Bret Bielema's second season as head coach didn't go quite as well as his first. The Badgers still won nine games while playing a more difficult schedule, but Bielema was unhappy with how the defense performed and decided to fire coordinator Mike Hankwitz. If that move leads to improvements on the defensive side of the ball Wisconsin might once again reach double-digits in the win column.

The most talked about question mark on offense is at quarterback where the competition to replace the steady (read: average) Tyler Donovan is heating up. Luckily for the Badgers, quarterback isn't as important to the offense as it is at many other schools, so either Allan Evridge (who started a handful of games at Kansas State as a freshman) or Dustin Sherer won't have to do much more than protect the football and hand off to a talented stable of running backs.

P.J. Hill is back after rushing for 1,212 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2007. Hill is a big, bruising tailback that can wear down opposing defenses, but he's got a little bit more quickness than you might realize. Lance Smith is another talented back on the roster, but his status with the team is in question after more off-the-field issues over the summer. He was already suspended from traveling with the team to road games in '07 so there is a chance he might get a similar sentence again for '08. The depth doesn't end with Smith though. Zach Brown impressed as a true freshman last year (568 yards, 5 tds) and redshirt freshman John Clay was one of Wisconsin's top recruits a year ago. So even with the questions surrounding Smith's status, the Badgers should still be able to go three deep at running back without much worry.

The deep backfield will be running behind an experienced offensive line too. Four starters return as well as the sixth man from the 2007 rotation. They'll need to improve pass blocking as a unit though because they can't afford to let defenses harass the quarterback like they did when they gave up 33 sacks last season. On the flip side, whoever wins the quarterback job will have the best receiving tight end in the nation as a safety valve. Senior Travis Beckum (75 receptions for 982 yards, 6 tds) is as athletic as a wideout and has hands to match. He's complemented nicely in 2-TE sets by Garrett Graham (30 receptions for 328 yards, 4 tds).

There's inexperience at wide receiver though, where sophomore Kyle Jefferson is the only returnee with more than two receptions to his credit. As a true freshman last season Jefferson filled in nicely for the talented duo of Like Swan and Paul Hubbard as they each missed most of the second half of 2007. He has the potential to become the next in a growing line of surprisingly talented Wisconsin receivers. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the receiving corps fills out. Sophomore David Gilreath has impressive kick/punt return skills, but can he translate those into running routes and catching passes under duress? Will Marcus Randle El ever show the athleticism on the field that his older brother, Antwaan Randle El, showed as a star quarterback at Indiana?

The Badgers return nine starters from last season so the pressure will be on new coordinator Dave Doeren to get more out of them. The only two losses from the starting line up (talented corner Jack Ikegwuonu and disruptive tackle Nick Hayden) might hurt a little bit, but an excellent linebacking corps returns intact. The trio of seniors, Jonathan Casillas, Deandre Levy, and Elijah Hodge, were the top three tacklers on the team in '07 and will continue to shoulder the load in '08. Casillas and Levy in particular are more athletic than your typical Wisconsin linebacker and should help lead the defense out of mediocrity.

They'll need help up front from the defensive line to make it happen though. Senior Matt Shaughnessy is a solid Big Ten defensive end, but he needs to take his game to the next level. Tackles Mike Newkirk and Jason Chapman also have talent, but must get improve against the run so the linebackers can roam a little freer in the passing game.

Recently Wisconsin has gotten good production out of its safeties and this year should be no exception. Free safety Shaun Carter picked off 7 passes last year and is back for only his junior season. Jay Valai and Aubrey Pleasant will team up opposite Carter at strong safety. Pleasant is particularly impressive in his ability to help out against the run, but they'll need to be better in pass coverage.

How much the defense improves. If they play better as a unit the win total will increase. If they continue to play average defense though, it will be another mediocre season in Madison.

Left tackler Gabe Carimi. The sophomore was one of only two linemen to start all 13 games a year ago, and should anchor the O-Line for the next three seasons.

No comments: