10 Wisconsin football players who could be X-factors in 2021

·8 min read

We are 17 Saturdays away from Wisconsin football’s season-opening contest against the Penn State Nittany Lions.

It’ll be a fast start to the 2021 season for the Wisconsin Badgers, as Penn State will be followed with bouts against Eastern Michigan, Notre Dame and Michigan before the Big Ten West schedule gets going.

But while there are some big-name schools on the Badgers’ slate, the schedule is actually a manageable one. Almost all of the big games are at home, Ohio State is nowhere to be seen and out-of-conference bouts against Army and Eastern Michigan will give the team valuable experience before the must-win games come up.

It’s a season that is lining up to be much better than 2020’s 4-3 finish. For that to happen, though, Paul Chryst will need some players on both sides of the football to emerge as difference makers.

Related: 5 reasons Wisconsin football will rebound in a big way this season

I’m here to outline who those players could be. This is not a rundown of the team’s best players—Graham Mertz, Jake Ferguson, Jalen Berger, Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal aren’t listed.

It’s a list of the other guys. Players that could emerge as X-factors as the season goes on.

Keeanu Benton

Credit: Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin-Imagn Content Services, LLC

It was a somewhat quiet 2020 season for nose tackle Keeanu Benton, recording just 9 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 tackles-for-loss and 2 forced fumbles. But the talent is there, talent that exceeds his three-star rating coming out of high school. https://twitter.com/RieseDraft/status/1257134647055540224 Wisconsin defensive tackles are never asked to do most of their work as pass-rushers. Instead, Jim Leonhard has them work in the run game and plug gaps for linebackers to play downhill and get after the quarterback. But Benton has a skillset we don't usually see in a Badger nose tackle. He has the size, the hands, the strength and the quickness to be a force up front. Although the stats weren't great last season, he is a prime candidate to be an X-factor in 2021.

Jack Nelson

Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics

It was somewhat of a surprise when offensive line coach Joe Rudolph listed Jack Nelson as his unit's starting right guard for the spring session. Surprising not because of any lack of talent, but rather because of the Stoughton, Wisconsin native's youth. He came to the Wisconsin football program as a four-star recruit in 2020, listed by 247Sports' as the No. 104-ranked player in the class and No. 10-ranked offensive tackle. Last year, then, he was on every week's two-deep depth chart as only a true freshman. Now a true sophomore, or redshirt freshman with last year not counting against players' eligibility, he is set to start and be a key cog on the inside of the Badger offensive line. The line as a whole has X-factor potential this year, but Nelson himself is set to be great up front for the Badgers.

Faion Hicks

Credit: Wisconsin Athletics

Faion Hicks emerged as a key piece of the Badger secondary last season when starting cornerback Rachad Wildgoose got injured and declared for the NFL Draft. The 5-foot, 10-inch, 194-pound cornerback has the size needed at the position. As his career has progressed, he's also developed the ball skills to blossom into an impressive player. https://twitter.com/benzkenney/status/1344732575403831302 Playing alongside Caesar Williams, Hicks will be tasked with matching up with some of the conference's best wideouts. For a Wisconsin defense that is set to only improve after a good year in 2020, Hicks will be at the center of the success in the back end.

Scott Nelson

Credit - Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics

Like Hicks, safety Scott Nelson is set to be a leader in the secondary for Wisconsin this season. He was already one of the team's most productive defenders last year, recording 22 tackles, 4 tackles-for-loss, 1 sack, 2 interceptions and 2 passes defended. Now with Eric Burrell gone to the NFL, it's Nelson's job to lead the secondary and emerge as an impact player. The athleticism is there, the ball skills are there and he has more than enough experience. https://twitter.com/benzkenney/status/1344711909354967041 Now it's about going out there and doing it.

Nick Herbig

Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Herbig had a really good freshman campaign in 2020, even though the sack numbers left something to be desired. But a true freshman starting and contributing on a Wisconsin defense that usually prides itself on development? It's significant and signals only continued success for the Hawaii native. Earlier this offseason, I opened the film of Herbig’s freshman season and worked to show the star potential he has moving forward. For all the evidence you need, read that piece. But in short: he showed the burst, tackling, run game proficiency, pass-rush potential and motor every great outside linebacker needs. https://twitter.com/benzkenney/status/1351602474721935366 Now it’s time for him to take a step forward and turn into a dominant force on the outside.

Devin Chandler

Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics

First and foremost, Devin Chandler will likely return kicks for Wisconsin after flashing big-play potential at the position last year. https://twitter.com/benzkenney/status/1344739586573033481 But at wide receiver? Chandler showed out in limited time on the field, even with quarterback Graham Mertz struggling for a large portion of the season. So Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis returned this offseason and will start, leaving Jack Dunn and Chimere Dike as primary backups on the outside. Chandler will start the season as option No. 5 at wide receiver, but his success despite limited time as well as his impact potential on special teams point to a breakout year for the North Carolina native.

Chimere Dike

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chimere Dike's numbers last season–12 catches, 189 yards and 1 touchdown—are hard to use when analyzing his performance. He was thrust into the role of starting wide receiver thanks to injuries to Pryor and Davis early in the season. Even with some freshman mistakes, Dike showed a big-play ability that Graham Mertz was only able to scratch the surface of. https://twitter.com/Evan_Flood/status/1330257382434353154 Like with Herbig, I went through the freshman's 2020 campaign and tried to show what the box score cannot. For an in-depth breakdown of that, read the piece. But in short: Dike has the speed, the explosiveness, the route-running and the hands to really help the 2021 Wisconsin offense.

Logan Bruss

Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Starting right tackle Logan Bruss is the most likely offensive linemen to be selected in next year's NFL draft. The senior already has played 26 games in his career with 19 starts---15 of which coming at right tackle. Now set to start at right tackle this fall, he will yet again be an anchor for another successful Badger offensive line. The program has a long lineage of offensive linemen dominating at Camp Randall and going on to have successful NFL careers. Bruss should be the next player in that line, with 2021 spotlighting him as the best player of his group.

Caesar Williams

Credit: Wisconsin Athletics

Starting cornerback Caesar Williams had a few rough performances last year that started to change a post-2019 narrative that saw him as the clear CB1 of the Wisconsin Badgers. Yes, Iowa's Ihmir Smith-Marsette ran through the Badger secondary with ease during last year's game. But think back to 2019 when we saw Williams single-handedly stall a Minnesota drive on the goal line at a critical point in the game. https://twitter.com/IKE_Badgers/status/1256998395077672964 That is the Caesar Williams that the Wisconsin Badger defense needs this season. If it arrives, the back end of the defense should have no trouble maintaining a dominant form.

Kendric Pryor

Credit - Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics

Last, but not least, senior wide receiver Kendric Pryor is in for an impact season after an injury-riddled 2020 campaign. His decision to return is nothing short of massive for Graham Mertz and the offense. We saw what the connection could do in the Badgers' Week 1 victory against Illinois. Now with health on his side, Pryor should be WR1 for an offense with explosive potential.

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