So many of the issues that hampered the University of Wisconsin football team’s offense a season ago had a clear answer.
Why did the passing attack struggle? The Badgers were without their top two receivers and the younger players at the position weren’t ready to step up.
Why’d the run game get slowed? Teams could load the box to stop it and churning out yards became harder to do without a transcendent player in the backfield such as Jonathan Taylor.
But arguably the offense’s biggest issue last season — the inability to create big plays — well, that one had a number of layers to it.
No. 12 UW will likely have to generate some of those chunk plays that were elusive last season for it to open the season with a win Saturday against No. 19 Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium.
“Our mindset is we just want to change the perspective of Wisconsin,” said senior receiver Kendric Pryor, who’s healthy after missing four-plus games last season due to a concussion.
“We’re known for grinding it out running it, but we’re having this mindset this spring and this summer, in this camp to try to change that narrative around here. We’ve got some guys at receiver, at tight end that can go make a play that can open the run game up for Jalen (Berger) and Chez (Mellusi) and just have them do their thing.”
Let’s address just how plodding the offense got last season before diving into solutions the Badgers may have. UW’s 4.9 yards per play average was 11th in the Big Ten Conference and the worst mark for the program with Paul Chryst as the coach or offensive coordinator. The previous low for UW offenses with Chryst as coach or offensive coordinator was 5.3 yards per play in 2015, and that team went 10-3.
The Badgers had 94 of their 495 plays (18.9%) gain more than 10 yards, 38 (7.7%) gained 15 or more and just 19 (3.8%) gained 20 or more yards. UW’s rate of 30-plus-yard plays — 6 of 495, or 1.2% — ranked last among 127 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Getting Pryor and fellow senior receiver Danny Davis back in the lineup should help UW’s chances of creating explosive plays. Despite only playing in two games last season, Davis led the team with an average depth of target of more than 17 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Pryor averaged nearly 15 yards per catch a season ago and showed throughout training camp better chemistry with quarterback Graham Mertz.
Having Davis and Pryor back also will open up things for sophomore Chimere Dike, who can play both in the slot and outside positions to attack defenses.
Mellusi, a transfer from Clemson, won the starting running back job during training camp and could be another big-play threat. His speed when he gets into space will be a weapon, but his ability to shed tacklers has yet to be seen at UW — only one portion of a training camp practice open to reporters featured live tackling. Mellusi said UW running backs coach Gary Brown has challenged him and the rest of the backfield to create more explosive plays.
“He says take the shackles off our game,” Mellusi said. “That kind of resonated with me during fall camp — who can take the shackles off their game? Of course, you need to stay true to the scheme, but we’re athletes and we need to make things happen.”
Chryst, who will be the play-caller this season after associate head coach Joe Rudolph handled the duty last season, agreed UW’s struggles in creating chunk plays had multiple reasons. But he said the Badgers also can create chances for themselves with each player executing on a given play — putting his “All 11” mantra into action.
His responsibility as a play-caller is to make sure there are opportunities available for Mertz and other players to break off big gains but do so while maintaining balance in the offense.
“I think a lot of people think explosive plays like, OK, we’ve got to throw the ball down the field or we’ve got to create maybe a special,” Chryst said.
“I think that you’ve got to try to coach and play good football and I think if you do that, then the big plays or explosive plays become a byproduct of it. … I think you’ve got to be careful chasing it. But I think you certainly have to be opportunistic when they are presented that you feel confident you can you can take advantage of it.”
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 the 2020 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 receiver 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 safety 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.
After much discussion and thought, Tristan has changed his commitment and will be accepting a football scholarship offer from the University of Wisconsin. He has the utmost respect and admiration for the University of Arizona but this is an opportunity he cannot ignore. pic.twitter.com/hqf8GGqZwp— Tim Monday (@pappamonday) November 16, 2021
UW added an athletic defensive line prospect in mid-November when Tristan Monday flipped his commitment from Arizona to the Badgers.
UW was interested in Monday since he arrived in high school, but his size then didn't lend itself to a natural position fit in the Badgers' defense. Now standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 240 pounds, he'll start his career as a defensive end. UW offered him a scholarship in early November and he accepted it after visiting campus Nov. 12-14.
Monday is a consensus three-star recruit from Scottsdale, Arizona, who had offers from Arizona, Baylor, Colorado, Florida State and Iowa State.
Vaughan, a 6-foot-4 linebacker from Wixom, Michigan, committed to UW in late November, choosing the Badgers over offers from programs like Colorado, Florida State, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and others.
Vaughan is rated as a three-star recruit by 247Sports and Rivals.
Vaughan has been a late-riser on the recruiting trail, with all of his Power Five offers coming since October, but he has potential to be an inside or outside linebacker for the Badgers. He could fill the big-bodied outside ‘backer role that C.J. Goetz currently has for UW or could be a hybrid type of linebacker like UW pulled in with Jake Ratzlaff in the 2021 cycle.