The University of Wisconsin football program, with the best recruiting class in the program’s history already signed, isn’t likely to make a splash Wednesday on National Signing Day.
The Badgers’ 2021 class, which ranks 15th nationally per Rivals and 16th by 247Sports and ESPN, is their first top-20 recruiting class since internet recruiting rankings began. The class is third in the Big Ten, behind just Ohio State and Michigan.
So while Wednesday’s signing day isn’t likely to produce a major boost to the Badgers’ rankings, the team could add some walk-on talent as it continues to comb through possible transfer players as well.
Here are four things to know heading into National Signing Day:
1. A quiet day for UW
Why won’t the Badgers be active on the February signing day? Because they got their commits to sign in December. The Badgers had 21 recruits in UW’s 2021 class sign during the early signing period, which allowed the UW staff to turn their focus toward 2022 and 2023 recruiting.
UW signed one of its top recruits in the 2020 class — running back Jalen Berger — on the February signing day last year.
There may be some movement for UW in terms of walk-ons, especially for a specialist. Kicker Nate Van Zelst (Wilmette, Illinois), ranked a five-star prospect by Kohl’s Kicking, tweeted Tuesday that he committed to the Badgers, but it wasn't clear whether he'll be on scholarship or not.
The last specialist to receive a scholarship from UW out of high school was punter Anthony Lotti.
Saeed Khalif, UW’s director of player personnel, said before the December signing period that because of the unique circumstances of the year — seniors being able to return and the unprecedented amount of players attempting to find new homes via transfer — it was in 2021 recruits’ best interest to sign then.
“I think that would be a strategic blunder if they waited till February,” Khalif said in December. “Holding out tells us that you don't have the level of commitment we're looking for and we have to shop immediately for that next guy.”
2. Badgers possibly in the transfer market
Despite Khalif’s insistence during the early period that the Badgers' roster is full, changes at a few position groups may push the program to look for a transfer recruit.
UW was rumored to be in the hunt for Markese Stepp, a running back who was transferring from Southern Cal, but Stepp is expected to sign with Nebraska this week. Finding an experienced running back to pair with Berger next season may be a priority for the program after Nakia Watson’s transfer and Garrett Groshek’s jump to the pros.
Berger projects to be the starting running back after making four starts this season. Behind him is a cadre of inexperienced options such as Isaac Guerendo, Julius Davis and three freshmen from the 2021 class — Jackson Acker, Loyal Crawford and Antwan Roberts.
Defensive end might be another position where the Badgers look for a transfer. Last season’s starters, Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand, won’t be back and junior Matt Henningsen is coming off an arm injury.
Khalif and new defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej have said recruiting standout defensive linemen is the hardest task on that side of the ball, so a player with experience elsewhere could be an option if one is available.
3. Some Badgers getting a head start
Seven of the Badgers’ 2021 recruits — one-third of the class — are early enrollees and already in classes and workouts.
Cornerback Al Ashford III, outside linebacker T.J. Bollers, inside linebacker Jake Chaney, defensive lineman Mike Jarvis, offensive lineman Riley Mahlman and tight end Jack Pugh already are on UW’s campus.
It’s unclear yet what spring practices will look like after last season’s practices were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that group gets the benefit of strength training and learning from teammates in meetings.
4. Few top prospects still undeclared
There won’t be many crown jewels of the recruiting class signing Wednesday.
Six of the top 100 prospects on 247Sports and ESPN’s rankings enter National Signing Day undeclared and just five of the top 100 ranked by Rivals haven’t signed.
Ohio State is projected as the frontrunner for five-star defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau (Bellevue, Washington), who is a top-six recruit in the country according to the three sites. Ohio State’s class is ranked second in the nation.
Four-star cornerback Avante Dickerson (Omaha, Nebraska) decommitted from Minnesota in late January and reportedly is deciding between Nebraska and Oregon. He’s a top-100 recruit in ESPN’s rankings.
Breaking down the Badgers' 2021 recruiting class
Breaking down the Wisconsin Badgers 2021 recruiting class by position
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Deacon Hill (Santa Barbara, Calif.)
Quick analysis: Hill has a strong arm and shown enough in camps to rise to a four-star recruit on Rivals. Competition level is a question mark at the high school level, but he’s got the tools to be a good college quarterback.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Hill: Quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr “identified him really early. We thought he had great arm strength when you compared him to the best players in the country who were out there. We thought he was right there from the jump. … We really liked him, we felt personality-wise the people that surrounded him and supported him, how he worked, all those things were a great fit for us.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Jackson Acker (Madison), Braelon Allen, (Fond du Lac), Loyal Crawford (Eau Claire), Antwan Roberts (Nashville, Tenn.)
Quick analysis: There’s been talk about Acker switching positions at the college level, but UW listed him as a running back Wednesday. Acker didn’t play in the fall due to COVID-19, but he has shown a good mix of speed and power as a ball carrier. … Allen is a surprise to move to this group, weighing 240 pounds, but he's got an athleticism and physicality that's rare for his age. ... Crawford has a James White-level ceiling as a third-down back and the most shiftiness of the bunch. … Roberts has explosion and proven ability to run through tackles.
