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Wisconsin Badgers 2023 Football Preview

Wisconsin adapting to the Air Raid is either sheer genius or sheer insanity.

Nebraska v Wisconsin Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Wisconsin surprised the college football world twice last season: first by jettisoning Paul Chryst after five games, and then again by snagging Luke Fickell from Cincinnati instead of native son Jim Leonhard. I get the decision to fire Chryst after blowout losses to Ohio State and Illinois; the surprise was doing it in early October. And while people expected Fickell to get a Big Ten or possibly SEC job, I’m not sure anybody thought that Wisconsin would lay down the money to make that move. Or disrupt the “Wisconsin Way” of staying within the family with coaching changes.

And if that wasn’t enough change, Fickell hired Phil Longo from North Carolina to implement his version of the Air Raid offense. In the Big Ten. At Wisconsin, of all places.

Of course, successfully running the Air Raid requires a special quarterback, and incumbent Graham Mertz just wasn’t going to be that quarterback. Expectations for Mertz were high after a 20 for 21 debut in the 2020 season opener, but it was pretty much all downhill from there. So Mertz is off to Florida, and now the job belongs to SMU transfer Tanner Mordecai (6’3” 218 lbs.), who completed 65% of his passes for 3,524 yards and 33 touchdowns last season with ten interceptions. Also coming in via the transfer portal are redshirt freshmen Nick Evers (6’3” 179 lbs.) from Oklahoma and Braedyn Lock (6’1” 195 lbs.) from Mississippi State.

It’ll be interesting to see how Longo marries his Air Raid approach with the fact that Wisconsin still has junior Braelon Allen (6’2” 240 lbs.) at running back. Allen rushed for 1,242 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, earning second team All-Big Ten honors. Senior Chez Mellusi (5’11” 210 lbs.) rushed for 473 yards and two touchdowns as a backup last season. The big question is just how these two backs will fit into Longo’s Air Raid scheme.

Five of Wisconsin’s leading receivers from last season return, but they’ve added in transfers Bryson Green (6’0” 205 lbs.) from Oklahoma State, CJ Williams (6’1” 197 lbs.) from Southern Cal andWill Pauling (5’10” 186 lbs.) from Cincinnati. Green caught 36 passes for 584 yards and five touchdowns last season, while Williams and Pauling played sparingly. They’ll be pressing junior Chimere Dike (6’1” 194 lbs.), who led the Badgers with 47 catches for 689 yards and six touchdowns, and sophomore Skyler Bell (6’0” 195 lbs.), who was second with 30 catches for 444 yards and five touchdowns. And since it’s Wisconsin, the tight end room was going to go three deep until junior Clay Cundiff (6’3” 240 lbs.) and senior Jack Eschenbach (6’6’ 239 lbs.) left the program over the summer, leaving just senior Hayden Rucci (6’4” 256 lbs.). Rucci was more of a blocker, with seven catches last season for 91 yards.

The Wisconsin offensive line returns four starters and add two Cincinnati transfers in center Jake Renfro (6’3” 310 lbs.) and guard Joe Huber (6’5” 330 lbs.) Huber was a third team All-AAC honoree last season for the Bearcats. Junior guard Tanor Bortolini (6’4” 313 lbs.) was an honorable mention All-Big Ten honoree last season, while junior left tackle Jack Nelson (6’7” 305 lbs.) was honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2021. Senior guard Michael Furtney (6’5” 315 lbs.) and sophomore right tackle Riley Mahlman (6’8” 318 lbs.) also return. Loaded? Yeah, even by Wisconsin’s standards for their offensive line.

New Wisconsin defensive coordinator Mike Tressel is transitioning the Badgers to a 3-3-5, much like Nebraska’s Tony White. Up front, they’ll lean on juniors Rodas Johnson (6’2” 299 lbs.) and James Thompson (6’5” 299 lbs.). Each had 23 tackles last season and combined for 12.5 tackles for loss.

Linebackers CJ Goetz (6’3” 242 lbs.), Maema Njongmeta (6’0” 240 lbs.) and Jordan Turner (6’1” 235 lbs.) all return. Njongmeta led the Badgers last season with 95 tackles (11.5 for a loss), earning him third-team All-Big Ten honors. Turner and Goetz earned honorable mention All-Big Ten mentions after contributing 68 and 61 tackles respectively. This might be the second-best linebacking corp that Nebraska will see this season, trailing only Michigan’s.

Wisconsin needs to replace three starters in the secondary, including an NFL draft pick. Senior safety Kamo’i Latu (6’0” 195 lbs.) is the leading returning player in the secondary with 55 tackles and 5 passes defended last season. Senior cornerback Alexander Smith (5’11” 195 lbs.) was a spot starter last season with 17 tackles. Boston College transfer nickle back Jason Maitre (5’10” 188 lbs.) has 133 career tackles in 32 starts in the ACC.

Many experts who followed Phil Longo at North Carolina say that while Longo runs Air Raid concepts in his offense, he doesn’t go all Mike Leach-throw-the-ball-70-times-Air-Raid. A more nuanced Air Raid that runs the ball thirty times a game while lining up four wide could be a beast to defend. Especially combined with that defense, Luke Fickell seems to have a bold strategy to challenge the beasts of the Big Ten’s east division once divisions are eliminated next season.


What happens when the Huskers travel to Madison to face the Badgers?

This poll is closed

  • 29%
    It’s a Pelini-esque meltdown in Mad-Town as the Badgers roll
    (52 votes)
  • 30%
    The Huskers keep it close, like how Mike Riley somehow did, but the Badgers still get the win.
    (55 votes)
  • 39%
    The Air Raid in November? In a prime time game on NBC? The Huskers say "thank you very much" and bring that nondescript trophy back to Lincoln.
    (71 votes)
178 votes total Vote Now