Part 1 of this series dealt with the most obvious candidates for a breakout season in 2012. The low hanging fruit if you will. That list was filled with the bigger names on the team with the most hype coming into 2012. The players we highlighted there shouldn’t surprise those who follow the Badger football team closely. This list begins with some more familiar names but those further down the list are some potential sleepers for 2012. Our Dark Horses if you will. Could one of these players have an impact the way Chris Borland did in 2009? Time will tell:
David Gilbert DE
Okay, Okay, Okay. Another really obvious pick but this is the last one, I promise. Gilbert jumped out quickly with 3 sacks and a forced fumble in 2011 before a season ending injury leading into the Nebraska game. In the time Gilbert was on the field it was clear he was the heir to the throne vacated by J.J. Watt.
Gilbert has been described as having “SEC speed” at defensive end (he’s clocked a 4.5 in the 40 yard dash in the past) and is the best edge pass rusher on the roster so far. A solid, injury-free season from Gilbert infuses the defensive line with playmaking ability and improves the defensive front as a whole. Offenses are forced to key on Gilbert and thereby create opportunities for the rest of the group that don’t exist without his presence. A season with 40 tackles and 7 sacks isn’t outside the realm of possibility and would go a long way in improving a mediocre defense from 2011.
Peniel Jean CB
Over the summer Bret Bielema made headlines declaring the Badgers missed out on the opportunity to play for a national championship when Devin Smith was lost to a broken foot. Attention focused on the high praise for Smith but it was also very telling regarding his backup Marcus Cromartie. Coach Bielema is VERY media savvy and has used public comments like those to send messages to players in the past. It’s clear the coach was stressing the need for Cromartie to improve his play as much as he was praising the gifts of Devin Smith.
Concerns with the Smith injury in 2011 were centered on the lack of depth at defensive back and how it would press young players onto the field early. Peniel Jean was thrust into the role of nickel back as a redshirt freshman but rose to the occasion making solid contributions as the nickel back. Marcus Cromartie emerged as the biggest question mark in the secondary, not Peniel Jean.
Given he is only in his 2nd year on the field it’s very likely Jean will take the job from Marcus Cromartie if the 5th year senior does not show significant improvement over last year’s inconsistent performances. Among the players who saw time as starters in 2011 Cromartie has the most tenuous hold on his position and Jean has some of the most extensive game experience of any backup on the roster.
James White RB
How can a player with 1,700 rushing yards before his Junior season breakout as a backup tailback? White’s candidacy is predicated on how he is used on the field in 2012. As in 2011 White will be used to spell Montee Ball, however new offensive coordinator Matt Canada will find ways to get one of his dynamic playmakers on the field and increase his touches.
Coming into camp it’s clear the position group with the most question marks is wide receiver. Outside of Abbrederis and Duckworth the rest of the receiving corps have little or no game experience outside of special teams play. Over the past two seasons White has shown he has the speed and quickness to exploit a defense and has caught far more passes than any wide receiver outside of Abbrederis. If a 3rd WR does not step up look for White to be employed in the slot in Badger passing packages.
As receivers, Abbrederis and Duckworth are more of the possession type (especially Duckworth, again see Part 1 of this series), . White is a better fit to stretch and challenge a defense deep or with his feet on bubble screens. In addition to whatever rushing yards are tallied backing up Ball, look for White to pull in 30-35 catches for 475 yards and a couple TDs through the air.
AJ Fenton LB
Much as been made of the battle for the Strong Linebacker position coming into the fall with Ethan Armstrong as the clear leader in the race. This is with good reason as Armstrong has been called the strongest, most athletic linebacker on the team.
With Armstrong coming off season ending surgery late last season AJ Fenton took advantage of the opportunity to showcase his talents to the Badger coaching staff during spring drills. Fenton is a leaner, faster LB more in the mold of a Jonathan Casillas (still to this day have no idea how he went undrafted) than a Borland or Taylor.
If anything was learned from the Rose Bowl this past season it was the overall lack of speed on the defensive side of the ball. Several Oregon touchdowns were scored because their players were faster to the corner and able to get around the Badger defense. Fenton would be an immediate injection of speed on a defense that sorely needs it. He may not list as the starting Sam LB but look for Fenton to earn significant playing time in 2012.
Dan Voltz OL
Let’s be clear: Dan Voltz will see time this season as a starting offensive lineman for the Badgers.
Voltz was the first commitment of the 2012 recruiting class and enrolled in January to take part in spring practice. The coaching staff uses adjectives like “mature”, “natural”, and perhaps most important in Badger parlance “coachable” to describe his play.
Voltz is currently listed as the backup center behind Travis Frederick, however there is a good chance he could win the right guard job if Robert Burge does not impress or Kyle Costigan doesn’t handle the transition from defensive line well.
Even if Voltz does not win a starting job out of camp, he will find his way onto the field given the inevitable injuries that linemen sustain over the course of a season. The question is if he does enough to prevent Coach Bielema and company from taking him off.
Vince Biegel LB
Biegel was the most highly rated recruit in the state of Wisconsin and should remind Badger fans a lot of Chris Borland in 2009. Biegel comes in as a player with good size and explosiveness for his position and could act as a ‘tweener who plays as an upright pass rusher, line up in coverage with a tight end or running back on a pass play, or simply spy a dual threat quarterback.
This should all sound familiar. Chris Borland played exactly this type of role as a freshman before moving into a more traditional every down middle linebacker. Borland was a very disruptive player his freshman year as defenses didn’t know where he would line up or how to match up against him. Look for Biegel to make some key sacks on passing downs (Coach Bielema compares him favorably as a pass rusher to Borland or Taylor as incoming freshmen ) or a game changing play on special teams. An injury or two to the linebacking corps during the season and Biegel could become an every down player very early in his career.