It’s a big week here at the Wisconsin State Journal and Lee Sports Wisconsin: Our University of Wisconsin football 2021 season preview section comes out Sunday, and we’ve already begun rolling out some of the pieces online.
Graham Mertz — a hot topic in this week’s Open Jim mailbag, as you’ll see — is the cover subject and our UW football beat writer Colten Bartholomew did a great job profiling the Badgers sophomore quarterback and the steps he's taken to improve.
There’s so much more in the section, so please grab a copy and/or check out the content online. Special thanks to all the editors and designers who put a lot of work into making the section look good.
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As always, thanks for reading and for those who submitted questions this week, keep them coming.
Andy deserves the lead-off position because he asked this two weeks ago and has been waiting patiently for a response.
It certainly was an offseason of change for the Badgers, who lost defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield to Vanderbilt, running backs coach John Settle to Kentucky and quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr to Colorado State.
Let’s go in reverse order. Budmayr was named offensive coordinator at Colorado State, a no-brainer move. Settle added the title of co-special teams coordinator, so that’s not technically a lateral move, either.
Breckterfield leaving for Vanderbilt was the surprising one to me, and we may never know why he made that decision. He worked with Commodores coach Clark Lea at UCLA in 2011, so there’s a familiarity factor there.
Perhaps Breckterfield was at the point in his career where he needed a change or a new challenge. Maybe he thought going to the SEC was his best chance to advance his career and possibly become a coordinator at some point. Again, it’s hard to say.
Was money a major factor for Breckterfield and Settle? It doesn't appear to be a factor at all in Settle's case. His salary at UW in 2020 was about $462,000 and he's he's making $450,000 this season and $475,000 in 2022 with the Wildcats. (Thanks to Josh Moore of Kentucky.com for passing along that contract info).
Breckterfield’s salary at UW in 2020 was about $479,000. It’s unclear what he’s making at Vanderbilt, a private institution.
One note on those 2020 salaries: The UW athletic department asked its 25 highest-earning employees last May to take a 15% reduction in pay over a six-month stretch, so that would have decreased those earnings for both Settle and Breckterfield.
Recruiting coordinator Saeed Khalif, meanwhile, got a big raise to go to Michigan State.
Add it all up and I think it was just an abnormal offseason for UW, not some sign that bigger issues exist within the program that would make assistant coaches want to flee. Does it raise eyebrows that three Black staff members left to join programs that aren’t as successful? Sure, but the Badgers added two Black assistant coaches in Gary Brown (running backs) and Hank Poteat (defensive backs), who certainly would have done their homework on what kind of environment they were walking into at UW.
Breckterfield, Settle and Budmayr were highly regarded assistants who helped UW win games. But the players rave about Brown, Poteat and new defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej. Maybe change and a fresh set of ideas will be good for the Badgers.
And now, a run of Graham Mertz questions.
Matt, I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. One other thing to consider is that the offensive line wasn’t at full strength due to injuries. As I mentioned last week, the defense is usually ahead of the offense early in camp and this is a really good defense.
The good news for the Badgers is Mertz looked much better in practice last week. I think he’ll be fine.
This is a leftover from last week and, as I mentioned above, a lot changed after David submitted his question after the previous Open Jim was published.
But I included this anyway because I wanted to point out one thing: I think the idea that Chase Wolf was having a good camp was an eye-of-the-beholder thing. While I thought Wolf was OK, it wasn’t like I was blown away by how he was playing. And the other factor to consider is that Mertz was getting most of the reps while going against the No. 1 defense, while most of Wolf’s work came against the No. 2 defense. That’s important context.
So I would have answered your question this way: No, I don’t think Mertz will be benched early if the offense struggles. I think he’ll have a long leash.
Dave, I don’t think it’s pessimism. I think UW fans and the media who covers the team pay so much attention to the Badgers that you see all the warts along with the good. National pundits, on the other hand, have a much more narrow view because UW is just one of the teams to which they pay attention.
I’ll give you an example of something I noticed about myself: I walked out of camp one day last week thinking about all the question marks I had about the Badgers. I’d almost convinced myself that they were overrated — and maybe that’ll prove to be true — until it dawned on me that I’d only watched one team in camp. I have no idea how Iowa looks and what flaws it might have; ditto for Penn State … or Notre Dame … or anybody else on UW’s schedule.
Sometimes too much information can lead to flawed opinions.
Rather than pick specific players, Chris, I’m going to go more general and point out the position groups where I see the biggest gaps in talent between the Badgers and the usual suspects in the national title hunt: wide receiver, defensive back, edge rusher and defensive line.
And it might take more than one stud at a few of those four spots to help put UW over the edge.
As for Aaron’s opinion that the Badgers aren’t that far off, I respectfully disagree. There’s a major talent gap between the three programs you mentioned and UW. Could the Badgers upset one of them? Sure. But it’s possible UW would have to beat two of the three — or maybe all three — to win a national title. I can’t see that happening.
I’ll leave you with this: Alabama won the national title last season and had six players selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft. LSU had five players go in the first round after its title run the previous season.
The Badgers, on the other hand, haven’t had a first-round pick since T.J. Watt and Ryan Ramczyk in 2017.
Point is, that’s too much talent to overcome. UW has a really good program but is big step below the powerhouses of college football.
It’s possible I put too much thought into this one, Jay, but an interesting question deserves a detailed answer.
