As training camp opened Friday, the University of Wisconsin football team was ready to turn the page on a trying, lackluster 4-3 season in 2020.
But there are lessons to be learned from what was an inconsistent offense and a defense that wasn’t able to provide game-turning plays like it had in years past.
With the help of Pro Football Focus’ advanced college statistics, here’s a look at three areas that could define the Badgers’ 2021 season.
Mertz using the whole field
A number of issues plagued the passing game last season as Graham Mertz struggled with his timing and footwork. Losing senior receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor to concussions for more than half of the year limited what the Badgers could do through the air, and PFF’s passing direction statistics bear that out.
Mertz, now a sophomore, threw 121 of his 193 pass attempts (62.7%) last season between the numbers. That metric makes sense when considering tight end Jake Ferguson was the Badgers’ most reliable target after Davis and Pryor went down and a majority of his routes are over the middle of the field. But without receivers getting separation on the outside, Mertz wasn’t able to challenge secondaries in those areas.
He attempted just 25 passes outside the numbers and more than 10 yards down the field. Those can be difficult throws, but ones Mertz can make if a receiver gets free. Pushing the ball deep is one of Mertz’s biggest strengths — he had 220 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions on 18 throws of more than 20 yards last year — but he wasn’t able to do it often enough.
With a healthy receiving corps and some new faces emerging in the tight end group, Mertz’s and UW’s offense should be able to keep defenses honest and force safeties to cover outside thirds of the field rather than packing the middle as they could last season. That should help open throwing windows at multiple levels.
“The game’s slowed down a ton,” Mertz said of his improvement this offseason. “And for me to just really get more reps at it, and having a spring ball to just grow and learn and make some mistakes, learn from them, and then move on and grow.”
Herbig generating more pass rush
As a four-star recruit, the expectation was Nick Herbig was going to be an impactful player. Herbig becoming an every-game starter as a freshman probably exceeded those expectations. While he flashed some impressive speed off the edge, he had just one sack — and it came in the season opener against Illinois.
Raw counting statistics such as sacks aren’t always a fair indicator of the impact of a pass rusher. Herbig only generated five total pressures a year ago. PFF credits him with two hurries, two hits on the quarterback and a sack.
Herbig led all UW outside linebackers with 142 pass-rushing snaps, with the next closest being fellow starter Noah Burks at 135. Herbig said he was disappointed in his season despite playing 345 total snaps, the fifth-most on the defense.
“I’ve got to work on a better get-off, get off the rock, footwork, seeing what I’m hitting, not just running out there with no plan and no vision,” he said this spring.
Outside linebackers coach Bobby April knows the Badgers have a potentially special player in Herbig, citing his blend of athleticism and motor as the reasons he won the starting job. April has helped players such as Zack Baun and Andrew Van Ginkel develop into NFL draft picks, so there’s belief Herbig’s natural skills will shine through as he develops more pass-rush moves and fine-tunes his technique.
How quickly that translates to the field and getting Herbig into quarterbacks’ faces may determine how good this defense can be.
Balancing production from both sides of OL
For as much as they ran the ball in 2020, the Badgers maintained balance in the direction of their runs — 128 to the left and 124 to the right, per PFF’s count. While it should be noted this statistic can only account for where the ball-carrier went and not necessarily where the play was called to go, it’s fairly clear UW’s running plays were evenly distributed between left and right.
However, the left side of UW’s line last season — tackle Cole Van Lanen and guard Jon Dietzen — helped generate more push than their right-side counterparts. On 76 carries between the center and left tackle, UW had 371 yards and eight touchdowns. The 73 carries between the center and right tackle gained 301 yards and a lone touchdown. Rushes to the left side averaged nearly a yard more per carry, and that side was favored at the goal line.
Both Van Lanen and Dietzen are vying for spots on the Green Bay Packers roster this fall, so the Badgers will have to replace their production.
Get to know the Wisconsin Badgers' 2022 football recruiting class
Myles Burkett became the Badgers’ first Class of 2022 recruit when he announced his decision in January.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from Franklin is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and Rivals, and showed great mobility and arm strength in his junior season. He battled back from a knee injury as a sophomore to throw for 1,236 and 11 touchdowns and rush for 180 yards and a score in a pandemic-shortened season.
He’s the first in-state quarterback to earn a scholarship out of high school since 2011.
