The wide, prideful smile rarely left Saeed Khalif’s face.
After all, Wednesday was a coronation for the University of Wisconsin football team’s director of player personnel. Khalif, his staff and UW’s coaches secured what is almost certain to be the school’s best recruiting class in the internet rankings era on the first day of the Early Signing Period, and he was happy to let anyone know.
“This is our Super Bowl. This is our celebration,” Khalif said. “This was a culmination of, for some, as long as an 18-month recruiting cycle. I’m feeling really good about the relationships that were formed and the work that had been put in.”
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As of Wednesday evening, UW had the No. 15 class in the FBS according to ESPN and Rivals, and 247Sports ranked the class No. 16. The Badgers have never had a top-20 class in the internet rankings. With all 21 of the team’s recruits’ names signed to their National Letter of Intent, Khalif believes the program is establishing itself in new territory.
“We want to be a top program and we want ourselves recognized with top programs in everything that we do — our football play, our recruiting and our academics,” Khalif said.
“We want it all to measure up. So, yeah, it’s a big deal for us. We love to be in the conversations and people talking top-20 and that kind of stuff. Awesome to hear, that helps get us over the hump. We’re not, again, rating chasers, it just means we want our evaluation considered just like some of the other programs that you would consider a blue-blood. We’re a blue-blood program and that’s where we should be. And we have to work to continue to do that. And that means getting in some battles. And we want to feel like we’ve got a strong enough product to do that.”
Talent-rich defense gets richer
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard expressed similar excitement about the class.
His defense loaded up on talented, versatile linebackers and brought in intriguing prospects to mold in the secondary. But Leonhard — who went from Badgers walk-on to All-American to 10-year NFL veteran — wasn’t concerned so much with ratings as he was continuing what helped land these recruits.
“We had great success on the field, which was helping to translate into great recruiting, and now we have to take the talent that we have and continue to develop it and make sure that production shows up on the field at this level, right?” Leonhard said.
“That’s always a trick. We’re pleased with who we have, we feel like we do have the right guys on this team. That’s always been a strength of ours is identifying not only talent, but talent that fits with what we do and how we do it and in the leadership that we asked our players to provide, it always starts there.”
The Badgers brought in six players currently listed as linebackers — Jake Chaney and Bryan Sanborn on the inside; Ayo Adebogun, TJ Bollers and Darryl Peterson on the outside; and Jake Ratzlaff as a hybrid of both — that bolster positions of strength on UW’s defense. They also provide flexibility in roles.
Leonhard is specifically interested in using Bollers, a four-star recruit out of Iowa, and Ratzlaff, a four-star prospect from Minnesota, in a variety of ways through their careers, and said others in the group can expand on traditional roles as well.
“There’s a little bit different body types, there’s a little bit different twitch at those positions. But within our defense, we just felt that versatility, it can be a lot of fun to use,” Leonhard said. “We like to put a lot on that group and put them in different roles and ask them to do different things. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of success at those positions in certain ways and we’re just trying to continue to add to the versatility of that group. And we feel like we’ve done that.”
Offense adds playmakers
In the trio of Nolan Rucci (five stars), Riley Mahlman (four) and JP Benzschawel (four), the Badgers reinforced the talent pool of an offensive line coming off back-to-back strong classes.
But the Badgers also added six skill-position recruits — three tailbacks, two receivers and a tight end — that could have a quick impact.
“We were really excited about the class,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said.
“We thought that they really bonded well and thought what they liked about Wisconsin was what we like about Wisconsin and it’s what we like about them. Some of the core attributes, some of the things that kind of drew them in and made this place interesting to them, were the same reasons … I remember going to some of those places and saying, ‘Man, you’re a guy that everything that you do reminds me of somebody that would be ultra-successful in our program.’ It’s just kind of cool that they saw it the same way.”
Verona’s Jackson Acker, Eau Claire Memorial’s Loyal Crawford and Antwan Roberts of Nashville, Tennessee, bring an array of skills at the running back spots that UW can utilize when they arrive. Rudolph said Acker’s explosiveness and physicality as a runner stand out, while Crawford’s speed, change of direction and home-run ability set him apart. Rudolph called Roberts a complete back who’s excited to show what he can do.
It’s a rarity the program brings in three tailbacks — the previous two times it happened were 2014 and 2002.
“The why was we had two really good ones in-state that we weren’t going to let out of the state,” Khalif said. “And then the emergence of Antwan, who came over from Tennessee, and came to a game, spent the time here. We love the family, we love what he was about. So we’ve kind of said, ‘Well, we can’t have too many.’”
A quiet winter ahead
It’s unlikely the Badgers add to the 2021 class between now and the Feb. 3 signing day; the 21-player class and the potential for seniors to return make roster construction a challenge.
The Badgers haven’t been aggressive in the transfer market, but NCAA rule changes likely to come in the spring may make adding those players easier.
“It’ll be a need-based, it won’t be a free-for-all,” Khalif said on how the Badgers would attack the transfer market.
“We can’t take as many kids right out of the portal, and then some of them are another man’s junk, so we have to be real careful about doing that, too. So it’s all gonna be about what the needs are and where we feel like the kid fits. Did you leave because you were a problem? Or did you leave because you didn’t play? What makes you think you could play here?”
Still, Khalif and Rudolph left the door open a crack — the former mentioned the case of a stud defensive lineman needing a new home and the latter if an instant-impact playmaker were to be interested.
Khalif said after Wednesday his attention is on the plans for landing the next record-setting class in 2022.
Breaking down the Badgers recruiting class by position
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.”