Wisconsin football: Grading every position group after the 2022 regular season
With the hiring of Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell as head coach, change is coming to Madison. Wisconsin athletic director Chis McIntosh took a big swing big, putting Wisconsin in the mix for bronze status in the B1G behind Michigan and Ohio State.
Bronze status would be a big improvement for a team coming off a 6-6 regular season. But Fickell isn’t inheriting a totally underwhelming roster. Some position groups earned solid grades in 2022.
While Fickell manages transfer portal comings and goings, here’s a look at how his new team performed over the past 3 months.
Everything is on the table for Graham Mertz going into 2023. With a new staff entering the building, perhaps the program goes in a different direction.
Mertz didn’t regress after a less-than-stellar 2021 campaign but didn’t dramatically improve either. Last season, Mertz completed 59.5% of his passes and tossed 11 interceptions. This season, the interception total stands at 10 with a bowl game left to play. The completion rate dropped to a career-low 57.3%.
In clutch moments, Mertz has failed to deliver.
A late fumble against Iowa plus 2 picks? A lack of consistency in the 2nd half against Michigan State? Those were games Wisconsin had in the bag on paper. Four quarters later, an L added to the ledger.
In other ways, Mertz is having a career season. Yards per attempt are up, from 6.9 to 7.5. TD throws are up, from 10 to 19. His passer rating is the best in his 3 years as the starting QB. He’s built a rapport with the talent already on the roster.
Of course, the expectation was that the former 4-star recruit would become the quarterback to finally give Wisconsin a quality passing game to complement its traditionally strong ground attack. Badgers fans are still waiting.
Running backs: A-
The 1970s had Earth, Wind and Fire. The 2022 Badgers have their own version of that in Braelon Allen, Chez Mellusi and Issac Guerendo.
Allen was the earth. His team-high 208 carries and 2nd straight 1,000-yard season proved that Wisconsin is still a ground-and-pound offense. Averaging 5.4 yards per carry and scoring 10 touchdowns, Allen was the ace in the hole for when the passing attack went awry. Mellusi was the wind, adding a combination of speed and elusiveness to make defenders miss in the open field.
Guerendo is the fire. The senior burnt teams that slept on his skill set, averaging 6 yards per carry and scoring 7 touchdowns.
As a unit, Wisconsin finished 52nd nationally in rushing and scored 19 touchdowns, 65th-most in the country.
Mellusi has already confirmed he will be back next season. Guerendo could return due to the COVID-19 eligibility waiver, but his status remains a mystery. As does that of Allen, who earlier was rumored to be listening to offers from other schools to leave via the transfer portal. Interim coach Jim Leonhard’s return as DC under Fickell might soothe potential hard feeling and keep the junior-to-be in Madison.
Receivers/tight ends: B
No one separated himself as the clear-cut No. 1 target, but that doesn’t mean Wisconsin’s passing attack was lackluster. When Mertz was on-point, his receivers ate. Maybe that’s a promising sign for the future.
Chimere Dike finished with team-highs in receptions (44), yards (653) and touchdowns (6). Skyler Bell averaged 15.1 yards per catch and hauled in 5 touchdowns. Kontez Lewis showed flashes of his speed in games against Iowa and Illinois and should serve as the Badgers’ vertical option next season.
Lewis, Dike and Bell all are expected to return. Junior tight end Clay Cundiff also is expected to be back.
There’s room for growth, but Wisconsin could be worse off entering December at the pass-catching positions.
Offensive line: C+
Every week was different. Some days the offensive line looked like units of years past. Other times, play was mixed. There seemed to be a cohesion when it came to run blocking, but pass protection was often hit-or-miss.
The unit allowed 25 sacks between Metz and Myles Burkett. They allowed 1 sack or fewer in 5 games, but also allowed 3 or more in 4 appearances. No one should be safe in terms of retaining their starting role with Fickell coming into town. Don’t be shocked if 1 or 2 transfers enter the mix next season.
Defensive Line: C
Keeanu Benton was a stud up the middle, registering 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Rodas Johnson led all defensive ends in tackles with 22. Everything else? Yeah, it needs work.
The Badgers have 31 sacks, but only 6.5 of those came from up front.
In terms of defending the run, Wisconsin has pieces at defensive end should Johnson and James Thompson Jr. both return. The Badgers finished 12th nationally in run defense (103.2 yards per game) and 6th in yards allowed per attempt (2.97).
Wisconsin excelled at linebacker despite having to replace 2021 standouts Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn. Chenal totaled 96 tackles and 8 sacks a season ago while Sanborn registered 77 stops. The 3rd linebacker on that unit was Nick Herbig.
Herbig might end up being better than the other 2 based on his pass-rushing skills. He registered 11 sacks and 15.5 TFL this year, both B1G highs, among his 47 tackles. He had 3 multi-sack games.
Maema Njongmeta took over as the team’s leading tackler with 88 stops while CJ Goetz had 58 and Jordan Turner 57. Goetz and Turner each recorded 2 sacks, as did rotation LB Darryl Peterson.
Wisconsin’s secondary played up to its standard this year. With 4 returning starters, that was expected.
Jack Torchio recorded a team-high 5 interceptions and broke up 5 passes. Kamo’i Latu did a bit of everything, finishing 4th in tackles with 54 stops and registering a pair of picks. Jay Shaw finished with a team-high 6 pass breakups while Alexander Smith recorded 2.
Cornerback will be the top need for Wisconsin this offseason as Shaw, Smith and Cedrick Dort Jr. all are expected to leave this offseason. Latu, barring a transfer, will take over as the leader of the secondary with Torchio possibly departing for the next level.
As a unit, Wisconsin was solid. The Badgers allowed 16 passing touchdowns and had 15 interceptions — both ranking No. 2 in the B1G. They ranked 31st nationally in yards allowed per game with 202.3.
Nate Van Zelst, a freshman, made 76.9% of his FG attempts, including a long of 43 yards in the season finale loss to Minnesota. He was perfect on kicks over 40 yards and went 32-of-32 on PATs.
Should Van Zelst be the guy next season, he’ll need to work on the intermediate kicks. From 30 yards or fewer, he was perfect. From 40 yards or more, also perfect. From 30-39? A 62.5% success rate.