Wisconsin Football hits the road to Tampa to open up the season against South Florida this Friday. Who are the 5 Bulls who Badger fans should keep the closest eye on?
The college football season is here at last, and Wisconsin football fans should get an entertaining matchup right off the bat with their No. 19 Badgers hitting the road to take on USF squad looking to bounce back from a disastrous conclusion to the 2018 season. Wisconsin’s a double-digit favorite for Friday’s contest but should get a nice battle from the Bulls, who have some talented guys on both sides of the ball and should be dangerous in the AAC this season.
Here are five players on the opposing sideline whose performances will be crucial to deciding the outcome in this one.
1. Blake Barnett – Quarterback
2018 stats: 61.1% passing, 2,705 yds, 12 TD, 11 INT
It’s safe to say Barnett has probably not had the college career he originally envisioned for himself coming out of high school as a 5-star prospect bound for Alabama. In the four years since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, he’s bounced from there, to JUCO, to Arizona State, and finally, USF. That being said, entering his second year as Charlie Strong’s starter in Tampa, Barnett now finds himself in the most stable situation of his career.
It may have been a wild ride to get to this point, but all of the tools that had college coaches drooling out of high school are still there, and this is shaping up to be his time to shine at last. Barnett could be poised for a breakout season for the Bulls in 2019 now that’s he’s an experienced starter with several dangerous weapons at his disposal on this offense.
The Bulls’ chances – both against Wisconsin and for success this season as a whole – ride on Barnett’s shoulders. You can be sure that he will be the focal point of Jim Leonhard’s gameplan next Friday.
2. Jordan Cronkrite – Running Back
2018 stats: 6.1 YPC, 1,121 yds, 9 TD
The Bulls’ feature back had an excellent season on the ground in 2019 after transferring from Florida, rushing for over 1,000 yards while splitting carries with another dangerous back in Johnny Ford (115 carries, 787 yards, eight touchdowns). There was speculation that Cronkite would leave early and declare for the NFL draft, but he decided to return to spearhead USF’s ground attack for one last season.
The Bulls have some weapons in the passing game as well, but if they are going to knock off the No. 19 Badgers, they will likely need a solid game, at minimum, from their feature back. Cronkite and Ford will pose a nice initial test for this revamped Wisconsin front seven.
3. Mitchell Wilcox – Tight End
2018 stats: 43 rec, 540 yds (12.6 avg), 2 TD
One of the most talented tight ends in school history and a Top 10 prospect at his position for the 2020 NFL Draft per Yahoo Sports, Wilcox will be a focal point of Wisconsin’s gameplan defensively. His numbers from last season, while solid, won’t exactly blow you away, but as Barnett’s safety blanket, this a guy who could also experience a breakout season alongside his quarterback in 2019.
A first-team All-AAC player a season ago and a Mackey Award Watch List selection this season, the 6’5, 245-pound Wilcox could be a mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses. I’m looking forward to seeing how Wisconsin’s linebackers and defensive backs respond to the challenge of slowing him down in coverage come Friday.
4. Greg Reaves – Defensive End
2018 stats: 89 tackles (47 solo),7 TFL
Reaves is USF’s top returning tackler and will be one of the leaders of a front seven that will have the primary goal of containing Jonathan Taylor on Friday evening, a feat that will likely need to be accomplished if the Bulls hope to take out the Badgers. The former walk-on will look to keep the momentum going from his 14-tackle performance in the Bulls’ loss to Marshall in the Gasparilla Bowl last December.
5. Nico Sawtelle – Linebacker
2018 stats: 42 tackles (20 solo), 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT
Sawtelle was on his way to an excellent season a year ago before suffering a neck/shoulder injury that kept him out of USF’s final seven games. Before the injury, he was second on the team in tackles and leading the Bulls in tackles for loss. The loss of Sawtelle was a devastating blow to a defense and to the team as a whole and was certainly a contributing factor in USF losing its final six games of the season.
Charlie Strong will be counting on his senior leader in the middle to get into the backfield and make life difficult for Jack Coan, and considering how successful Taylor has been after initial contact throughout his Wisconsin career, Sawtelle will also need to be sharp as a tackler in order to prevent Taylor from getting into USF’s secondary for big plays.
UPDATE (8.27.19): Sawtelle will be OUT Friday vs. Wisconsin with a neck injury.
All stats courtesy of Sports-Reference