Wisconsin football: Projecting the 2021 starting lineup
As we turn the page to the 2021 Wisconsin Badgers season, it’s never too early to take a shot at who the starters might be on both sides of the ball. There is still a level of uncertainty with the NFL Draft, how players develop over the offseason and injuries that happen in this sport.
Let’s start with the offense, which showed wild swings in positive and negative directions in 2020. The Badgers reached the 40s in points in their first two games, which were followed by three straight games where they scored 7 or less. Wisconsin scored 25.1 points per game last season, which ranked ninth in the B1G.
The Badgers are for sure losing at least three starters on the offensive side of the ball in left tackle Cole Van Lanen, left guard Jon Dietzen and fullback Mason Stokke. We still haven’t heard what wide receiver Danny Davis will be doing next season, so he’s a question mark right now. If he comes back, Wisconsin will return eight starters.
To the defensive side of the ball, the Badgers were among the best in college football in 2020. They allowed 17.4 points per game, which ranked third in the B1G. Wisconsin’s defense regularly put the team in position to win games, but the offense could not take advantage.
Just like on the offensive side, it appears likely the Badgers will go in needing to replace three starters. Wisconsin’s biggest hole will be at the defensive end spots as Isaiahh Loudermilk is set to pursue the NFL Draft and Garrett Rand is leaving football altogether. Safety Eric Burrell is the other starter the Badgers will need to replace.
QB: Graham Mertz
RB: Jalen Berger
WR1: Danny Davis
WR2: Kendric Pryor
LT: Logan Brown
LG: Josh Seltzner
C: Kayden Lyles
RG: Logan Bruss
RT: Tyler Beach
TE: Jake Ferguson
FB: John Chenal
The skinny: The biggest story going into the offseason should be how freshman quarterback Graham Mertz progresses in his third year with the program. He had a ton of obstacles in his way all season long, but for the first time in his college career, he is going into an offseason knowing full well he will be the starting quarterback. With Jack Coan transferring to Notre Dame, there’s no doubt this is the Mertz show moving forward.
Wide receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor went into last season as the two starters, but both missed the majority of the season with injuries. Pryor has already announced he will be back, but there has been no official statement from Davis. His return would be huge for what this passing game can be next season, and Wisconsin should be happy tight end Jake Ferguson decided against entering the NFL Draft.
Logan Brown will enter his third season as a freshman this fall, and the former 5-star prospect will likely take over the left tackle spot as Cole Van Lanen announced he will be headed to the NFL. Also on the left side of the line, Josh Seltzner will likely take over the left guard spot filling in for Jon Dietzen.
DE: Matt Henningsen
NT: Keeanu Benton
DE: Isaiah Mullens
OLB: Nick Herbig
ILB: Jack Sanborn
ILB: Leo Chenal
OLB: Noah Burks
CB: Caesar Williams
CB: Faion Hicks
S: Scott Nelson
S: Collin Wilder
The skinny: Defensive end will be the biggest question mark as Loudermilk and Rand played key roles for multiple years along the defensive line, and they’ll surely be missed. Henningsen is entering his fifth year at Wisconsin, but he played in just two games in 2020. That allowed Isaiah Mullens to get some playing time that should be pretty valuable as he projects to be a starter this year as a fourth-year sophomore.
Wisconsin will return its entire linebacker corps as Noah Burks announced he will stick around another season. At the other outside linebacker spot, Nick Herbig made a big impact as a true freshman, tying for the team lead with 6 tackles for loss. Inside linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal played a ton of snaps last season, and both will be back.
Cornerback Caesar Williams was a big question mark in terms of whether he would return this season, and he recently announced he will be back in Madison. With Burrell off to pursue a career in the NFL, Wisconsin could have an interesting situation at safety. Scott Nelson will return and likely be a starter, though the other position is a bit uncertain. Collin Wilder will return as a sixth-year senior, but Reggie Pearson could be in the mix. He started as a redshirt freshman in 2019 but didn’t play last season due to an undisclosed medical situation. If he is back, he could very well hop back into a starting role.
Wisconsin is in good shape heading into the offseason and will benefit from a number of players returning for another season with the Badgers. Depending on what Davis decides to do, Wisconsin should have a solid group of pass catchers, which it did not have in 2020. If Davis is back, the Badgers will have a significantly better performance offensively in 2021.
Defensively, Wisconsin is loaded at linebacker and in the secondary with a healthy mix of veterans and young players. Whether the Badgers can reload on the defensive line should be the biggest concern on that side of the ball as Loudermilk and Rand were crucial to the success of the Wisconsin defense.