Better or worse? Previewing Wisconsin's offense in 2020
Wisconsin’s offense bounced back in a big way in 2019, which was a crucial season for the program.
Coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in the program’s recent history, the Badgers led the Big Ten West in scoring with 34.6 points per game. From wide receiver Quintez Cephus rejoining the team just in time for the season and playing a major role to running back Jonathan Taylor winning his second consecutive Doak Walker Award, Wisconsin’s offense operated at a high level last year.
Unfortunately for the Badgers, Cephus, Taylor and college football’s top center Tyler Biadasz are in the NFL, so Wisconsin needs to replace a great deal of talent and production. Whether players will be ready and capable to fill such large holes will determine the group’s success this year.
What can we expect from the offensive side of the ball? Let’s dive in, comparing last season’s results to expectations heading into 2020.
Passing offense: Worse
The top two quarterbacks on Wisconsin’s depth chart will be incumbent senior Jack Coan and talented redshirt freshman Graham Mertz. Who will be the quarterback Week 1? We don’t know that yet, but Coan enters fall camp as the favorite. He did nothing to show he is incapable of being a solid Big Ten quarterback in his first full year as the starter. Mertz, though, is the highest-rated quarterback Wisconsin has signed in the era of online rankings and has a full year of practice in the Badgers’ system under his belt.
In his first full season as a starter in 2019, Coan showed efficiency, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2,727 yards with 18 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Limiting turnovers had been a huge issue for Wisconsin quarterbacks going into last season, and Coan kept the Badgers’ offense on the field. Meanwhile, Mertz appeared for mop-up duty in two games in his true freshman season, completing 9 of 10 passes for 73 yards.
Mertz received plenty of practice with the first team offense last season while Coan nursed nagging injuries, but the lack of a spring practice probably makes Mertz a long-shot to start Week 1 against Indiana.
Predicting Wisconsin’s passing offense will be worse in the 2020 season has nothing to do with the quarterbacks and has everything to do with the loss of Cephus. As the clear go-to pass catcher, Cephus hauled in team highs in receptions (59), receiving yards (901) and touchdowns (7).
Senior Danny Davis has the best shot at being the Badgers’ go-to wide receiver, though he had an unspectacular 2019 with 250 receiving yards on 30 receptions and 1 touchdown. And now he likely will be going against opposing defenses’ best cornerbacks.
Kendric Pryor will likely open the season as the other starter at receiver. He caught 23 passes for 278 yards and rushed for 182 yards with a pair of touchdowns last year as a junior. Behind Davis and Pryor, seniors Adam Krumholz and Jack Dunn appear to be next in line. They combined for 7 receptions in 2019.
As for tight ends, junior Jake Ferguson should continue to be a major part of the offense. He finished second on the team in receptions (33) and yards (407) with 2 touchdown catches.
Running back Garrett Groshek will undoubtedly make a difference catching passes in his senior season as well.
Rushing offense: Worse
Wisconsin is going into 2020 without last year’s best running back in college football. Somebody should have to answer for Taylor (6,174 career yards in three seasons) never appearing in New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. While he is gearing up for his first NFL training camp with the Indianapolis Colts, what does the backfield look like in Madison?
Replacing the production of a player who averaged more than 300 carries per season is highly unlikely, but the Badgers have a talented backfield with several players who will contribute.
The top two candidates going for the No. 1 running back spot are the senior Groshek and sophomore Nakia Watson. Groshek has done most of his damage in his career as Wisconsin’s third down back; Watson carried the ball more often in 2019 – 74 carries to Groshek’s 42. Whichever player does not get the starting job when Wisconsin opens against Indiana likely still will receive his fair share of touches. This is a solid running back duo, but neither one will be able to replace Taylor’s value by himself.
Behind Groshek and Watson, no one has had much playing time, if any. The next three up are likely to be Jalen Berger, Isaac Guerendo and Julius Davis.
Berger is a part of Wisconsin’s 2020 recruiting class as a 4-star prospect from New Jersey who had offers from Alabama and Ohio State among others. Wisconsin could keep him under the four-game mark and make this a redshirt season, but it just as easily could turn him loose from the start if the staff decides he’s ready. They gave Taylor a shot, and look how that worked out.
Guerendo is a redshirt sophomore who came into the program as a wide receiver and is known for his speed. He appeared in 10 games the last two seasons with limited contribution.
Davis redshirted in 2019 and did not appear in any games. He is a 3-star recruit from the state of Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s offensive line remains solid but has a few question marks, including replacing Tyler Biadasz, who won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s best center and left early for the NFL. Cole Van Lanen will line up at left tackle as the star senior of the offensive line.
The Badgers have no key departures at fullback, and senior Mason Stokke figures to be the main man in front of Wisconsin’s tailbacks.
Special teams: Worse
The most surprising departure from the Wisconsin football team is speedy kick returner Aron Cruickshank, who transferred to Rutgers. He returned a pair of kicks to the end zone but wasn’t featured very heavily in the offense. The only other two Wisconsin players to return kicks are Guerendo, whose 49-yard return came on a reverse, and Watson, who returned two kickoffs.
Dunn returned the majority of punts for the Badgers last season and averaged 8.33 yards per return.
Collin Larsh connected on 12 of 18 field goals but struggled from long range with a 5-of-11 performance on kicks of 30 yards or more. Wisconsin’s long range specialist and kickoff man Zach Hintze exhausted his eligibility.
When you lose your two best playmakers on offense in Taylor and Cephus and have no obvious replacements, it’s hard to say the Badgers will be better on offense than they were last season. This isn’t to say Wisconsin’s offense will be terrible by any stretch. The Badgers’ offense should remain very good, but it’s likely to see a drop in production from last season.