Wisconsin football begins its series of 15 spring practices this weekend. With transfers, departures, and offensive coordinator Phil Longo implementing a new scheme, there is no lack of things to watch for at spring practice. Fortunately for those interested in getting answers, every practice is open to the media. After much anticipation, fans will finally get a first look at Wisconsin football under head coach Luke Fickell.
What Role Will Wisconsin Football’s Tight Ends Play?
Following Jake Ferguson’s departure, 2022 Wisconsin’s tight ends were mostly an afterthought in the passing game. Ferguson led the Badgers with 46 catches and 3 touchdowns in 2021 (his 450 yards receiving were second to wide receiver Danny Davis). Clay Cundiff appeared to be the choice replacement for Ferguson, but he suffered a season-ending injury in just the fourth game of the season. Before the injury, Cundiff recorded nine catches, 142 receiving yards, and two touchdowns in four games.
Longo’s offense plays with base personnel that includes just one tight end – a difference from some of the larger power-run packages Wisconsin football fans may be used to. The new scheme will include big changes to what the Badgers’ tight ends are asked to do in the offense too. Longo often has tight ends lined up out wide to create mismatches against defenders. Although Cundiff will be unavailable for spring practice as he continues to recover, others, including Jack Eschenbach, Cam Large, and Jack Pugh, will have to fight for their spot on the depth chart in a changing role.
How Will Wisconsin Football Quarterback Tanner Mordecai Perform?
Tanner Mordecai’s arrival in Madison immediately changed 2023 expectations for the Badgers. Spring practice will be the first opportunity for Mordecai to prove the hype is warranted. Although he will only be getting practice reps against a defense also learning a new system, Mordecai should be expected to excel early. He ran an Air Rad system at SMU and came to Wisconsin partly due to Longo’s system.
Mordecai was a star at SMU, but whether his talent translates to the Power 5 level is the elephant in the room. In his two years as a starter, Mordecai threw for 7,152 yards, 72 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions. Those would be unprecedented numbers for a Badgers quarterback. The competition level in the American Athletic Conference, however, is not the same as the Big Ten. In regular season play, the Big Ten had the best average defense of any FBS conference, according to Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings. The AAC ranked seventh in that metric – only better than the Mid-American Conference and Conference-USA.
Who Is On the Offensive Line’s Starting Five?
A change in offensive philosophy could mean a shakeup on the offensive line. In recent years, Wisconsin’s offensive line has not performed at the elite level once assumed in Madison. With an increase in pass attempts, the makeup of the offensive line may be different than what was previously expected. The Badgers have historically had impeccable run-blocking linemen, but offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. – who came to Wisconsin from North Carolina with Longo – will need to assemble a more versatile unit.
Cincinnati transfer Jake Renfro will serve as the anchor at center for that unit, but the remaining roles are unclear. UW returns its starting tackles Riley Mahlman and Jack Nelson, but a new coaching staff may be looking for something different. Fickell brought his starting right tackle, Joe Huber, from Cincinnati with him; it is hard to envision Huber not having a significant role.
On the interior of the offensive line, Tanor Bortolini started games at all three positions. He also started a game at tight end last season. That kind of jumbo tight end package is likely not as useful in Longo’s system, but Bortolini’s versatility might be. Michael Furtney and Trey Wedig also return, who made nine and eight starts respectfully for Wisconsin last season.
There is an abundance of talent waiting to break out in the Badgers’ offensive line room as well. Redshirt sophomore JP Benzschawel and redshirt freshman Joe Brunner were four-star recruits. Redshirt sophomore Nolan Rucci was a five-star prospect coming out of high school. All three saw game action last season.
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