With spring practices now wrapped up around the country, HuskerOnline.com will look at where each of Nebraska’s 12 opponents in 2021 currently stands coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer.
Today we preview the Wisconsin Badgers, who host the Huskers at Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 20.
Wisconsin once again has its sights set on another Big Ten West title run and a shot at a conference championship, but it still has some questions to answer before the season kicks off.
We caught up with Jake Kocorowski of BadgerBlitz.com to get the latest on UW coming out of spring ball.
Wisconsin looks to have all the pieces in place on paper to maintain its standing as the team to beat in the Big Ten West.
Quarterback Graham Mertz is back at quarterback after showing promising flashes in seven starts last year as a redshirt freshman.
All-Big Ten tight end Jake Ferguson turned down a jump to the NFL to return for an extra season, and top receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis are also back. The offensive line lost two starters to the draft but should still be one of the best in the conference.
The Badgers are also again loaded in the defensive front seven, led by one of the nation’s top inside linebacker tandems in Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal.
But will there be enough depth to power UW through the Big Ten and back to Indianapolis for a fourth time in six seasons?
While Wisconsin brings back a good deal of experience at almost every position on offense, maybe the biggest question on the roster remains at one of the Badgers’ most high-profile roles.
Various injuries throughout the spring kept most UW’s running back room on the sideline from one day to the next. That included projected starter Jalen Berger, last year’s leading rusher.
Whoever ends up filling out the rotation will at least have a stout offensive line to run behind. Senior Tyler Beach moved from right to left tackle this offseason, while senior Logan Bruss takes over on the right side.
The only question up front is at right guard, which could be filled by redshirt freshman Jack Nelson, who had an impressive spring.
On defense, Keeanu Benton anchors the line at nose tackle, while Sanborn and Chenal are behind him at inside ‘backer to give Wisconsin one of the best interior defenses in the country.
The Badgers lost their top pass rusher, Zack Baun, to the NFL, and the search continues to fill his production off the edge.
Offensive star: TE Jake Ferguson
When you’re Barry Alvarez’s grandson, you’re going to get a lot of attention at Wisconsin.
But Ferguson has made a name for himself over the past four years in Madison as the Badgers’ No. 1 tight end.
The Madison, Wis., native led UW with 30 catches for 305 yards and four touchdowns in just seven games last year, which had him on pace for his most productive season yet.
Ferguson developed an instant connection with Mertz in the passing game, hauling in four touchdown catches in the first two games of 2020.
He turned down a jump to the NFL to come back for a fifth season at Wisconsin, and he should once again be one of the Big Ten’s best at his position.
Defensive star: LB Jack Sanborn
Wisconsin has had an impressive run of inside linebackers who rack up ridiculous tackle numbers in its 3-4 scheme.
Sanborn became the latest example after taking over as the Badgers’ leader in the middle of the defense last season.
After posting 80 tackles as a junior in 2019, Sanborn finished with a team-high 52 stops, four tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, a forced fumble, and five quarterback hurries in seven games last year.
He earned third-team All-Big Ten honors for his efforts, and playing alongside Chenal, Sanborn should be in line for his most productive campaign yet in 2021.
Spring surprise: OL Jack Nelson
The lifeblood of Wisconsin’s offense has always been its offensive line, and the one big question facing that unit was who would replace Jon Dietzen at right guard?
A final decision on that spot hasn’t been made just yet, but Nelson’s performance this spring may have put him in the driver’s seat for the job entering fall camp.
The 6-foot-7, 297-pound redshirt freshman was in the two-deep last year as a tackle but moved inside this spring to right guard.
Having put on more than 25 pounds since arriving in Madison, the former four-star offensive tackle prospect got plenty of first-team reps at guard this spring as UW searches for its “best five” up front.
Biggest question: Who will make up the running back rotation?
As mentioned, the lack of depth and availability at running back were real problems for Wisconsin this spring.
Berger and top backups Julius Davis and Isaac Guerendo all missed time during spring ball with various injuries.
It got so bad at points that Wisconsin had to call up walk-ons who weren’t on the original spring roster to help provide some reps at running back during practices due to the lack of numbers.
Berger looked to be the top candidate to start going into the summer, but that competition should heat up in a major way this fall with the arrival of Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi.
Mellusi, who committed to UW on June 1, rushed for 427 rushing yards and six touchdowns in two seasons as a backup with the Tigers. But he was a top-25 running back in the 2019 class and should have every opportunity to make his case in fall camp.
Early outlook on Wisconsin vs. Nebraska
Kocorowski: “Obviously, it’s been a very one-sided matchup since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, but I think every year teams in the West are going to battle it out.
“We’ve seen Scott Frost’s offense do numbers on Wisconsin’s defense at times, especially in 2019 when the Huskers’ run game came alive with Dedrick Mills and Adrian Martinez running wild.
“I think the question for Wisconsin is can they stop the run first against the Huskers and force Martinez to throw the ball? If they do, I think Wisconsin has a really good chance to come out with a win and once again hold the Freedom Trophy.”
Overall 2021 win-loss expectations
Kocorowski: “I think at Wisconsin, the standard has kind of been set at nine or 10 wins. I know last year they went 4-3 with the truncated season, but I think a nine or 10-win season has become the standard for the Badgers, and I don’t necessarily see that changing this year.
“It’s going to be tough for Wisconsin starting right off the bat with Penn State, but they are at home. Notre Dame will be a tough game later that month at Soldier Field and facing (former UW quarterback) Jack Coan.
“I think maybe a 10-2 type of season, maybe even 11-1 could be the expectation for Wisconsin this season.
“It all depends upon the development of the quarterback position; can the starters stay healthy, and can the depth rise up when needed? But I would say, at the very least, 10-2 and potentially 11-1.
“They should be in contention for the West Division, and we’ll see what happens if they can get to Indianapolis.”