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Tom Oates: Playmakers must emerge of both sides of the ball for UW football team
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Tom Oates: Playmakers must emerge of both sides of the ball for UW football team

pryor photo 10-23

Wide receiver Kendric Pryor had four plays of 33 or more yards last year, including a 66-yard run.

The University of Wisconsin didn’t lose many starters off the team that won the Big Ten Conference West Division football title last fall.

It did, however, lose its home-run hitters.

The UW team that will open its pandemic-delayed season tonight against Illinois at Camp Randall Stadium has experience, talent and depth but will be missing its elite playmakers from last season.

Always efficient on both sides of the ball, UW is at its best when it has several explosive playmakers mixed in. The Badgers had that with last season with tailback Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Quintez Cephus on offense and linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr on defense, but all four are now drawing NFL paychecks. Even UW’s most dangerous kick returner, Aron Cruickshank, transferred to Rutgers.

With no spring practice and a shortened fall camp, UW is still searching for their replacements, still seeking athletes who can turn a game with one big play. History tells us that playmakers will surface in a program as strong as UW’s, but there are no guarantees.

“I think as a coach you’re always looking to see, what is the personality of your team going to be? How are you going to play games and, for lack of a better term, what is your recipe to win games?” coach Paul Chryst said. “Every year you’re going to lose some part of your team. You’re also going to add some pieces that are either new to the program or new to that role. So I think that’s the fun part of starting a season, finding out, ‘Who are we as a team?’"

The departure of Taylor and Cephus left sizable shoes to fill on offense. The pair had 28 of the offense’s 56 plays of 20 or more yards and a whopping 17 of the 24 plays of 30 or more.

Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek, the top two running backs, don’t have Taylor’s breakaway speed. Isaac Guerrendo might, but he is new to the position. Perhaps the best hope might be true freshman Jalen Berger, an accomplished runner and receiver.

One player who could break out is wide receiver Kendric Pryor. He had four plays of 33 or more yards last year, two on runs, two on pass receptions. Wide receiver Danny Davis had a long catch of only 18 yards last year, though he showed big-play ability earlier in his career. Freshman Chimere Dike turned some heads during camp with his athleticism and maturity.

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At tight end, Jake Ferguson had eight catches for 20 or more yards last season, though the longest was 28. Converted defender Jaylan Franklin has the speed to stretch the field, but he too is new to the position.

“I’m excited for the guys we have this year to show (big-play ability),” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “I think we have that in the wide receiver room. I’m excited for guys to step up and earn roles. I think there’s a really good group of guys. I think (playmakers) will emerge from that group. And I think it’s the same thing in the running back room. ... There’s a group of guys there that can (do it). And as always, someone emerges and earns roles. That’s what you’re excited for at the beginning of the season. It gets you (doing) a little bit of nail-biting, like, all right, who’s going to be those guys? But I’m confident in that group of guys to get themselves where they need to be.”

Baun and Orr were the heart of a top-10 defense, combining for 24 of UW’s school-record 51 sacks and 33½ tackles for loss. Jack Sanborn, Orr’s partner inside, had 5½ sacks, one fumble recovery and three interceptions, so he’s shown he can make big plays. The same goes for safety Eric Burrell, who had three interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. After that, who the playmakers are is a mystery.

Can outside linebacker Noah Burks do as others have done and make a huge jump as a pass rusher in his final season? Can true freshman Nick Herbig, who plays fast and physical, make his mark opposite Burks after a strong camp? Can powerful Leo Chenal, who will take Orr’s place, be consistently disruptive?

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has great experience on the line and at cornerback. Still, linemen Matt Henningsen, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Garrett Rand and Keeanu Benton have to start putting consistent pressure on the quarterback and Faion Hicks, Caesar Williams and Rachad Wildgoose have to improve on the two interceptions by cornerbacks last season.

“We feel great about what we have back,” Leonhard said. “But obviously, we’re realistic in saying, can you ask just a one-for-one swap to get that production? We don’t feel that’s true. Those guys were amazing. They had unbelievable seasons last year, just disruptive week in and week out and so consistent. We’re going to find other ways to do it. We feel like we have guys that can step into those roles and create plays and be dynamic for us. But at the same time, we’re not going to ask them to just do what Chris did or do what Zack did. That’s not fair to them.

“Hopefully, we can develop into that as far as our depth and who we have. But it may look different, as it did the year before and the year before that. We’re going to always be on the search for putting our guys in the best position to be dynamic and to make those plays. If it’s the same calls as it was last year, great. And if it looks a little bit different for us, we’re OK with that. The flexibility within what we do and how we think is there. I do love the group. I love the depth that we have. I think there’s some young guys really stepping up and are prepared to take a big jump forward.”

The loss of starting quarterback Jack Coan to injury could complicate matters, but the Badgers still need to find explosive players on offense and dynamic, get-off-the-field players on defense to make this season a success.

Tom Oates: Only one thing remains unchanged in Big Ten this season — Ohio State's dominance

Tom Oates, who retired as a full-time columnist, has returned to write occasional columns for the State Journal.

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