This is the first of two posts looking at players on the rise for 2012. This first post will deal with the bigger names; part 2 handles more surprising names.
Danny O’Brien – QB
Sorry, but let's get the obvious one out of the way first. The biggest new face on the roster since old what’s-his-name from NC State (*sigh* why did you leave us sweet, sweet Russell?!?) O’Brien has been touted simultaneously as the second coming of Wilson and an overhyped mediocre QB has been who lost his starting job on a 2-10 Maryland team. In reality he is neither.
It is true that O’Brien has little of the play extending mobility that allowed Wilson to be such a threat with his feet but he does share one critical attribute that portents good things to come: intelligence. Graduating in 3 years with a Business Management degree as a starting quarterback at a major college football program (yes, Maryland qualifies as major) is no easy feat.
Historically, “smart” players at UW have thrived and performed beyond what most think is reasonable to expect of them. O’Brien looks to be another candidate to fit this mold. He also has a step up on Wilson: O’Brien was on campus a full month before Russell Wilson last season giving him extra time to absorb the playbook, connect with his teammates, etc.
In short Danny O’Brien is a more physically gifted Scott Tolzien. Given the jump in production Wilson made from NC State to Wisconsin it’s reasonable to expect O’Brien to put up 2,600 yards with 22TDs and 8INTs. He won’t have the “sex appeal” of a Wilson but will thrive against defenses keyed to stopping the run. Maybe not the answer Badger fans want to hear but Tolzien’s teams put up a LOT of points in his time as a starter (36.4 ppg between 2009-10) which O’Brien and his teammates should be able to replicate without issue.
Jeff Duckworth – WR
Another gimmie. A lot of ink and electrons have been wasted talking about depth issues the Badgers faced in the spring at WR. No one seemed to acknowledge the top two returning receivers (and projected starters) were nowhere to be found on the field. Drama sells papers I guess.
If Jared Abbrederis is primed to take over for Nick Toon; Jeff Duckworth should be more than able to keep defensive backfields honest in the pass game as the 2nd WR. Known mostly for the catch in the B1G title game, Duckworth was able to find holes in coverage when needed last season and should do more of the same this coming year. The only concern with a Duckworth/Abbrederis tandem is illustrated on this catch:
Why concerns on a 60 yard completion? The Purdue DB was able to track Duckworth down from 5 yards behind. Neither starting receiver seems to have the speed to really stretch the field and as such replicating the 1850 total receiving yards that Toon and Abbrederis amassed from 2011 is unlikely. Still, 35-40 catches and 500-600 yards from Duckworth keeps defenses off-balance in the pass game and the Badger offense humming.
Chewbacca – RT
News was made when Bret Bielema declared Ricky Wagner will win the Outland trophy this year but the other side of his offensive line looks poised to make major strides as well. Rob Havenstein is ready to rise as the next great tackle in the Wisconsin tradition.
An offensive lineman who loses weight at Wisconsin doesn’t happen, right? It’s now happened at least once. Reporting to summer camp as a true freshman at a gargantuan 380 lbs., Havenstein has shed some 40 lbs. Havenstein looked solid in limited action last season and should only improve this year. He is quick on his feet (for a 340 lbs.) with good lateral movement. Bookending an offensive line that performs beyond expectations will be how his 2012 will be remembered.
There will be no drop off from Josh Oglesby and potentially even some improved mobility as he doesn’t have the history of knee issues that Oglesby did. Plan on seeing Havenstein driving defensive linemen downfield and blocking into the second level in front of Montee Ball all year. Look for him to move to the left side in 2013 after Wagner moves on to the next level.
A guy like that needs a nickname, and nothing seems more fitting than Chewbacca for a guy at 6’8” who weighs as much as two of me. Coincidentally, he can make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs! (Hands off ladies, this Star Wars referencing blogger is taken!)
NOTE: for the 36 year old virgins madly reaching for their inhalers in a panic right now I know Han Solo said the Kessel Run line, not Chewbacca. Deep breaths. Now return to your Slave Leia fan fiction.
Jacob Pedersen – TE
Pedersen sounds like an odd choice for a breakout season as he’s already on the Mackey watch list but he is poised to become a larger part of the offense this year. While a valuable target in the red zone last year (8TDs on only 30 catches) Pedersen will move from the 3rd option for Russell Wilson to a frequent target for Danny O’Brien.
With the lack of experience at WR behind Abbrederis and Duckworth, Pedersen is the obvious candidate to explode on the scene this year. He will be looked more to convert mid-distance 3rd downs and for easy completions on play action when defenses are concentrating on getting around his blocks rather than neutralizing him as a passing threat.
Pederson will make a name for himself this year and continue building a legacy as the next great Badger Tight End. A season with 55 catches, 650 receiving yards and another 8TDs should not surprise. Pederson can make a mark as a bigger version of Travis Beckum.
Look for Part 2 next week! Assuming Havenstein doesn't track me down first that is.