Rudolph’s thoughts on the group: “I think they’re all kind of unique. Jackson’s a guy that obviously would have position flexibility, but he kind of is explosive. … Then you see Loyal, and Loyal’s got great speed, great change of direction, a chance for a home run hitter. I think he’s got great quicks in and out and, again, I think all these guys, we’ll find out exactly where they’re at when they come in, but I think guys that are just really good football players as well. … Antwan, what he does to this point, complete back and had a great senior year.”
Number of players: 2
Who are they: Skyler Bell (Bronx, N.Y.), Markus Allen (Clayton, Ohio)
Quick analysis: The Badgers landed two players who possess good speed and agility at arguably the biggest position of need in the class. … Bell has a suddenness to his cuts that makes him dangerous as a receiver and returner. … Allen shows good ball skills when making contested catches and great body control.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Bell, who wasn’t able to visit campus before committing: “I just think you take the time to reach out. Whether it was Zoom meetings with him and his family, or whether it was phone calls, you took the time to be able to answer questions that pop up in their minds. I think those things are always huge.”
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Jack Pugh (Columbus, Ohio)
Quick analysis: He has long strides that help him cover a lot of ground and he’s shown an array of route-running skills from both an on-line and split-out positions.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Pugh: “Jack played his first year of football last year. This was his second year. Really a guy that was a hoop player that jumped into it. Watching his film, I thought he was really physical for a guy that hadn’t played football. He was physical at D-end as well as tight end. I think he’s got the ability to separate. I think he’s got really a lot of speed and explosiveness.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: JP Benzschawel (Grafton), Riley Mahlman (Lakeville, Minn.), Nolan Rucci (Lititz, Pa.)
Quick analysis: The Badgers are set up to continue churning out great O-lines for years to come after an impressive haul of linemen in 2019. … Benzschawel is the third of his brothers to come to UW, and he’s shown great power and strength as a blocker. … Mahlman might be the most athletic of the bunch, having played tight end for a time in high school and as a basketball standout. … Rucci, the lone five-star recruit in the class, has all the tools to become an All-American tackle.
Rudolph’s thoughts on the group: “I think they’re big, athletic guys that you have to have as defenses are pretty darn athletic and being able to keep up with them. … I think those guys match in their work ethic and their mind-set, I think they’ll make a major impact here.”
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Mike Jarvis (Medford, N.J.)
Quick analysis: Jarvis was recruited as both an offensive and defensive lineman, but UW will look to make him a defensive end. He has good quickness but will need to add weight and strength at the college level.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Jarvis: “He fits what we do, the right mentality. He can get after people. Very physically impressive at the high school level. We’re looking forward to developing his skills as we continue to push what we can ask our defensive line to do. You turn on a tape and you go, ‘Dang, everything we ask our guys to do, he’s putting on tape for you.’”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Jake Chaney (Cape Coral, Fla.), Jake Ratzlaff (Rosemount, Minn.), Bryan Sanborn (Lake Zurich, Ill.)
Quick analysis: UW won't need these players to be ready to play immediately after seniors Jack Sanborn and Mike Maskalunas decided to stay this offseason. … Chaney posted back-to-back 100-tackle seasons as a junior and senior and has a nose for attacking the ball and creating fumbles. … Ratzlaff is another wild card. He has the speed and athleticism to play at any linebacker spot and turned down a hockey scholarship to Minnesota to play football. … Bryan Sanborn has good closing speed and often was used as a blitzer in high school.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Ratzlaff: “We’re excited for him because as talented as he is, he really has not focused solely on football. So we still feel like there’s a ton of growth in his game and coming from a very, very high, high level of play already.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Ayo Adebogun (Mequon), TJ Bollers (Tiffin, Iowa), Darryl Peterson (Akron, Ohio)
Quick analysis: This group rivals the O-line as the deepest, most talented chunk of the class, but don’t be surprised if one or more of these players ends up being listed at another position in the future. … Adebogun, a lineman in high school, has a tremendous first step. … Bollers has the size to potentially play on the line, but the quickness and block-shedding of an outside backer. … Peterson was a prolific pass rusher in high school and could help UW soon.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Bollers: “We love his versatility. (We) see him as an outside linebacker, kind of plus. We think he can do a little bit more than that position and provide some flexibility for us. Great physicality with what he shown in high school. As he grows into his body, it’s going to be a lot of fun to put him in different positions.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Al Ashford III (Denver, Colo.), Ricardo Hallman (Miami, Fla.), Hunter Wohler (Muskego)
Quick analysis: Ashford already plays with the aggressive style that Leonhard loves and he’s borderline obsessive about learning and refining technique. … Hallman is a true ball hawk and uses his athleticism to close on balls in the air faster than opposing receivers. … Wohler, Wisconsin’s two-time AP state player of the year, is a special blend of ball skills and physicality as a safety.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Wohler: “Probably as highly recruited of a skill player in the state in a long time. Extremely talented. What he does at the safety position in impacting games at that level was a lot of fun to watch.”