New BuckAround contributor Neal Olson (@olewr7) offers his thoughts on the upcoming series in the first of a three-part series. Here, he takes on the 2015 Wisconsin offense under new head coach Paul Chryst and four-year starting QB Joel Stave.
The 2015 season christens (too early for puns?) the new, but old school era of Wisconsin football. Whether your opinion of the Gary Andersen regime ranged from ‘tolerated’ to ‘pint of Spotted Cow through the TV,’ you can’t say it wasn’t interesting. Paul Chryst might be the farthest thing imaginable from the "rah-rah" of Gary Andersen, but that is not at all a bad thing. In fact, some may say Chryst is boring. Boring he may be, but he is also wildly effective, at least on offense.
Paul Chryst will probably never be known for intense pre-game speeches or as a snazzy dresser, but he is as a top-notch quarterback coach. Setting aside the work he did with Scott Tolzien and Russell Wilson when last at Wisconsin, Chryst did wonders with Tino Sunseri and Tom Savage in his first two seasons at Pittsburgh. A quick look at their season averages in completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, interceptions and quarterback rating BC (Before Chryst (no pun intended!) and under Chryst’s tutelage:
The numbers are pretty convincing. Two different journeymen players showed significant improvement under Chryst’s coaching and play-calling. Both QBs also improved by leaps and bounds during their last season of college eligibility. Perhaps their improvement was less Chryst and more just simply two upper classmen capitalizing on several years of college football. Maybe Chryst didn’t impact them much at all? Well, you know who else is entering his last season of college eligibility? That’s right, Joel Stave.
Stave has endured pretty much every imaginable hardship a college quarterback can face. Walk-on, season-ending injury, quarterback controversy, the yips, you name it, Stave has endured it. Yet here he is entering his senior season, with a realistic shot to finish the top three of every major passing category including yards, touchdowns and completions for his career at Wisconsin – plus a 21-7 record as a starter.
For the first time in his career at Wisconsin, Stave left spring camp as the unquestioned starter with the full confidence of the coaching staff, including Chryst, who first recruited him to Madison. For someone who has gone through the wringer like he has, the assurance from that feeling will be immeasurable. Factor in the improvement under QB guru Chryst and Stave should have his best season of his career.
Once again however, the passing game is looking for someone, anyone to step up and take pressure off the running game. Alex Erickson had a breakout season last year and will continue to prototypically fill the role of steady possession receiver. However, for the Badger offense to make the jump from ‘very good’ to ‘dangerous’ they will need a consistent downfield receiving threat.
Upperclassmen Jordan Frederick, Rob Wheelwright, Reggie Love, and Jazz Peavy have all dealt with injuries or inconsistencies that have hampered their development. Youngsters George Rushing and Krenwrick Sanders definitely have the speed and athleticism to be difference makers but still lack consistency and polish. The X-factor for the receivers might just be Tanner McEvoy.
As Rich and Max noted in the “#QuestforFun” podcast, McEvoy will be the one-man barometer on the area of biggest need for the team. During spring practice McEvoy split time between safety and wide receiver. Thus far this fall he has spent all of his time with the receivers and has emerged as one of the annual camp stories. That should say enough about the state of Badgers receivers.
Even though he will be listed at wide receiver, McEvoy’s skill set might more closely align to how Chryst has used tight ends in the past. Travis Beckum and Lance Kendricks were both tall, athletic players that Chryst always had a handful of designed plays to get them the ball. In particular, Chryst loved the tight end screen, don’t be surprised to see that make a comeback. At 6’5”, McEvoy’s height could also be a major factor in the red zone.
The wide receivers will continue to be a talking point until someone emerges as a consistent threat. Wisconsin’s passing game has been disorganized and underdeveloped frankly since Chryst left. That is not to say we will see a dramatic improvement overnight, but the aforementioned quarterback improvement will trickle down to the receivers. As long as the trend starts – and stays – upward, fans will be happy.
A lot of pressure will be put on Stave to preform and rightfully so as the quarterback. But since a quarterback’s best friend is a dominant offensive line, the Badgers big men up front will be counted on to keep Stave upright. The good news is two lineman return with two plus seasons of starting experience. The bad news is typical offensive lines start five players.
Redshirt freshman Michael Deiter has established himself at right guard, joining the entrenched Tyler Marz at left tackle and Dan Voltz at center as projected starters. The remaining left guard and right tackle spots are still up for grabs. As an added complication, injuries are starting to mount for the competitors for the open spots.
Hayden Biegel (head) and Beau Benzschawel (knee), front runners for right tackle, are both out indefinitely. Those injuries have moved Walker Williams, who was also in competition for left guard, back out to right tackle. Early enrollee freshman Jon Dietzen is battling an ankle injury after making a push for the starting left guard spot.
All the jostling around on the line makes it difficult to establish any sort of rhythm and consistency, whether in pass protection or run blocking; offensive lines operate best when they are in sync. Chryst’s offense calls for pre-snap shifts and adjustments that require everyone to be on the same page and in the proper blocking scheme. The sooner the offensive line can be established, the better. Opening with Alabama, no easy task for even the most experienced line, only makes this more difficult.
One position that has never been questioned at Wisconsin is running back. Corey Clement spent his first two seasons trying to steal carries from guys like James White and Melvin Gordon. A testament to Clement’s talent was earning playing time as an underclassman at a position with two NFL players. Now, he gets his chance to be the bell cow in the always formidable Wisconsin run game. His experience should offset somewhat the lack thereof in the line blocking for him.
While Clement is more than worthy in carrying on the succession of Badgers ball carriers, the biggest question for this group will be who emerges as second in line – a necessity in order to spell Clement, especially during the Big Ten schedule. Converted cornerback and former walk-on Dare Ogunbowale has emerged as the likely candidate to back up Clement. However a pair of redshirt freshmen Taiwan Deal and Caleb Kinlaw will push for playing time as well. Deal, a former 4-star prospect out of Maryland powerhouse DeMatha Catholic, in particular is a more bruising runner, and provides a different look than the more elusive Ogunbowale.
Overall, the offensive outlook is nevertheless positive. Clement will be a force running the ball and Stave has shown he is capable of managing a Chryst-designed offense. In addition, aside from the opener against Alabama, the schedule this year is also quite manageable. The Badgers could very well win the Big Ten West even without a consistent passing attack.
However, we have seen the run-heavy, slight-passing offense fairly consistently the past three seasons. Paul Chryst was dubbed the prodigal son on his return to Madison. If he can usher (back) in the balanced offense he oversaw during his most of his tenure as offensive coordinator, the Badgers will be a very dangerous offensive team.