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Wisconsin football’s biggest questions entering spring practice

Wisconsin football begins its spring practice period this month.

It marks a pivotal point in the offseason as roster management yields to full-out preparation for the upcoming season. This pivotal point leads into what is an important Year 2 for Luke Fickell at Wisconsin.

The Badgers underwhelmed with a 7-6 record in his first season and face a daunting schedule in the new era of the Big Ten. Fickell was hired to return Wisconsin to a championship-contending program. A strong 2024 is paramount to that goal.

Looking ahead to the season, we’ve already ranked the 18 programs in the Big Ten, the 18 starting quarterbacks, all 18 head coacheseach Big Ten team’s 2024 record and the Las Vegas win totals for each team in the conference.

With spring practice quickly approaching, here are our biggest questions for Wisconsin football entering the period:

What does transfer QB Tyler Van Dyke bring to the offense?

Nov. 24, 2023; Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts; Miami Hurricanes quarterback Tyler Van Dyke (9) looks to pass against the Boston College Eagles during the first half at Alumni Stadium. Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports
Nov. 24, 2023; Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts; Miami Hurricanes quarterback Tyler Van Dyke (9) looks to pass against the Boston College Eagles during the first half at Alumni Stadium. Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Spring practice will not give concrete answers to every question on this list. But there is no story bigger than what transfer quarterback Tyler Van Dyke can bring to Phil Longo’s offense.

Van Dyke had an up-and-down career at Miami. The veteran threw for 2,931 yards, 9 yards per attempt, 25 touchdowns and 6 interceptions as a redshirt freshman in 2021. His stats regressed in 2022 and 2023 for both him and the team.

The former Miami quarterback is experienced and has some talent, but can he be a tangible upgrade over Tanner Mordecai?

Luke Fickell elected to go the transfer route again this season, passing on the idea of having Braedyn Locke or Nick Evers start the year. Spring practice should give an initial glimpse into whether that was the correct decision.

Which defensive transfers have an inside track at starting?

Oct. 7, 2023; Charlottesville, Virginia; Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Tony Muskett (11) is sacked by William & Mary Tribe linebacker John Pius (8) during the first half at Scott Stadium. Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports
Oct. 7, 2023; Charlottesville, Virginia; Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Tony Muskett (11) is sacked by William & Mary Tribe linebacker John Pius (8) during the first half at Scott Stadium. Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin’s transfer portal haul this offseason focused on the defensive side of the football. Van Dyke and running back Tawee Walker are notable offensive additions, but the majority of the Badgers’ top-ranked transfers play defense.

The main candidates to have an immediate impact are former Toledo cornerback R.J. Delancy, former Arkansas inside linebacker Jaheim Thomas, former North Carolina inside linebacker Sebastian Cheeks, former William & Mary edge John Pius and former Syracuse outside linebacker Leon Lowery.

Wisconsin needed a great deal of help at linebacker, and clearly prioritized the position. Now we wait and see which transfers become the leaders of this year’s defense.

Will any tight ends contribute?

Oct. 7, 2023; Madison, Wisconsin; Wisconsin Badgers tight end Tucker Ashcraft (38) catches a pass to score a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Camp Randall Stadium. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Oct. 7, 2023; Madison, Wisconsin; Wisconsin Badgers tight end Tucker Ashcraft (38) catches a pass to score a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Camp Randall Stadium. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin’s 2023 offensive attack mostly ignored the tight end position.

Hayden Rucci caught 11 passes for 125 yards, Tucker Ashcraft added eight catches for 86 yards and a touchdown while Riley Nowakowski finished with seven catches for 57 yards and one touchdown. All three were dependable options, but none were dynamic pass catchers in Phil Longo’s new offense.

Wisconsin returns Ashcraft, Nowakowski and transfer Jackson McGohan. We need to see if anybody in the tight end room will be a big part of the offense this year.

How will Luke Fickell & Mike Tressel deploy a talented secondary?

Oct. 14, 2023; Madison, Wisconsin; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Luke Fickell leads the football team onto the field for warmups prior to the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Camp Randall Stadium. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Oct. 14, 2023; Madison, Wisconsin; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Luke Fickell leads the football team onto the field for warmups prior to the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Camp Randall Stadium. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve noted Wisconsin’s focus at linebacker this offseason.

That was done in part thanks to the program’s talent and depth in the secondary. The Badgers return defensive leaders Hunter Wohler (safety) and Ricardo Hallman (cornerback), plus experience in Kamo’i Latu and Nyzier Fourqurean. Pair them with young, talented safeties Austin Brown and Braedyn Moore and cornerbacks Amare Snowden and Jonas Duclona, and you get one of the conference’s best secondaries.

Those are a bunch of names. The question is how Fickell and defensive coordinator Mike Tressel will deploy them.

Is it Will Pauling, then everybody else at wide receiver?

