Wisconsin Football has had 13 practices so far in fall camp, and while there are still some lingering questions, we’ve definitely learned quite a bit. Here are five of the most noteworthy developments.
1. Jack Coan is almost certainly going to be the starter against South Florida.
What was once supposed to be the most hotly-contested position battle of fall camp appeared to be over before it even began.
From the very first practice that was open to the media, Coan has received the vast majority of the first-team reps under center, with Chase Wolf and Graham Mertz trailing a ways behind. Generally speaking, the junior from Long Island has been much more consistent than the rest of the quarterbacks and has also looked noticeably more confident as the leader of this offense, as we had been hoping for from him as the most experienced signal-caller on the roster. At this point, it appears reasonable for fans to expect some major growth from him this season.
Also of note: though Mertz has had some nice practice performances over the last couple of days, it appears more likely than not that Wolf has put enough distance between them for us to say with a reasonable degree of confidence that the sophomore will be Coan’s backup, at least to open the season.
2. Wisconsin could be in major trouble at tight end.
The Badgers just cannot catch a break at tight end.
Leading into fall camp, they were already going to be very thin at the position with the transfer of Kyle Penniston to Rutgers, Coy Wanner out indefinitely, and Gabe Lloyd out for the season. To make matters worse, disaster struck on Monday when Luke Benzschawel went down and was carted off the field with what appeared to be a very serious leg injury during practice. We’re still waiting on word regarding the exact nature of the injury, but it seems likely Wisconsin could be without him for a very long time. All four of the aforementioned players would have figured heavily into the rotation this fall.
Additionally, this unwelcome news was dropped today:
While Ferguson is expected to play against South Florida, a lot can happen between now and then. The most dynamic passing threat Wisconsin has, any extended absence for him would be devastating to this offense.
Zander Neuville being granted his sixth year of eligibility is huge, but who knows how long it will take for him to get up to speed and be cleared for game action. The staff has gotten so desperate for tight end depth that they have moved Cormac Sampson back to the position from the offensive line and have given offensive lineman David Moorman first-team reps as the blocking end.
3. Izayah Green-May has emerged as the frontrunner to start at OLB across from Zack Baun.
If you had asked me back in March to predict who would be starting at the second outside linebacker spot to open the season, I would not have said Green-May.
Though the 6’6, 221-pounder has more upside than just about any other player on this roster, I thought he needed another year or so to continue to work on adding to his frame, and that he could possibly be in line for a starting gig next season with Baun gone. However, Green-May looks to be well ahead of schedule, building on a strong spring by doing nothing but wreak havoc on Wisconsin’s offensive linemen since the beginning of camp.
So far, he has been rewarded for his efforts by receiving the majority of snaps with the first-team defense, with Noah Burks, Jaylan Franklin, Christian Bell, and Tyler Johnson battling for roles on the second team. Green-May’s rise is fantastic news for the Badgers, who really need someone to step in and help fill Andrew Van Ginkel’s shoes as a force to be reckoned with off the edge. Don’t be shocked if he leads the team in sacks this season.
4. There’s a fierce competition raging for the backup running back gig, but it’s likely down to a couple of guys.
At the beginning of camp, I thought it was a wide-open competition to back up Jonathan Taylor in the base package. However, a few weeks later, it appears as though it’s either going to be the sophomore Nakia Watson or the fifth-year senior Bradrick Shaw. While both players have struggled with inconsistency at times, they’ve also shown flashes of ability to reliably fill Taiwan Deal’s shoes. Watson, in particular, has started to turn it on a bit more as of late and could be making a push to move ahead of Shaw with the latter still being a bit limited as he comes off of that ACL injury from 2017.
That being said, with Watson and Shaw struggling a bit to emerge, it’s become pretty clear that we will be seeing quite a bit more of Garrett Groshek this season, and not just on obvious passing downs as we did last season. Paul Chryst has even begun experimenting with formations that utilize both he and Taylor together in the backfield.
5. Reggie Pearson, not Eric Burrell, is the favorite to open the season as the starting strong safety.
While Burrell has received some run, it has been Pearson who has received the majority of snaps alongside Scott Nelson at safety with the first-team defense. The sophomore from Michigan was coming off of a very nice spring, but most who follow the team had Burrell pegged as the starter at strong safety, with Pearson expected to be the surefire top reserve. However, Pearson started receiving starter reps right from the beginning of camp.
Maybe we shouldn’t be all that surprised at his ascendance: Pearson’s game has gone up another level still from his already- impressive spring performance. Although you could also make a case for Leo Chenal and Izayah Green-May, it’s hard to argue that the ball-hawking, hard-hitting Pearson hasn’t been the biggest playmaker on the entire defense throughout the last few weeks.
All this being said, this development isn’t necessarily an indictment on Burrell: he’s actually been solid throughout camp by all accounts. I think this is probably just a reflection on how talented Pearson is and how much faith Jim Leonhard has in him to be a star on the back end of this defense. Additionally, even if Pearson locks down the starting job you can expect to still see plenty of Burrell, as Leonhard will likely look to utilize the two on the field together quite a bit.