alabama before settling on USC.
247Sports rated him a four-star prospect and as the seventh best receiver in his entire recruiting class in 2022. Williams’ NFL comparison, according to 247Sports, is Los Angeles Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, which would be a tremendous development for the Badgers if that’s who he turns out to be like.
The Badgers do return other receiving starters in Chimere Dike and Skyler Bell, along with Keontez Lewis. However, in the new Air Raid offense, the Badgers need more pass catchers who can make big plays. Based on his past pedigree, Williams can potentially be one of those players.
Jake Renfro, Redshirt Junior, Previous School: Cincinnati
Following coach Fickell from Cincinnati, Renfro is a center who promises to bring much needed protection for Mordecai.
He started 13 games for Cincinnati in 2021 and helped lead an offensive line that averaged the ninth-most yards per play and gave up only 53 tackles for loss. Renfro was named to the All-AAC First Team that year.
He missed all of last season with injury, and unfortunately sustained a foot injury in preseason and will miss the start of the season. Hopefully, Wisconsin can get Renfro back on the field soon so he can show that he’s capable of replicating his very strong 2021 season.
Jason Maitre, Redshirt Senior, Previous School: Boston College
Maitre is an experienced player who will bring needed leadership and stability to a young
secondary. He was ranked the seventh-best player in Massachusetts for his high school class by 247Sports. He played in 11 games in both 2019 and 2020 and made seven starts in 2021.
Maitre posted 32 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks in 2020. He had a strong spring and is projected to start at nickel back when the season kicks off. He hasn’t really gotten a chance to play for a ranked team, and the Badgers should hope that his experience shines through in an inexperienced secondary.
Jeff Pietrowski Jr., Redshirt Junior, Previous School: Michigan State
It’s always nice to poach a player from an in-conference rival, and the Badgers did just that, reeling in Pietrowski from the Spartans.
Pietrowski ranked second on the team in sacks with 5.5 in 2021. He added seven tackles for loss and forced three fumbles that year, tied for second in the Big Ten. He was starting for the Spartans at the beginning of last year but was forced to miss most of the season with an injury.
Pietrowski has proven that he can start for a Big Ten program, and he will, at minimum, provide strong depth for the defensive line.
Darian Varner, Redshirt Junior, Previous School: Temple
Varner is a defensive end who caught on with the Owls last year and parlayed his strong 2022 season into a transfer to Madison.
Varner played both offensive and defensive tackle in high school, and it appears he found his footing playing solely as a defensive end last year. He finished the 2022 season with 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss last season, which earned him a place on the All-AAC First Team.
Varner is a late bloomer, but his best football might be coming. He will be someone to watch as the season progresses.