Wisconsin football: 5 biggest transfer portal needs for 2023
Luke Fickell won’t be the only new name coming to Madison in 2023.
With the hiring of Fickell, Wisconsin is showing it means business in the Big Ten. Fickell proved he could win at the Group of 5 level by posting a 57-18 record during his 6 seasons at Cincinnati. He also helped the Bearcats make the College Football Playoff in 2021. He’s also been able to produce high-caliber NFL talent.
Some of that talent came to the AAC program via the transfer portal. Maybe such an influx is needed at Camp Randall in 2023 after less-than-stellar play at multiple positions in 2022. What positions should be at the top of the list?
Here are the top 5 areas Fickell should target this offseason.
Three cornerbacks are set to leave this offseason. The only player returning with ample experience in somewhat of a starting role is Max Lofy, who split time between playing the boundary and the nickel. He recorded 15 tackles and an interception in 11 games.
Cornerback as of late has been a strength of Fickell’s defenses. Both Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner and Coby Bryant are starters in the NFL as rookies after breakout seasons in 2021. Meanwhile, Cincinnati finished 18th in pass coverage, allowing just 186.4 yards per game and recording 9 interceptions.
Coaches often will offer players from their former school a spot at the new program. Both Taj Ward and Arquon Bush are 5th-year seniors and likely will depart for the next chapter in their lives, but keep an eye on Sammy Anderson Jr. as a depth cornerback Fickell might target.
Graham Mertz has decided to enter the portal, seeking a fresh start after an up-and-down 3 years running the Badgers’ offense. He’ll leave behind a 19-13 record as a starter and an offense with a muddled identity.
Mertz’s biggest issue was consistency. One week, he’d throw for nearly 300 yards and 5 touchdowns. The next, less than 200 yards and an interception. And while his yards per attempt went up from 6.9 to 7.5 in 2022, his completion rate dropped from 59.5% to 57.3%.
The Badgers as of now have 2 scholarship quarterbacks for 2023, Myles Burkett and incoming freshman Cole LaCrue. Those are players who were meant for Paul Chryst’s offense. Should Fickell find a new offensive coordinator to replace Bobby Engram, adding a gunslinger who better fits the updated scheme might make sense.
Regardless, he’ll seemingly have to add somebody now the Mertz has one foot out the door.
3. Pass rush help
As of now, LB Nick Herbig is expected to return for his senior season after registering a B1G-high 11 sacks. Outside of him, there’s little depth on the edge to deliver more pressure. While the Badgers totaled 31 sacks, most of the production came from 1 player, Herbig. Only Herbig, Keeanu Benton and Maema Njongmeta have recorded more than 2 sacks this season. Benton could be gone after this season, as could fellow standing pass-rusher CJ Goetz.
Kamo’i Latu should return as one of the Badgers’ starting safeties. Thanks to his hard-hitting mentality, he’ll be effective in zone coverage and defending the run. As for the other safety position, that’s a different story.
John Torchio, Wisconsin’s leader in interceptions (5), might not return next season for a 6th year. Titus Toler could slide into the starting role, but he only saw action in 5 games and recorded a mere 7 tackles. Much like at cornerback, look for Fickell to potentially extend offers to players from Cincinnati to fight for reps in Madison.
A prospect to watch for: Bearcats’ sophomore Bryon Threats, who has 53 tackles, 2 interceptions and 2 pass breakups this season.
5. Running back
Yes, running back is a need. Until the passing game finally clicks throughout a season, Wisconsin still is a run-first program.
Braelon Allen’s status will be something to monitor this offseason. Allen was linked to several teams via the transfer portal through rumors, but told reporters earlier this month there was no truth to them. The Jim Leonhard-Fickell drama might have changed his thinking, but he remains on the roster for now.
Even if Allen stays, adding depth behind him and Chez Mellusi is warranted. Last season at Cincinnati, 3 running backs totaled at least 63 carries and combined to score 17 of the Bearcats’ 19 rushing touchdowns. The Badgers could be looking for more of a pass-catching option now that Isaac Guerendo has entered the portal.