Wisconsin whiffs on Caleb Williams, but Badgers still land a big catch
Wisconsin’s vanilla offense received a much-needed boost this week.
Just not that boost.
The Badgers were reportedly a finalist for the services of Oklahoma transfer quarterback Caleb Williams, who would have provided Wisconsin’s offense with its biggest jolt since Russell Wilson arrived from NC State in 2011.
But even though those rumors were based in fact, let’s be honest — did anyone really think Williams was going to end up at Wisconsin? A decade later, Wilson remains the last NFL-caliber quarterback Paul Chryst developed. Williams with a red W on his helmet felt like a highly preposterous notion, albeit one still worth holding out hope for.
Instead, the thing that everyone expected from the moment Williams announced he was entering the transfer portal finally came into being Tuesday. He’ll be joining former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley at USC. The only question is what took so long.
Outside of Riley, the happiest coaches in America are at Wisconsin’s 6 Big Ten West rivals.
With Williams and running back Braelon Allen, the Badgers had the makings of an offensive juggernaut. Without him, the West is winnable for just about everyone else in the division. (Though in the case of Northwestern and Illinois, one may need a particularly vivid imagination to see that possibility.)
Though whiffing on Williams is a bummer for the Badgers, it should not be reason for full-blown despair. Because Wisconsin’s offense still picked up a key addition Monday when it hired Bobby Engram.
Engram fills Wisconsin’s biggest offseason need
Graham Mertz is certainly no Caleb Williams. Yet Wisconsin’s most gaping need this offseason wasn’t finding a quarterback to supplant Mertz on the depth chart.
It was finding somebody to coordinate the offense.
As intricate as offenses have become in the 2020s, it’s wild that Chryst was still trying to wear every hat at Wisconsin in 2021 — head coach, offensive play-caller and quarterbacks coach.
That experiment blew up before it got out of the laboratory. Mertz looked lost — or possibly color blind — as he found opposing defensive backs with alarming frequency. Mertz had 2 touchdowns and 6 interceptions as Wisconsin started 1-3 for the first time since Barry Alvarez’s first year at the then-moribund program.
The outlook improved with the emergence of Allen as a freshman sensation at running back, but the Badgers finished 13th in the B1G in passing. The inability to throw downfield with consistency reared its head in a 23-13 loss at Minnesota that cost Wisconsin the West title.
The addition of Engram as offensive coordinator should get things back on the right track.
Chryst has yet to make a statement confirming that he’s relinquishing play-calling duties to Engram, but it seems unlikely Engram would leave his post as Baltimore Ravens tight ends coach to become an offensive coordinator in name only.
In fact, the move feels nearly identical to one made by Michigan a year ago. Mike Macdonald left his position as Baltimore’s linebackers coach to serve as Jim Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator. One year and a Big Ten title later, Macdonald proved his mettle and is back with the Ravens as defensive coordinator.
Whether Engram is on the same timeline as Macdonald is incidental. If he views this job as a path back to the NFL in an offensive coordinator role, that’s ultimately a good thing for the Badgers. Because it means Wisconsin’s offense will actually need to be good.
What will a Bobby Engram offense look like?
We can pretty safely assume Engram’s Wisconsin offense will bear little resemblance to how the Ravens use Lamar Jackson.
But if Chryst can spend more time working with Mertz while Engram handles the rest of the offensive details, that’s already a step in the right direction.
Engram knows what he’s getting into. It doesn’t hurt that his son Dean has played at Wisconsin the past 3 seasons.
Wisconsin will still live on the run. Engram intends to make it less predictable.
“Running the football well is important, using the play-action pass, being multiple and doing a lot of different things offensively, but doing them well,” Engram said in Wisconsin’s official press release. “For me, it’s bringing a fresh look and my own sense of creativity to what’s already been proven successful here. I’ve been fortunate to be around some great coaches and players in the NFL, and I want to bring the best of what I’ve learned to the Badgers.”
Engram’s background as a player should at least provide hope that he can revitalize the passing game. He remains Penn State’s all-time leader in career receiving yardage and touchdown receptions 28 years after his career ended. He spent 14 seasons in the NFL. And no wide receiver plays that long because they enjoy blocking more than catching the ball.
The differences will likely be subtle. Especially so if Mertz is still Wisconsin’s quarterback. But perhaps a new voice can help make the thing work.
While Engram may not be Caleb Williams, he offers the promise of an improved offense in Madison.