Better or worse? Previewing Wisconsin's offense in 2021
Wisconsin opened the 2020 Big Ten season with an incredible offensive performance that elevated expectations for all involved. Highly-touted recruit Graham Mertz had a record starting debut as the Badgers cruised to a blowout win over Illinois.
The heightened optimism was short-lived as Mertz was diagnosed with COVID-19 the very next day, and an outbreak throughout the roster and coaching staff led to the first 2 of 3 games canceled. The Badgers blew out Michigan in their first game back without much practice, but the offense struggled for the remainder of the season. That included a 3-game losing streak in which Wisconsin never scored more than 7 points.
The Badgers’ offense was hit especially hard by COVID and injuries to key positions that made it difficult to find any rhythm. Wisconsin finished 4-3, capped by a bowl win over Wake Forest. Fortunately, there are plenty of reasons to see a significant improvement from this offense in 2021. Here’s why:
Passing offense: Better
By just about every measure, Wisconsin’s passing game struggled in 2020. The Badgers ranked in the bottom half of the B1G in TD passes (10, 8th), passing yards (1,267, 13th), yards per attempt (6.3, T-11th), 20+ yard completions (13, last), etc.
Graham Mertz was handed the starting spot last year due to a preseason injury to Jack Coan, who never saw the field and since transferred to Notre Dame. For the first time in his young career, Mertz went into the offseason as the unquestioned No. 1 at quarterback. Mertz struggled through the middle portion of Wisconsin’s schedule last season, but there are plenty of legitimate reasons for the inconsistencies of the passing game, which should be a real strength in 2021.
The Badgers played nearly all of last season without their top 2 wide receivers: Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor. Both will return for another shot at their senior seasons. Combine them with a future NFL tight end Jake Ferguson, young talented receivers Chimere Dike, Devin Chandler and AJ Abbott, and veteran wideout Jack Dunn, all of a sudden, Wisconsin enters 2021 with a deep group of pass-catchers.
In an interview with The Athletic, former Wisconsin quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr revealed he missed some key weeks last season due to a positive COVID-19 test, which was not ideal when developing a young quarterback. Budmayr has since moved on to be the offensive coordinator at Colorado State. Joe Rudolph, who was the offensive coordinator last season, will move to run game coordinator, and head coach Paul Chryst will be much more involved in the offense working with the quarterbacks and return to calling plays, which is among his biggest strengths.
Not only did Mertz test positive for COVID, he played hurt with an injured shoulder and left the Big Ten Champions Week Game against Minnesota after taking a big hit.
Mertz’s development is the key storyline in 2021, but it’s realistic to expect the passing game to be significantly better than it was in 2020.
Running game: Better
Last year, the question was how the Badgers would replace the production of star running back Jonathan Taylor. A year later, that answer is still a bit uncertain. Jalen Berger is set to be the No. 1 option, though the staff seemed hesitant on giving him a significant workload. He was effective in the 4 games he played but never received more than 15 carries in a game.
Depth will be interesting because there is a large group of unknowns. Last year’s numbers weren’t great. The Badgers were 7th in the B1G in rushing yards per game (164) after finishing 1st or 2nd the previous 3 seasons.
More problematic, 2 of last season’s top 3 rushers are gone. Garrett Groshek didn’t return, and Nakia Watson transferred to Washington State.
Isaac Guerendo has speed but has been injury-prone, and in-state back Julius Davis had just 1 carry in 2020. Wisconsin’s lack of depth was a significant issue in spring practice, which is one reason the Badgers since brought in Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi. He had 6 career rushing TDs for the Tigers.
Other newcomers include freshmen Jackson Acker and Loyal Crawford. Additionally, 4-star linebacker Braelon Allen told BadgerBlitz.com that he is going to start his college career at running back.
While the running back position is uncertain, the offensive line again will be a major strength, highlighted by Logan Bruss. The starters and depth chart likely be will determined during fall camp, but the staff has options, including 5-star Nolan Rucci.
Mason Stokke has moved on, but Wisconsin is in good hands in continuing its fullback tradition with John Chenal ready to step in and clear the way for Badgers backs.
Kicking game: Better
We did not see a ton from the Wisconsin kickers in 2020. Collin Larsh knocked in all 23 extra-point attempts and made 5-of-7 field goals, but the longest was 31 yards. His misses were from 46 and 47 yards. Jack Van Dyke has a stronger leg, but he missed his only attempt last season, a 48-yarder in the bowl game. An improvement on longer field goals would be a significant development.
Wisconsin should have decent kickoff return options with speedy wide receivers Devin Chandler and Stephan Bracey. Wisconsin’s punt return game was not much of a factor last season with 12 attempts for 35 yards. Dean Engram and Jack Dunn will likely be in the mix in this role once again.
The offense should be improved across the board, in some areas more than others. Wisconsin relies on development more than most, and the Badgers missed out on many opportunities prior to and during the 2020 season. With a full offseason and talented returning players hungry to bounce back from a frustrating year, a significant resurgence should be expected from this offense in 2021.