Wisconsin Football has never been a recruiting powerhouse. The Badgers recruiting strategy for the last couple decades has been bring in guys that fit the program and focus on player development. That strategy has made the Badgers a consistent top 20 team without having a recruiting class ranking in the top 30 nationally. But that hasn’t been enough to push them over the top and propel them to a National Championship Game or College Football Playoff appearance.
Recent Recruiting Success
Well, the tide started to turn with the 2019 class. A class led by 5-star OT Logan Brown, 4-star OT Joe Tippmann, and, of course, highly touted 4-star QB Graham Mertz. All who redshrited last season. That group was good for 29th in the country and was the best UW class in the online rankings era. On top of that, Wisconsin brought in 16 solid 3-stars prospects, 10 of which were ranked in 247sports composite’ Top 1,000.
Paul Chyrst added to that success in their 2020 class by adding five more 4-star athletes (Trey Wedig – OT, Jack Nelson – OT, Jalen Berger – RB, Nick Herbig – OLB, and Kaden Johnson -OLB). All five rank in the top 15 at their receptive positions. On top of that, they signed 15 3-stars, 10 of which are ranked in 247’s composite Top 1,000. It probably should be mentioned that three (Dylan Barrett, Ben Barten, and Tanor Bortolini) of those 3-star Top 1,000’s are a few more offensive linemen, just in case there was any confusion on who gets to claim “O-line U.” This class ranked 26th nationally. That set a new all-time best for UW.
The 2021 class is shaping up to be another historic class. It is currently ranked 17th in the county. It’s headlined by two more 4-star OT commits, JP Benzschawel and Riley Mahlman. (Did I say O-line U yet?) Wisconsin also adds Hunter Wohler, a 4-star Saftey out of Muskego, WI. All 3 of those commits are ranked in 247sports’ Top 200. Recruiting can be difficult in our new socially distanced world, but that isn’t stopping the momentum. Ohio native 4-star TE Jack Pugh committed to UW on May 25th. Exactly one week later, 3-star DE Darryl Peterson from Akron, OH announced he will be coming to Madison too. In all, Wisconsin currently has 12 commits – four 4-stars and eight 3-stars, all ranked in 247sports composite’s Top 1,000.
Closing the Talent Gap
Despite a few consecutive great recruiting classes (by Wisconsin standards), there is still a long way to go. The talent gap between Wisconsin and the perennial football powerhouse schools is clear. For evidence of that, look no farther than the last eight OSU vs. UW games. Just looking at the Big Ten, Wisconsin doesn’t touch Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State when it comes to bringing in top talent. And it goes without saying where they stand among schools like Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Georgia, ect. Part of that can be explained by a recruiting headwind that isn’t going away anytime soon. Wisconsin is at a disadvantage geographically. There is a much higher volume of top high school players in the South. Plus the top players in the Midwest are able to leave home for a school with a much more attractive fall and winter climate.
Wisconsin also has much tougher academic admission standards than most NCAA schools, and they haven’t been willing to bend that for sports. Former Wisconsin Head Coach, Gary Anderson, cited admission standards as a contributing factor to why left after just two seasons for Oregon State in 2014. “It’s been well (documented) there were some kids I couldn’t get in school. That was highly frustrating to me. I lost some guys, and I told them I wasn’t going to lose them,” Anderson said in a 2015 interview with CBS Sports about leaving UW.
The Future of the Program is Bright
Will Wisconsin be able to recruit like Ohio State any time soon? Probably not, but with the way Wisconsin develops players, they might not need to. Wisconsin has had a tremendous amount of success bringing in 2 and 3-star players and routinely putting a 10+ win team on the field. Starting this season, we will start to see a team built with more 3 and 4-star players. But that doesn’t mean the Badgers are getting complacent with development. During the 2019 season, 24 of 27 “true” freshman (both scholarship and walk-ons) took a redshirt season.
Is this enough to get them over that final hurdle? I don’t see this leading to Wisconsin making the College Football Playoff more often than not, even if it is expanded to eight teams. However, they should be in the conversation almost every year. I could see them making multiple playoff appearances in the next decade, similar to Badgers Basketball’s back to back Final Fours in 2014-15.
It’s hard to say where this will take the program. There is no denying that the program has a bright future. These historic classes should lead to historic seasons. Paul Chryst has done a phenomenal job with this program and I’m excited to see where this takes them.
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