Welcome to our first official College Football Monday of the year. It’s game week for Luke Fickell and the 2023 Wisconsin Badgers. In five days’ time, the Buffalo Bulls will stand on the opposing sideline as the season kicks off at Camp Randall Stadium.
This year has a different feel. Not only is Fickell a far different energy than Paul Chryst, the social media team churning out new inside looks every day and Phil Longo bringing a new energy to town, but for the first time in nearly a decade Wisconsin’s game-week press conference wasn’t opened with ‘excited for the opportunity to play football.’
Say what you want about the end of the Chryst era and how he carried himself in front of the media. That line was always one of the highlights of my week.
Another bright spot on the path towards Saturday’s game is the release of the depth chart.
— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) August 28, 2023
Instead of just presenting it as is, I’m here today to give five takeaways from the Week 1 two-deep:
Numerous transfers set to play a big role
Wisconsin brought in 17 transfers this offseason. The program’s opening two-deep has seven of those players starting, and 12 total listed.
Others listed: QB Braedyn Locke, WR C.J. Williams, DL Darian Varner, OLB Jeff Pietrowski, CB Nyzier Fourqurean
The program went big into the portal to give the roster a boost as Fickell’s recruiting gets up and running. This early look at the roster points towards that effort being a huge success.
DL Isaiah Mullens out with injury...The position is razor-thin
Fickell did note at his opening presser that veteran DL Isaiah Mullens had a scope a few weeks ago and is currently out with that injury.
Mullens was one of my most important Badgers entering this season, as he brings valuable experience to a thin position. Now, that group is just thin. Current starters Rodas Johnson, Gio Paez and James Thompson Jr. are formidable, along with Darian Varner as a backup. The hope will be Ben Barten, Cade McDonald and others aren’t relied upon to carry the defense up front.
Wisconsin needs Mullens back as soon as possible. If anything will hurt the defense this year, it’s this position.
Bryson Green starting at WR!
This is a bit of a surprise. Green missed much of the offseason activities due to injury and although he enters Madison with years of experience and success at Oklahoma State, it was hard to see where exactly he’d slot in.
Now, the wide receiver depth chart should be taken with a grain of salt. All of the top six of Green, Chimere Dike, C.J. Williams, Will Pauling, Keontez Lewis and Skyler Bell will play a lot.
But the opening group of Green, Dike and Pauling is as impressive as Wisconsin’s had maybe ever. Expect the Oklahoma State transfer WR to quickly become a favorite red zone target of Mordecai.
First look at the offensive line depth chart
A few questions remained about Wisconsin’s offensive line entering today, mainly the availability of former top ACC center Jake Renfro.
Well, Renfro isn’t listed. Instead, left to right, it’s LT Jack Nelson, LG Joe Huber, C Tanor Bortolini, RG Michael Furtney and RT Riley Mahlman.
The program is set up well along the line thanks to Bortolini’s versatility and the presence of Huber. When Renfro returns we could see Bortolini go back to left guard and Renfro slot right back into the center spot.
There's one legit tight end on the roster
If defensive line is the big question on defense, tight end is exactly that on offense. Now, the beauty of Longo’s offensive attack is another wide receiver can take the tight end’s role. This isn’t an offense that will rely upon multiple tight ends to block and create space in the run game any more.
Hayden Rucci is listed as the starter, with freshman Tucker Ashcraft listed behind him. There is some young talent in the room with Jack Pugh, but overall Rucci is the only experienced and reliable player at the position (this obviously after Clay Cundiff and Jack Eschenbach left the program this offseason).
I’d expect to see a lot of Rucci, and receivers including Lewis, Pauling and Bell in that spot when he isn’t out there.
Bonus: People should be excited about the specialists
Don’t have much color to add here, but transfer kicker Nathanial Vakos and transfer punter Atticus Bertrams bring intriguing skillsets to their respective positions. Ideally neither are used that much, but it’s the Big Ten West so we know how it usually goes.
I think both will be listed among the best transfer additions when the season comes to a close.