Frustration was one of the few constants for the University of Wisconsin football team’s offense last season.
Between multiple starters missing time due to COVID-19 and injuries, an inability to generate chunk plays and a lack of scoring for much of the year, the Badgers’ attack took a significant step backward in 2020. UW averaged 25.1 points per game and 4.9 yards per play last season, the program’s lowest marks in those metrics since 2004.
Coach Paul Chryst announced he would be coaching quarterbacks and calling plays this season, and an offseason shuffling of the coaching staff continued Thursday when the Badgers named Gary Brown the new running backs coach.
Building continuity on the offensive side of the ball and developing new playmakers is crucial for the Badgers as they open up their first spring practice sessions since 2019 on Tuesday.
Here are five storylines to watch on the Badgers’ offense this spring:
MERTZ AND CHRYST TOGETHERUpdated
Redshirt freshman Graham Mertz struggled to find consistent rhythm after a record-setting performance in his starting debut. Mertz completed just under 57% of his passes, threw four touchdowns and five interceptions the rest of the season after completing 20 of 21 passes against Illinois, tying a program record with five touchdowns.
Cutting down on turnovers — Mertz also lost two fumbles last season — is the first step, but doing so will be the result of establishing better timing in the pocket. A majority of Mertz’s interceptions last seasons were due to holding the ball too long or trying to throw a pass too late and the window of opportunity closing.
Coach Paul Chryst’s track record of coaching quarterbacks at UW includes the heights of Russell Wilson’s stellar season in 2011 and a through line of consistent, smart play. Spring practices are the time to meld that coaching with Mertz’s talent so the quarterback can take a big step forward this fall.
WHO’S BEHIND BERGER?Updated
Jalen Berger showed flashes of being the next in the line of great Badgers tailbacks last season, displaying good vision and a suddenness to his cuts that make him hard to tackle. He led UW last season with 301 yards rushing despite playing four of the seven games — he missed the opener against Illinois due to a nagging injury from training camp then missed games against Iowa and Minnesota due to COVID-19.
The Badgers have a solid starting running back with Berger returning, but the depth behind him is a significant question mark. Isaac Guerendo was expected to be in the backfield rotation last season, but he was limited to one game due to unspecified injuries. Julius Davis is another option, but the redshirt freshman only played in one game last season as well.
UW has three freshman tailbacks joining the roster this summer, but spring is a chance for someone to push for reps, especially with new running backs coach Gary Brown’s fresh eyes on the group.
ANOTHER TIGHT END THREATUpdated
Junior Jake Ferguson returning to the Badgers instead of taking a shot at the NFL not only gave the team its leading receiver back, but also a guide for a talented but inexperienced group of tight ends behind him.
Redshirt freshman Hayden Rucci established himself as the top blocking option in the second tight end spot and likely will be used in a similar role next season, but associate head coach Joe Rudolph said last fall he felt Rucci was developing as a receiver, too. Sophomore Jack Eschenbach was the only tight end besides Ferguson to tally a catch last season.
Cam Large, a 2020 recruit, and Jack Pugh, an early enrollee in the 2021 class, also are waiting in the wings as receiving threats. Ferguson said in December that spring practices are pivotal for this group to develop.
“I couldn't imagine myself after that first year if I didn't have a spring ball,” Ferguson said. “That's literally where I gained all my knowledge, how I got really good at my technique — blocking or route running, whatever, and they didn't get that (in 2020). And I think that's really tough on them. Not just physically, but mentally as well. Just not being able to learn, day in day out, getting all the coaching.”
DEVELOPING DEPTH ON THE O-LINEUpdated
UW’s offensive line wasn’t the dominant force that fans have come to know in 2020, but that could change in 2021.
After filling in well at left tackle in the second half of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, that spot is former five-star recruit Logan Brown’s to lose. Center Kayden Lyles will return from a knee injury in the fall, and the right side has established veterans in guard Logan Bruss and tackle Tyler Beach. Josh Setlzner is presumably a frontrunner for the left guard spot, but touted 2020 recruits like Jack Nelson and Trey Wedig could be pushing for a role there.
Few players behind the aforementioned group have much experience. Cormac Sampson provides depth at center and freshman Tanor Bortolini played extensively when Lyles and Sampson were hurt last season. How the young linemen take advantage of spring reps will determine how much competition there is for roles this fall.
YOUNG RECEIVERS FINDING NICHESUpdated
UW got welcomed news this offseason when seniors Danny Davis, Jack Dunn and Kendric Pryor all decided to come back for their final years in the receiver room. Davis and Pryor battled injuries most of the season, with Davis missing five games and Pryor four. Dunn emerged as a solid option on short routes, posting career highs in catches (28) and receiving yards (255).
Freshman Chimere Dike had strong moments last season, but he had trouble getting open consistently.
This will be the first spring practices the receivers get with position coach Alvis Whitted, who was hired last year just before the pandemic hit the U.S. Whitted’s task this spring is to develop the younger group of receivers — players like Dike, Devin Chandler and Isaac Smith — into dependable options this fall. Chandler showed good burst as a returner last season, and he might be a candidate for a head-turning spring session after two classes of receiver recruits failed to break through.
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Badgers’ head coach Paul Chryst on Monday shared eagerness both for his new group of coaches and for returning to the practice field with his players.
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"I love this group of kids and I want to continue to develop them. And with COVID being the way it was last year, I’d have felt a specific way about myself having left after that season," Leonhard said.