In this week's 3-2-1 column, we examine the depth Wisconsin has build across the board, along with several other topics of interest.
THREE THINGS WE LEARNED AFTER FRIDAY'S SCRIMMAGE
1 - Plenty of depth across the board
The question was asked amongst media members Friday evening during Wisconsin's scrimmage: Is this the Badgers' deepest roster in recent memory?
It very well could be. Despite losing two players early to the NFL - T.J. Watt and Ryan Ramczyk - UW returns 52 letter-winners from the 2016 season, a group that includes 15 regular starters - eight on offense and seven on defense. Additionally, Wisconsin has 28 players on the spring roster who have started at least one game during their respective careers in Madison. And that doesn't include first-teamer Nick Nelson, who started 21 games at cornerback during his two seasons at Hawaii.
Positions that were once thin, such as offensive line, middle linebacker and cornerback, are now areas of strength for head coach Paul Chryst. Joe Rudolph's group up front should finally have a bona fide two-deep - if everyone is fully healthy - come fall. The road-graders up front will pave the way for a backfield that reloads with Chris James and Bradrick Shaw, along with Taiwan Deal, Sam Brodner and Jonathan Taylor, who will arrive this summer. Not to mention returning fullbacks Austin Ramesh and Alec Ingold, who, combined, have played in 59 career games.
First-year inside backers coach Bob Bostad has an embarrassment of riches with proven veterans T.J. Edwards, Chris Orr, Jack Cichy andRyan Connelly leading the way, along with promising youngsters Griffin Grady, Mike Maskalunas and Tyler Johnson in the mix. Cornerback has always been a tricky position to recruit, but the Badgers have two potential all-Big Ten starters in Nelson and Derrick Tindal, with Dontye-Carriere Williams, Lubern Figaro, Titus Booker, Caesar Williams, Madison Cone and Faion Hicks fighting for time behind them. We'll also touch on UW's loaded front three later in this report.
If Wisconsin can avoid the injury bug in 2017, the coaches should be able to use a variety of players to make it through a physical Big Ten schedule. With so much returning and a less-daunting schedule in comparison to 2016, there's a chance for this group to be special.
2 - A heck of a one-punch in the backfield
Wisconsin graduated two running backs who will likely play on Sundays - Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale - come this fall. But John Settle may actually have a better one-punch in 2017.
Pittsburgh transfer Chris James and redshirt sophomore Bradrick Shaw have looked very good this spring in their battle for the No. 1 job at tailback. We won't get a definite answer to the starter's question until the fall, but it likely won't matter as both will demand carries each week.
One thing fans can expect move of is the tailback being used more in the passing game this fall. Both James and Shaw excel in this department and each showed flashes during Friday's scrimmage. Both players should make life much easier for quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who will be able to check down in the flat if he runs through his progressions properly in the passing game.
It's tough to say who brings more to the table, but James' ability to pass block and read/negate blitzes could put him on the field more often on third downs. There were a handful of times on Friday where a blitzing linebacker or even safety was stonewalled by James at the line of scrimmage, something that is sure to catch Settle's attention when he examines the tape.
3- Nick Nelson is legit
Can Nick Nelson have the same impact Ryan Ramczyk had on the offensive side of the ball in 2016? That's likely too much to put on the Hawaii transfer's shoulders, but the redshirt sophomore wasted no time vaulting into a starter's role this spring. At 5-foot-11 and 207 pounds, Nelson is arguably the Badgers' top cover corner and should draw the No. 1 receiver assignments that Sojourn Shelton had last season.
During Ramczyk's scout-team season, we heard stories from Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert, who raved about his ability at left tackle. The same rumblings are coming to the surface in regards to Nelson, who gave Jazz Peavy and Rob Wheelwright fits last fall. It's still very early, but expectations are - and should be - very high for Nelson this season.
“Honestly, he’s got one of the best off-coverages that I’ve ever seen from a DB,” Tindal said of Nelson. “Playing with him, when we do press he comes and asks me questions. But then when I’m playing off, I watch him. I like to see how he moves and then I pick his brain about what’s going through his mind. I think that’s very interesting to look at him and be like ‘Damn, he makes that look easy.’ ”