Wisconsin football mailbag: How Badgers go from good to great, lack of veteran QBs, Jonathan Taylor’s strong camp

Wisconsin-Alex Hornibrook

Have Wisconsin football or basketball questions? We’ve got answers. Join us every Wednesday for the Land of 10 Wisconsin mailbag to talk all things Badgers. This week, we’ll discuss how Wisconsin’s program can go from “good” to “great,” why redshirt sophomore Alex Hornibrook is the oldest quarterback on the roster, whether freshman running back Jonathan Taylor has earned playing time, and more.

Question 1

Answer: For as much success as Wisconsin’s football program has experienced the last two decades, the one knock on the Badgers is that they haven’t broken through into the truly upper echelon of college football. The only way to achieve that feat is to compete for a national championship. There’s just no way around that fact.

I wrote some about this in one of my first columns for Land of 10, when I made the case why this is the season Wisconsin can finally compete for a national title. My rationale centered on Wisconsin’s manageable schedule, the overall depth of talent on the roster, and simply that the Badgers are due.

Here’s part of what I wrote:

“Since the BCS era began in 1998, Wisconsin has compiled a record of 178-70 (.718 winning percentage). Only three other FBS teams during that span have a winning percentage above .700 and have not played for a title — Boise State, Georgia and TCU. Five times in the previous 19 seasons, the Badgers have closed the regular season ranked in the top 10 of the poll that determines what team plays for a national championship.”

Think about how good Wisconsin has been and how few teams that good have not played for a title. It’s really astounding. The easy answer for what it will take for Wisconsin to make the jump from “good” to “great” is to win the games the Badgers aren’t supposed to win.

Wisconsin has traditionally done an excellent job of beating the teams it is supposed to beat. Since 2011, when Nebraska joined the Big Ten, Wisconsin’s regular-season league record is 36-13. No other team in the Big Ten West can match that success. Nebraska is 31-18, Iowa is 29-20 and the rest of the teams have losing records. Of the teams currently in the West, Wisconsin has been to four Big Ten title games. The rest of the West teams combined have two appearances — Iowa in 2015 and Nebraska in 2012, when it lost 70-31 to Wisconsin.

In that same six-year span, Wisconsin’s regular-season record against Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State is 2-9. Wisconsin defeated Michigan State in the 2011 Big Ten championship game but lost to Ohio State in 2014 and to Penn State in 2016.

Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State routinely bring in some of the top recruiting classes in the nation, so those programs are constantly stocked with talent. Wisconsin has to play its best games against the best teams and catch an occasional break. Only then will the Badgers position themselves for a spot in the College Football Playoff and begin to make the leap from good to great.

Question 2

Answer: This is a great question, and the answer has a lot to do with the differing coaching philosophies of Gary Andersen and Paul Chryst, as well as how the two coaches evaluate talent.

Let’s start with the 2013 recruiting class. Andersen didn’t have much time to recruit after he took over for Bret Bielema in December 2012. So he brought in junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy as his quarterback in that class. McEvoy’s numbers at Arizona Western College the previous season were excellent. He completed 65.4 percent of his passes and threw for 2,301 yards with 29 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. But he also possessed the ability to run, which represented the type of offensive strategy shift Andersen wanted.

Of course, McEvoy’s career as a quarterback at Wisconsin didn’t turn out the way many had hoped. But he proved to be a tremendous safety. And his athleticism ultimately allowed him to make an NFL team as a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. If Andersen had pursued and been able to land a high school prospect, that player would presumably be a fifth-year senior entering the 2017 season after taking an initial redshirt year.

Wisconsin’s Class of 2014 quarterback was D.J. Gillins, another dual-threat prospect Andersen liked. Gillins took a redshirt season in 2014. But when Andersen left after the season and Chryst took over, Chryst saw other quarterbacks ahead of Gillins — particularly Joel Stave and Bart Houston. Gillins moved to wide receiver in 2015 but transferred after the season so he could play quarterback elsewhere. Gillins went to junior college and signed with SMU before this season.

Chryst’s first recruiting class at Wisconsin in 2015 featured two scholarship quarterbacks: Alex Hornibrook and Austin Kafentzis. Hornibrook was exactly the type of pro-style signal caller Chryst wanted, and Hornibrook actually flipped his commitment from Pittsburgh to Wisconsin to remain with Chryst. Kafentzis was an Andersen recruit who quickly fell behind Hornibrook in spring practice and transferred. He is now enrolled at BYU, which is his fourth college in the last 2 1/2 years.

Kare Lyles is a redshirt freshman who signed in the 2016 class, while Jack Coan and Danny Vanden Boom are freshmen who signed in the 2017 class. Wisconsin was interested in Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire, who visited Madison in December. But Zaire ultimately transferred to Florida.

So, that’s the story of how Hornibrook became the oldest quarterback on Wisconsin’s team as a redshirt sophomore. We’ll see whether the lack of QB experience outside of Hornibrook comes back to bite the Badgers this season.

Question 3

Answer: Natrell Jamerson has transitioned from No. 3 cornerback into a starting safety role quite well, and he will be with the first-team defense alongside D’Cota Dixon. You can read more about Jamerson’s offseason in a story I wrote a couple weeks ago.

Few defensive backs in the Big Ten are as physically strong as Jamerson. Just take a look at the way he bench-pressed 405 pounds in a video included in that link. But Jamerson’s most substantial on-field improvement has been being more vocal and informing teammates about proper alignments and assignments.