As his recruiting stock started to rise, the Badgers were able to secure a commitment from Fall Rivers’ Barrett Nelson in late June.
The offensive tackle was 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds after his junior season, and his quickness off the ball has made him a load on both the offensive and defensive lines. Nelson is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star on Rivals.
He had offers from Iowa State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue and others before choosing UW.
Nelson’s father, Todd, was a Badgers offensive lineman in the late 1980s, and his brother, Jack, is currently an offensive lineman for UW.
After wowing UW coaches at a pair of camps, Monroe tight end JT Seagreaves accepted a scholarship offer in late June.
Seagreaves is an intriguing prospect for the Badgers — at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he has the physical frame to grow into an imposing tight end, and he possesses sprinter speeds. He’s averaged more than 21 yards per catch each of the past two seasons and was starting to gain more Power Five conference interested when he committed to UW.
Seagreaves is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star according to Rivals.
In multiple trips to UW’s campus in June, Cade Yacamelli was called “a football player” by UW coaches rather than locking him into a position. He earned a scholarship offer after an impressive camp workout and accepted it in late June.
The consensus three-star athlete was starting to earn more recruiting attention from Power Five schools when he accepted the Badgers’ offer. UW was the first Power Five offer for the 6-foot, 200-pounder. He’s played receiver, running back and defensive back in high school, but likely projects as a receiver or defensive back in college.
The Penn Trafford High School product has good quickness and change-of-direction that make him dangerous with the ball in his hands.
When A’Khoury Lyde accepted a UW scholarship offer in late June, he became the first player on the defensive side of the ball to commit in the 2022 class.
Lyde (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), a consensus three-star recruit, has strong ball skills and a willingness to hit that separates him from other cornerbacks.
The Wayne, New Jersey, native is the eighth-ranked player in his state, per Rivals.
The Badgers landed a tall, speedy receiver when Tommy McIntosh committed in late June.
The DeWitt, Michigan, native stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 200 pounds. He uses his body to shield off defenders at the point of the catch and does well catching the ball away from his body. His Hudl page lists a 4.47-second 40-yard dash time, and he has breakaway speed when he gets in the open field and can use his long strides.
A consensus three-star wide receiver chose the Badgers over offers from Cincinnati, Indiana, Iowa, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.
UW beefed up its defensive front by landing defensive tackle Curtis Neal.
Neal — a 6-foot-2, 310-pounder — had more than 25 scholarship offers, and reportedly was deciding between UW and Ohio State at the end of his recruiting process. Neal is a product of William Amos Hough High School in Cornelius, North Carolina, where the Badgers found receiver Devin Chandler in last year’s cycle.
Neal, with his size and strength, likely fits best as a nose tackle in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme.
Jim Leonhard may have found another rangy, smart cornerback to add to his secondary in Avyonne Jones, who committed in to UW in late June.
Jones — who hails from Southlake, Texas — was on campus the weekend of June 18 for an official visit and had narrowed an extensive offer list to UW and California. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back was previously committed to Oklahoma State, but retracted that commitment in late May.
With good recovery speed and a good feel for getting his hands between a receiver’s at the point of the catch, the consensus three-star prospect is a good fit for what UW cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat said he wants from his position group.
The Badgers landed the top-ranked player in Wisconsin for the sixth consecutive recruiting class when Joe Brunner committed the last week of June.
Brunner — a 6-foot-6, 300-pound prospect from Milwaukee who attends Whitefish Bay High School — is a consensus four-star recruit and a top-10 offensive tackle in the nation.
He held at least 16 Power Five scholarship offers, including ones from a majority of the Big Ten Conference, LSU, Notre Dame, Oregon and Tennessee.
VINNY ANTHONY II
Receiver Vinny Anthony II — a consensus three-star prospect from Louisville, Kentucky — joined UW's class on June 30.
Possessing a good burst of speed and long arms that extend his catch radius, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Anthony has a chance to play across the formation as a receiver.
Anthony chose UW over Cincinnati and Duke.
Austin Brown — who hails from Johnston City, Illinois, a small town outside of Carbondale — was considering offers from Boston College, Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern before choosing UW. The consensus three-star prospect had 21 known scholarship offers.
Brown committed to UW on the Fourth of July.
At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he has a good frame already and his high school film shows a willingness to lay big hits and attack blockers. He also plays quarterback for Johnston City.