Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the man cave right out of the gate. Every Wisconsin fan is holding out hope that the Graham Mertz we all witnessed in the 2020 opener against Illinois is a close proximity to what we’ll see in 2021.
If he can duplicate a season similar to what Russell Wilson pulled off in 2012 – with the Badger defense returning nearly all its starters – Wisconsin will be in the national championship conversation. At this point, that’s a bigger ask than skipping the Saturday night line outside of the Kollege Klub.
The reality is that Mertz – who has thrown a grand total of 203 passes in his career at UW — is most likely going to make some jaw-dropping throws with several teachable moments sprinkled throughout the season. I’d be thrilled with a Scott Tolzien or Jack Coan performance along in with a handful of “holy shit” throws per game – the kind we’re used to seeing on Sundays “up north” in Wisconsin.
With a defense that should once again rank among the nation’s best (17.43 PPG in 2020) and a healthy group of skill players on offense, the difference between 9-3 and the holy grail/white whale (beating Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship) may ultimately come down to the progress shown by Mertz along with several under-the-radar contributors you will not hear about on ESPN’s College Gameday in week one.
Here’s a look at a number of Badgers who hold the keys to the team’s upward mobility:
Jaylan Franklin and Jake Eschenbach – Tight End
Jake Ferguson is the clear-cut No. 1 tight end, but is there a No. 2 option that can add to the creativity of the offense? Last year, Ferguson had 30 catches and Eschenbach two grabs for 27 yards. A former walk-on wide receiver, Eschenbach has gained 50 pounds (up to 245) and, according to Ferguson, has now earned the trust of the coaches with his blocking, telling the Wisconsin State Journal that Eschenbach is the fastest tight end he’s ever seen. Franklin remains a wild card. The former linebacker hasn’t been able to stay healthy, but at 6-4 and 243 pounds with the ability to cause mismatches as we’ve heard about in fall camp, he remains intriguing. If one of two can emerge, having a second threat like Austin Traylor (14-210-4) was in 2015 along with Troy Fumagalli will do wonders for Mertz and the offense.
Spencer Lytle – Outside Linebacker
The missing ingredients from a strong UW defense in 2020 was a lack of sacks and turnovers. That has been thematic through both the spring and fall. Spencer Lytle being labeled “unsung” may not be accurate, as he was a heralded recruit with offers in high school that included Clemson, Auburn, Notre Dame and Oregon. But injuries (wrist and hamstring) over his first two seasons along with Nick Herbig stepping into a starting role as a true freshman saw him lagging on the depth chart. But we are talking about game-changing talent here, the kind of ability UW needs on the field. If he can push sixth-year senior Noah Burks for playing time – you’ll be hearing a lot from the law firm of Lytle, Herbig, Chanel and Sanborn in 2021.
Devin Chandler – Wide Receiver
The Badgers – who have plans for Devin Chandler to return kickoffs in 2021 – should also find a way to use him on offense. He’s one of those players that seems to find a knack (granted a small sample size) for making the big play, something sorely missing last year.
Skyler Bell/Markus Allen – Wide Receiver
Let me daydream a bit here. With Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis both returning for a sixth season and second-year freshman Chimere Dike looking to make a significant step in 2021, it’s unlikely a true freshman will make an impact at the wide receiver position. However, with Davis being held out of practice last week with a head injury, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that either Skyler Bell or Markus Allen could see action – if even in just four games to keep their redshirt years intact. Allen, who originally committed to Michigan, has the size and tools to be a red zone threat right out of the gate.
Isaac Guerendo – Running Back
It’s not exactly breaking news to write that it’s challenging to project Isaac Guerendo’s 2021 season, as he’s been unable to stay on the field in both practice and games until this fall due to the injury bug. But we all saw what he did in returning a kickoff 49-yards against Minnesota two seasons ago and the former high school wide receiver and track star – even with limited carries — could be a home-run hitter in the backfield. A difference maker. And Guerendo, Jalen Berger and Chez Mellusi are all comfortable in the passing game with gives Paul Chryst multiple options when they are on the field. New UW running backs coach Gary Brown has said he would play the hot hand so week one against Penn State will be telling as to who carries the load in the early weeks of the season. Nobody is projecting 1,500 yards from a single back in 2021, but perhaps a three-headed combination that combines for that yardage along with a substantial role in the passing game with screens and the occasional wheel route.
Andy Vujnovich – Punter
The ability to flip the field in the punt game was sorely missing before Andy Vujnovich arrived last year.
Collin Larsh/Jack Van Dyke – PK
One or two games are usually decided by field goals or extra points. No explanation needed for any Badger fan who has held his or her breath for every field goal in the last several years.
Rodas Johnson – DE
Rodas Johnson, a former four-star recruit from Columbus, Ohio saw extremely limited action in 2020 but will be critical in adding depth to the defensive line in 2021. Lots of positive reports from fall camp regarding the redshirt sophomore.
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