“In the spring, I was definitely working on that a lot,” Jamerson told me. “I’m not a very loud guy. I’m not too vocal. I’ve made the transition to being the one making the calls, making sure everybody on the field hears me. I’ve been doing a pretty good job of that this fall camp. I don’t really have a problem communicating and making sure guys hear the plays. It’s all good.”

Jamerson is replacing Leo Musso, who earned team MVP honors last season and led the Badgers with 5 interceptions. But Jamerson has the skill and strength to excel in his new role. I’d expect the entire starting secondary to cause plenty of problems for opposing teams.

Question 4

Answer: There’s no question Jonathan Taylor has shown he is plenty capable of contributing as a freshman this season. Taylor was particularly impressive during a scrimmage Friday night in which he scored 2 touchdowns. The first was a 70-yard rushing touchdown against the first-team defense. The second came on a short throw from quarterback Alex Hornibrook over the middle that was behind Taylor. He still managed to snag the football with his right hand and eluded linebackers Ryan Connelly and Mike Maskalunas. Taylor ran down the right sideline and then cut back to avoid one last tackler just before the goal line.

Wisconsin’s football Twitter account posted this video of Taylor’s second score:

But whether Taylor plays at all — or how much he plays — is tricky to answer at this point. Bradrick Shaw and Chris James clearly are the top two running backs and will split the majority of the carries. Taiwan Deal has missed time during fall camp with a right leg injury. If Deal is healthy, perhaps the coaching staff will try to save Taylor’s redshirt season, as he would presumably only play in blowouts. If Deal is unable to play for an extended period of time, then Taylor could become the third running back. Wisconsin also has graduate transfer Rachid Ibrahim at running back.

“I think he’s done enough stuff where he’s earning those reps,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said of Taylor after practice Friday night. “There’s so many that aren’t clean, but those are good moments if you can learn from them. We’ve got to keep putting him in those situations, because he’s done some really good things, and yet there’s a lot. You don’t want to start too quick simplifying because you want to keep helping him grow.”

Running back Corey Clement demonstrated he was clearly ready when he played as a freshman in 2013. He was coming off a senior season of high school in which he set the New Jersey single-season state rushing record with 2,510 yards. Taylor broke his record last season with 2,815 yards. Taylor will perform well if he earns a chance in 2017.

Question 5

Answer: One of the biggest unknowns entering the season is what, exactly, Jim Leonhard’s defense will look like in his first year as Badgers defensive coordinator. The only game-like scenario we’ve seen came back in the spring game, but most of the defensive starters didn’t even play, and those contests are kept pretty vanilla in terms of scheme.

I expect this defense to look a lot like the one that excelled last season. Leonhard worked wonders as the defensive backs coach and helped those players perform with aggression and intelligence. Wisconsin recorded 22 interceptions, which tied for second most in the FBS and was the most at the school since 2002 — when Leonhard himself picked off 11 passes as an All-America safety. He also is willing to listen to input from players and play to their strengths.

Leonhard will surely take his chances, particularly with quality outside linebackers such as Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs. But this defense returns starters at every level, so it makes little sense to drastically change anything given how comfortable the players are in the current setup. As Leonhard recently told Wisconsin State Journal sports columnist Tom Oates: “Don’t fix what isn’t broken.”

Question 6

Answer: Brian Calhoun is a pretty good comparison to make in terms of skill set and body type, although Calhoun didn’t have to split reps with another running back in 2005. Calhoun measured 5-foot-10 and 209 pounds, while James is 5-10 and 219 pounds.

Calhoun transferred from Colorado and played one season at Wisconsin. And for a point of reference, he carried 348 times for 1,646 yards and 22 touchdowns for the Badgers. He also caught 53 passes for 571 yards with 2 touchdowns. No other running back that season carried more than 69 times (Booker Stanley). Only wide receiver Brandon Williams caught more passes that season than Calhoun.

Those numbers simply aren’t going to happen for Chris James, given how much talent surrounds him. James and running back Bradrick Shaw continue to battle for carries, and they both have earned the right to play significantly. Even if James starts, Shaw will take away opportunities, and Wisconsin needs both players to succeed.

James has proven to be a solid third-down pass-blocker and pass-catcher out of the backfield. But how many throws come his way remains to be seen. Wisconsin still has top returning receiver Jazz Peavy, as well as tight end Troy Fumagalli, who is one of the best at his position in the country. Quintez Cephus’ emergence as the No. 2 receiver will further take away opportunities from James in the passing game.

All that being said, James has a chance to be special. He can make defenders miss in space but isn’t afraid to run between the tackles. It’s not a stretch to believe he could flirt with 1,000 yards rushing this season and rank third or fourth on the team in receptions.

Coincidentally, James and Calhoun actually have a good relationship. James consulted with Calhoun before he transferred from Pitt to Wisconsin because Calhoun spent two years on Pitt’s staff under Paul Chyrst as a strength and conditioning assistant. It’s a small world, but one that certainly helped the Badgers in this instance.

Have a question about Wisconsin football or basketball? Tweet us @Landof10Badgers and we’ll try to answer your question in a future mailbag.

The post Wisconsin football mailbag: How Badgers go from good to great, lack of veteran QBs, Jonathan Taylor’s strong camp appeared first on Land of 10.

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