So here we go, starting with some bookkeeping: I upped the offensive targets to 70 per game because that’s slightly above what UW is averaging (69.3) since Paul Chryst took over the program in 2015. The Badgers have gone over that average in three seasons and below it in the other three, ranging from 67.3 in 2018 to 71.6 in 2015.
How do the 70 plays get split? I went with 45 running, 25 passing for this exercise because that’s pretty close to the split we’ve seen during the Chryst era.
Finally, to prevent my brain (and yours) from exploding, I’m going to stick to a one-game scenario — essentially a prediction of how these targets will be distributed in the opener against Penn State.
Let’s start with the ground game, and this isn’t easy because UW hasn’t declared a starter yet and probably won’t before the opener. It’s a safe bet that the depth chart comes out Monday with the first-team tailback listed as … Jalen Berger OR Chez Mellusi.
Brown, the new running backs coach, said before camp that he ideally wants to have a workhorse who gets the bulk of the carries, a solid backup and a third option he can trust. But Berger and Mellusi split reps with the No. 1 offense and, while Isaac Guerendo seems like the frontrunner for the No. 3 spot, true freshman Braelon Allen only is going to get better with time.
Berger registered exactly 15 carries in all four games he played as a true freshman. That number should climb this season. But Brown also said he’ll ride the hot hand (or legs, in this case), so there may be games where Berger’s carries are in the low double digits.
Here’s the prediction: Berger 18, Mellusi 18, Mertz four (sacks and scrambles), fullback John Chenal two and Guerendo two. The remaining carry goes to a wide receiver on a jet sweep.
I’ll pause here to mention that Allen almost certainly will get carries at some point, probably as early as Week 2 against Eastern Michigan.
As for the 25 passing targets, this wasn’t easy to predict, either.
It’s safe to say that the leaders will be tight end Jake Ferguson and the wide receiver trio of Kendric Pryor, Danny Davis and Chimere Dike. I’m giving Ferguson and Pryor six apiece, Dike with four and Pryor with three. That leaves six targets for “others," and I’ll go two apiece for Berger and Mellusi, and one apiece for wide receiver Jack Dunn and tight end Jack Eschenbach.
I’m going to lump these questions together because I think Christopher might be going down the same track as Bill.
As mentioned above, Berger and Mellusi will be the top two backs for the opener, and I don’t see that changing by the halfway point of the season — barring injury, of course.
Listen, Allen looks impressive at times. So does Guerendo. Both of them add something different.
But I don’t think this is a Ron Dayne or Jonathan Taylor situation where Allen is so impressive early in the season that he takes the job from Berger and/or Mellusi and, pardon the pun, runs with it. I think it’s going to take him a season to develop.
I agree with you, Sean, but I don’t think the Packers will top that mark by much. I think 12-5 is realistic, but anything better seems unlikely considering that the schedule will be much more difficult this season.
Just consider that nine-game road schedule: New Orleans, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Chicago, Arizona, Kansas City, Minnesota, Baltimore and Detroit. Going 5-4 in those games would be a pretty impressive achievement.
This morning while driving to a meeting and not being particularly interested in the NPR program, I switched to 920 and caught part of the Dan Patrick show. The discussion between Patrick and a reporter from The Athletic was about conference consolidation. At one point, the talk turned to "what will the B1G do" and Patrick made the comment that suggested that this "allegiance" to the American Association of Universities was a red herring (my words). I had been under the impression that it has been a significant factor weighed by the B1G. So my question for your mailbag would be "how big a deal is UW and other B1G school membership in the AAU and how does it affect athletic decisions?"
— Greg from Scottsdale/Racine (via email)
I would say it’s a significant factor but not a requirement. The way I’ve put it before is that the Big Ten chancellors and presidents, the people who actually make the final decision on expansion, “desire” any new members to be in the Association of American Universities, a group of leading research institutions.
But the Big Ten has been courting Notre Dame for years and would accept the Fighting Irish into the conference in a heartbeat. Notre Dame is not in the AAU, so there’s your answer about it being a requirement for entry.
As an aside, this alliance formed by the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 is being branded as a union of “like-minded” conferences in which academics remain a big priority. It’s worth noting that there are 27 AAU universities — 13 from the Big Ten (everyone except Nebraska), nine from the Pac-12 and five from the ACC.
If you think 2020 was a strange season for the Badgers, check out how Penn State arrived at its 4-5 record: five losses in a row to start the season, four consecutive wins to end it.
The Nittany Lions return 14 starters from that team, seven on each side of the ball. You alluded to the passing game, and that will go a long way in determining just how good the Nittany Lions can be this season. Quarterback Sean Clifford threw nine interceptions last season, tied for most in the Big Ten. It was a step back after Clifford had 23 touchdown passes and seven interceptions while helping Penn State go 11-2 the previous season.
Jahan Dotson is one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten, which is loaded at that position. So UW’s secondary will have its hands full.
Penn State had some holes to fill on defense, which is why it hit the transfer portal. Derrick Tangelo (Duke) and Arnold Ebiketie (Temple) provide some much-needed experience along the defensive line.
Check out our preview section in Sunday’s paper for a closer look at Penn State and UW’s other opponents. And we’ll have more on the Nittany Lions next week leading up to the opener.
Now I’m asking the questions and answering them, Brent?
Just kidding. But now that we’re a month into this new feature, it’s a good time to remind readers that non-sports questions are allowed.
I’m perfectly fine with allowing readers to get to know me better. There are two goals here: To provide insight and have fun.