Wisconsin football: How will the Badgers replace Quintez Cephus?
The Wisconsin Badgers have plenty of questions heading into the 2020 season. Who is going to replace the production of three-year workhorse Jonathan Taylor at running back? What will Graham Mertz look like as he jumps into the starting spot with an injured Jack Coan?
While these are critical questions without any obvious answers, an even bigger issue that needs to be addressed fairly quickly is: Who will replace wide receiver Quintez Cephus? There is no way to overstate how important Cephus was to the Badgers offense in the 2019 season, and it should be the No. 1 concern for Wisconsin fans not only for the offense but for the entire team.
Let’s first address the first two questions, which is a much easier task.
There’s no denying Taylor’s talent, and his three years at Wisconsin were incredible, with 6,174 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns. That’s why he’s playing in the NFL. However, the Badgers have talented options coming back, with Nakia Watson likely to be receiving the majority of carries and a solid third-down option in Garrett Groshek. Behind that offensive line, Wisconsin running backs already have a significant advantage. It’s unlikely the Badgers won’t find a way to move the ball on the ground.
While Coan’s injury is unfortunate, Wisconsin has a backup quarterback who might have been the most hyped recruit they have ever had. Mertz, a former 4-star recruit, had scholarship offers from some of the best in college football, including Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama. If either Mertz or Coan is healthy, it doesn’t appear likely the quarterback position will be an issue.
We don’t exactly know what the Wisconsin running game will look like or if Mertz will live up to the hype, but we can make educated guesses. As for how to replace Cephus’ production? That’s much less clear.
Cephus appeared in all 14 games for the Badgers in 2019 and had team highs in just about every pass-catching category. He finished with 59 receptions for 901 yards, 15.3 yards per catch and 7 touchdowns. When Wisconsin needed a big play, Coan looked to Cephus, and it generally worked.
In 2017 as a sophomore, Cephus played in the first nine games of the season before a leg injury cut it short. In those games, he had 501 receiving yards to lead all Badgers wide receivers. We’ve already gotten glimpses of what life is like without Cephus to throw to, and, well, it wasn’t good.
Cephus missed the entire 2018 season trying to clear his name from a sexual assault charge and was eventually acquitted. During that season, Wisconsin’s passing game was a complete mess, with Alex Hornibrook and Coan throwing a total of 14 interceptions as receivers were unable to create much separation.
So who are the candidates in 2020?
The two receiving yardage leaders in 2019 after Cephus weren’t even wide receivers. Tight end Jake Ferguson finished with 407 yards on 33 catches, and Groshek had 289 yards on 29 catches. Both are expected to play a major role in Wisconsin’s passing game. Wide receiver A.J. Taylor used up all his eligibility, which leaves Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor as the two likely starters.
Pryor caught 23 passes for 278 yards last season and did not find the end zone, while Davis had 30 catches for 250 yards and 1 receiving touchdown. It was Davis’ worst statistical season, and the Badgers will need the senior to make a significant jump in a year in which he will likely be looked at as the No. 1 option. Ferguson could very well lead the Badgers in receiving stats, but explosive plays to keep the defense honest will be up to Davis.
If nobody emerges to at least somewhat shoulder the load in replacing Cephus’ production, the original questions might also turn into concerns. Lacking a real passing game threat not only will make things more difficult for Mertz, it will allow defenses to stack the box to stop the Wisconsin running game knowing wide receivers can be single-covered without much of a challenge.
Wisconsin does not have anybody on the roster with Cephus’ talent. Everybody will need to take a step up from last season, understanding they will have an increased role in the offense.