Wisconsin football: Six players to watch vs. Illinois

Oct 5, 2019; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) looks to throw during the fourth quarter against the Kent State Golden Flashes at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 5, 2019; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) looks to throw during the fourth quarter against the Kent State Golden Flashes at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

Wisconsin football opens its season this Friday night against Illinois. Here are three players on each side to keep an eye on.

Wisconsin football has a lot of new players who are going to get their feet wet this Friday when they host Illinois on Friday night. They need to replace  Jack Coan, Jonathan Taylor, and Quintez Cephus on offense, and linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr on defense. That’s a lot of production to replace on both sides of the ball, but Wisconsin football has always been able to replace playmakers effectively, and this year is no different.

For the Badgers, the three-player to keep an eye on should be fairly obvious candidates. For Illinois, we’ll focus on three players that could have the largest impact on the game for the Fighting Illini.


1. Nakia Watson – RB

Jonathan Taylor was a star for the Badgers and it will be nearly impossible to replace him and his production, but Nakia Watson is going to try. The redshirt sophomore came to Wisconsin as a 3-star running back from Westlake, Texas. He got some playing time last year, mostly in mop-up duty for the Badgers. In 11 games, he had 331 yards rushing with three touchdowns. He will now be looked at as the lead back on this Wisconsin offense. He will likely split carries with the other backs on Friday, but I would expect Watson to be the primary ball carrier for the Badgers. This game will be a nice measuring stick for the Wisconsin football running game.

2. Graham Mertz – QB

This should be an obvious player to watch. Mertz has been a highly-touted player since he came to Wisconsin last season. Now that Coan has an injured foot and will miss an indefinite amount of time, Mertz gets his shot.

It really feels like the success of the season will be on the shoulders of Mertz. This Wisconsin football team knew what they had in Coan. With Coan, expectations were extremely high for the team this year. If Mertz can get close to or match those expectations like some think he can, the Badgers should be in good hands. But as a redshirt freshman making his first collegiate start, there is a certain uneasiness that he may not produce right away. This game against Illinois will be a good chance for Mertz to get used to being QB1 for a Big Ten contender.

3. Noah Burks/Izayah Green-May – OLBs

I picked both Burks and Green-May here because both will need to step up and improve this season. Wisconsin football depended on Orr and Baun big time to pressure the quarterback. They combined for 24 sacks last season. It will be hard to replicate that, but someone will need to step into that role.

Burks and Green-May get first dibs at it. Burks primarily backed up Baun and Green-May actually started the 2019 season as a starter but ended up only playing in two games last season. Now is their time to make an impact. If they don’t, Nick Herbig and Spencer Lytle will be waiting behind to take their shot.


1. Jake Hansen – LB

After losing their leading tackling from last year, the Illini will look to Jake Hansen to step in and be that guy. Max Feldman from Writing Illini, wrote an article about expectations for Hansen this season. Wisconsin will want to get their running game going early this week. Hansen is going to be a big part of Illinois’ run defense, not only Friday night but all season.

2. Nate Hobbs – CB

Illinois’ secondary is led by senior defensive back Nate Hobbs. Last season, Hobbs was fifth on the team with 68 total tackles. He also had one interception and seven passes defended. Hobbs has been a big player for this secondary. Illinois will continue to depend on him because they are projected to start redshirt freshman Marquez Beason. Beason came to Illinois last year as a 4-star cornerback but injured his knee and missed the entire season. These two could make one of the better cornerback tandems in the Big Ten this season. Wisconsin might be lucky to be facing these two early this season.

3. Josh Imatorbhebhe – WR

Josh Imatorbhebhe transferred to Illinois from USC in 2018 and became eligible to play for the Illini last season. He was Peters’ favorite target last year, connecting 33 times for 634 yards and nine touchdowns. His nine touchdowns were good for fifth in the Big Ten. His 19.2 yards per receptions were also the third-best in the conference.

In their second season together, you can bet Imatorbhebhe and Peters will look to connect more than three times. Wisconsin cannot lose track of him on Friday night. If they do, this game could end up being a lot closer than Badger fans would like.