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Friday, June 21, 2024
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Column: Transfers make early impacts for new-look Badgers

The strong transfer class brought in for the new Fickell era have already made their mark on the Badgers’ young season.

After a 34-10 loss to Illinois last season that dropped Wisconsin to 2-3, head coach Paul Chryst was fired, and Badger football entered a new era. 

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was installed as the interim coach until Luke Fickell, the 2021 National Coach of the Year winner, was hired in November 2022. Fickell, a primarily defensive coach who was behind many Ohio State defenses — including their 2014 National Championship team — brought in Phil Longo to be his offensive coordinator and to install his trademark and increasingly popular Air Raid offense. 

With Fickell and Longo starting their own era at Wisconsin and the NIL market blowing up the transfer portal, eyes turned to the additions the new staff would bring in to take the Badgers to the top of the Big Ten.

Tanner Mordecai (QB, Oklahoma 2018-20, SMU 2021-22)

Mordecai was arguably the biggest transfer Fickell’s staff landed, a big arm who led Southern Methodist University to two bowl games and a 15-10 record across his two years as starter. 

Mordecai passed for over 3,500 yards and 30+ touchdowns in both of his years, including a 39-touchdown 2021 campaign, good for 5th most in the NCAA. While Mordecai is on pace for 3,500 yards so far in 2023, his touchdown to interception rate sits at a grim 2-3 through four games, showing mixed signals from the new offense. 

However, the fifth-year senior has been able to showcase his mobility as a benefactor of the potent Wisconsin running game, and multiple QB read options have led to Mordecai’s four rushing touchdowns in the past two games. 

As the Badgers enter more conference play, look for the passing and Air Raid offense to pick up, and for Mordecai to continue to capitalize on QB keepers.

Will Pauling (WR, Cincinnati 2021-22)

Pauling has emerged as one of Mordecai’s go-to wideouts in the 2023 season.

Pauling is currently second on the team in receptions (14) and yards (175). He logged five catches in each of the Badgers’ first two games, and he had 78 yards in the loss to Washington State. 

The redshirt sophomore started his career at Cincinnati but followed Fickell to Wisconsin to play in Longo’s pass-dominated Air Raid offense. With Longo’s ability to tailor the passing game and develop receivers — notably A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf at Ole Miss as well as Dyami Brown and Josh Downs at UNC — Pauling should be a threat to Big Ten defenses in the near future.

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C.J. Williams (WR, USC 2022)

Williams, a former 4-star recruit from California powerhouse Mater Dei High School, showcased his talents in the Badgers conference win over Purdue

The sophomore wideout logged five catches for 56 yards in the Friday night feature, and he has become an increasingly focal point of this offense throughout the season, seeing more targets with each game. 

Although more opportunities will arise for Williams, who sits behind Chimere Dike, Bryson Green and the aforementioned Pauling in terms of snap count, wide receivers always get their time to shine in Phil Longo’s offense, and the flashes of Williams’ potential could net him a larger role in coming games.

Jason Maitre (DB, Boston College 2018-2022)

Maitre was one of the few defensive transfers the Badgers grabbed in the offseason, but the sixth-year redshirt senior provided experience and leadership to the Wisconsin cornerback corps. 

Through the first four games, he’s recorded 14 total tackles, also adding one of the Badgers three interceptions in their victory over Georgia Southern. 

Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, who also made the jump from Cincinnati to Wisconsin with Fickell, has developed NFL cornerbacks Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and Coby Bryant, bringing even more experience to the group.

Nathanial Vakos (K, Ohio 2022)

Vakos made the jump from the MAC to the Power 5 after earning College Football News Third Team All-American honors in his true freshman year with the Ohio Bobcats in 2022. 

He’s already made an immediate impact for the Badgers in 2023, burying all seven field goal attempts (FGA) and nailing 14-14 extra point attempts, including 2 from 40+ yards. Last season, the Badgers went 3-5 on FGAs of 40+ yards, prompting the team to create an opening for Vakos this season. 

Vakos also took home Big Ten special teams player of the week in week four after drilling three second half field goals and aiding Wisconsin in their win over Purdue on Sept. 22.

Braedyn Locke (QB, Mississippi State 2022) and Nick Evers (QB, Oklahoma 2022)

Locke and Evers were both highly touted high school prospects who joined the Badgers over the winter to compete for the quarterback position after Mordecai’s impending departure at the end of the 2023 season. 

They both get the opportunity to work with Phil Longo, who most recently developed Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell into an NFL draft pick at UNC. 

Evers and Locke were ranked as the 8th- and 25th-best quarterbacks in their class by 247Sports, and while the redshirt freshmen might not see much of the field this season, they will both likely make an impact in the coming seasons.

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