Oct. 28, 2023; Madison, Wisconsin; Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver Will Pauling (6) catches a pass in front of Ohio State Buckeyes safety Josh Proctor (41) during the fourth quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Oct. 28, 2023; Madison, Wisconsin; Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver Will Pauling (6) catches a pass in front of Ohio State Buckeyes safety Josh Proctor (41) during the fourth quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Will Pauling led the 2023 Badgers with 74 catches, 837 yards and six touchdowns.

Veterans Chimere Dike and Skyler Bell are gone from the room, but substantial talent returns: Bryson Green, C.J. Williams, Quincy Burroughs and others. Is it just Pauling then everyone else?

Spring practice should give a first glimpse at whether any talented youngters took jumps since last season.

Can we expect anything from C.J. Williams?

Sept. 22, 2023; West Lafayette, Indiana; Purdue Boilermakers cornerback Marquis Wilson (16) tackles Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver C.J. Williams (4) during the first half at Ross-Ade Stadium. Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports
Sept. 22, 2023; West Lafayette, Indiana; Purdue Boilermakers cornerback Marquis Wilson (16) tackles Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver C.J. Williams (4) during the first half at Ross-Ade Stadium. Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

C.J. Williams is one of the bigger wild cards in the wide receiver room. He was the No. 7 wide receiver in the class of 2022 but hasn’t done much in either of his first two college seasons.

For believers in star rankings, there may be a big jump from Williams this season.

Otherwise, I’d expect others, including Chris Brooks and Trech Kekahuna, to surpass him on the depth chart.

Is the offensive line set?

Oct. 23, 2021; West Lafayette, Indiana; Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen (0) is congratulated by Wisconsin Badgers offensive lineman Tyler Beach (65) and Wisconsin Badgers offensive lineman Jack Nelson (79) after scoring a touchdown during the game at Ross-Ade Stadium. Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports
Oct. 23, 2021; West Lafayette, Indiana; Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen (0) is congratulated by Wisconsin Badgers offensive lineman Tyler Beach (65) and Wisconsin Badgers offensive lineman Jack Nelson (79) after scoring a touchdown during the game at Ross-Ade Stadium. Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

The offensive line isn’t usually a big question entering the spring period. But after the last four years, plus last year’s slow adjustment to the new offense, it’s arguably the team’s most important question.

My early stab at the line from left to right is Jack Nelson, Joe Brunner, Jake Renfro, Joe Huber and Riley Mahlman.

Nelson and Mahlman are set at the tackle spots. Former Cincinnati linemen Renfro and Huber should slide in after Tanor Bortolini and Michael Furtney’s departures. The talented Brunner may win the other guard spot.

The question here is partly who the line is, but also how it adjusts to the second year under Longo.

Is three any RB depth behind Chez Mellusi and Tawee Walker?

Sept. 22, 2023; West Lafayette, Indiana; Wisconsin Badgers running back Chez Mellusi (1) runs the ball during the first half at Ross-Ade Stadium. Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports
Sept. 22, 2023; West Lafayette, Indiana; Wisconsin Badgers running back Chez Mellusi (1) runs the ball during the first half at Ross-Ade Stadium. Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

No Braelon Allen for the first time since 2020 means opportunity in the backfield. Chez Mellusi returns from another season-ending injury to lead the group, joined primarily by Oklahoma transfer Tawee Walker.

The question comes after that top two. Is it only Jackson Acker? Does an exciting young prospect such as Nate White emerge as an option?

Mellusi will be brought along slowly this spring, giving ample opportunity to others in the room.

What, if anything, is different from last year?

Oct. 28, 2023; Madison, Wisconsin; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Luke Fickell talks to officials during the first half of the NCAA football game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Camp Randall Stadium.
Oct. 28, 2023; Madison, Wisconsin; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Luke Fickell talks to officials during the first half of the NCAA football game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Camp Randall Stadium.

Those who watched last year’s spring game have a good idea about the angle of this question.

Last spring, and the season for that matter, was a colossal disappointment on offense. What many expected to be an instant success turned into a slog as Wisconsin’s entire offense worked to acclimate to the new scheme and pace.

So, this is Year 2. Things are supposed to work better in Year 2. I’ll be focusing on what the offensive attack looks like compared to how it did a year ago.

Which freshman or other newcomers immediately stand out?

Oct. 7, 2023; Oxford, Mississippi; Mississippi Rebels running back Ulysses Bentley IV (24) runs the ball as Arkansas Razorbacks linebacker Jaheim Thomas (28) makes the tackle during the first half at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Oct. 7, 2023; Oxford, Mississippi; Mississippi Rebels running back Ulysses Bentley IV (24) runs the ball as Arkansas Razorbacks linebacker Jaheim Thomas (28) makes the tackle during the first half at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve mentioned many of the important newcomers, notably quarterback Tyler Van Dyke and nearly the entire linebacker room.

But the big question past the veterans: who else emerges? Do we see a Trech Kekahuna become a big threat on offense? Do any incoming freshmen carve out a role?

Luke Fickell has recruited well since he arrived in Madison, trying to flip the roster to fit his desired schemes. Those young players could play big roles this season.

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Story originally appeared on Badgers Wire