MADISON, Wis. — After an offseason filled with as much excitement as any in recent memory, Wisconsin football is closing in on the first season of the Luke Fickell era. The next step in that journey begins Wednesday, when the Badgers open preseason practices at UW-Platteville.
The Athletic will be there to chronicle all six practices in Platteville and each of the first 10 Badgers practices total. Here are 10 questions the Badgers can answer during preseason camp.
1. How does the offensive line come together?
For as much as offseason discussion has centered around quarterbacks and wide receivers in the Air Raid, offensive success likely will be dictated by how well the O-line can adapt and mesh in a different scheme. Center Jake Renfro, who transferred from Cincinnati, is a big piece of that puzzle. Renfro suffered what Fickell said was a stress fracture in his left foot in the fourth spring practice, which sidelined him the rest of the way. That injury forced Tanor Bortolini to move from left guard to center and Joe Huber into a first-team role at left guard.
“Hopefully Jake will be good to go,” Fickell told reporters at Big Ten Media Days. “It’s another one of those guys you’re just monitoring volume coming off of a little surgery.”
If Renfro is ready, the Badgers still need to figure out their playing rotation. Offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. said in the spring that he wanted to have seven or eight players who could play in a game because of the up-tempo system. The top group figures to be Jack Nelson at left tackle, Bortolini at left guard, Renfro at center, Michael Furtney at right guard and Riley Mahlman at right tackle. Huber and Trey Wedig appear to be next in line. Can guard Joe Brunner or tackle Nolan Rucci make a move this preseason?
Jake Renfro ready to fulfill Big Ten dream at Wisconsin: ‘I couldn’t pass it up’
2. Where does Green fit in at WR?
Bryson Green is the type of player capable of being a No. 1 wideout for Wisconsin in a lot of previous seasons. He caught 36 passes for 584 yards and five touchdowns for Oklahoma State last year before transferring to the Badgers. There is great intrigue surrounding his potential at Wisconsin, particularly considering he did not participate in live drills in the spring because of an injury.
Even with Chimere Dike, Keontez Lewis, Skyler Bell, CJ Williams and Will Pauling establishing themselves during spring practice, Green figures to have a substantial role at wide receiver when healthy.
“I grew up throwing to him a little bit when I was working out with Kevin Murray in the young days,” Badgers quarterback Tanner Mordecai said. “So I’ve known Bryson for a long time. Bryson is a very physical, strong receiver that can go get the ball and he’s a student of the game. He loves to study. He understands the game, and I think he’s going to have a very successful fall.”
3. What does the cornerback rotation look like?
Wisconsin’s top three corners during the spring were clear cut with Alexander Smith and Ricardo Hallman working outside and Boston College transfer Jason Maitre in the slot. But the backups on the outside were true freshman early enrollees Jonas Duclona and Jace Arnold, with walk-on Amaun Williams in the slot. Wisconsin attacked the transfer portal to address an area of need, adding Nyzier Fourqurean, a Division II All-American at Grand Valley State.
Fourqurean, who flipped his commitment from Vanderbilt, played for Wisconsin outside linebackers coach Matt Mitchell when Mitchell was the head coach at Grand Valley State. He finished his sophomore season with 37 tackles, four interceptions and 14 pass breakups. Fourqurean said he expected to be in the top three on the outside “right away” and hoped to challenge for a starting spot.
Wisconsin also is optimistic it can add Air Force transfer cornerback Michael Mack II, who has two years of eligibility remaining but can’t play this season without a waiver approval due to academy rules. That process appears to be ongoing. He does have a redshirt year available, if necessary. Wisconsin’s other scholarship cornerbacks are redshirt junior Max Lofy and true freshmen Amare Snowden and AJ Tisdell.
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4. Will Mordecai showcase enough consistency?
If Wisconsin is going to rely more on its passing attack in this offense, then success starts with its quarterback. Tanner Mordecai, a sixth-year senior who transferred from SMU, has impressed teammates with his leadership, knowledge and playmaking ability. He was generally excellent during the spring but also threw four interceptions during the team’s only scrimmage that was open to the public.
Mordecai was great in SMU’s victories last season, throwing 23 touchdowns and one interception. He threw 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in games he started that the Mustangs lost.
“I think just consistency in all aspects of the game at quarterback play,” Mordecai said of what he wanted to improve. “Just being able to produce at a high level on a bigger stage.”
From Day 1, Tanner Mordecai practiced like Wisconsin’s starter. Now it’s time to show it
5. Has Bertrams solved the punter problem?
Fickell acknowledged after Wisconsin’s last spring practice that he was “a little bit concerned” about the team’s punting situation after Jack Van Dyke and Gavin Meyers struggled during a special teams-heavy day. The Badgers tried to address that issue by adding Atticus Bertrams, an Australian punter who initially signed a national letter of intent with USC in the 2022 class but never enrolled because of a stress fracture in his lower back.
Bertrams, who worked with the renowned Prokick Australia, arrives at a crucial time with the Badgers seeking a replacement for Andy Vujnovich, one of the most accomplished punters in program history. Bertrams said he sent Wisconsin’s coaches videos that showed him hitting distances of 45 to 50 yards, with a hang time ranging from 4.2 seconds to 4.7 seconds. Fickell had success while head coach at Cincinnati with a pair of punters from Prokick, and the Badgers hope they’ve found the next standout in Bertrams.
Will a late addition from Australia solve one of Wisconsin’s most pressing issues?
6. Are the tight ends ready to produce?
Four tight ends earned first-team reps during the spring: Riley Nowakowski, Jack Pugh, Hayden Rucci and Jack Eschenbach. Clay Cundiff was limited to individual work in the spring after he fractured his left leg last season. But, when healthy, Cundiff has the potential to be the team’s top tight end. He caught nine passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns in four games last season.
Eschenbach and Rucci have the most experience at the position. Eschenbach has 19 catches for 179 yards, while Rucci has six catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. Nowakowski, a former fullback, has versatility and Pugh possesses tremendous athleticism. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo likes to use multiple tight ends, and the pecking order is still to be determined.
7. Can Varner give the D-line more juice?
Wisconsin secured Temple transfer Darian Varner out of the portal to be an impact player up front. But Varner missed the entire spring while recovering from a left foot injury, which forced him to sit out the Owls’ final two games last season. Fickell said Varner can give the group a different look by providing more explosiveness — something Varner demonstrated last season when he earned first-team All-American Athletic Conference honors after recording 12.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks.
Wisconsin has a solid top group of defensive linemen that includes Isaiah Mullens, Rodas Johnson, James Thompson Jr. and Gio Paez. But the Badgers need to shore up their depth, and Varner could be a critical missing piece. Other players who could flash are Curt Neal, Ben Barten and Cade McDonald, each of whom earned significant reps with the reserves in the spring.
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8. Who is the No. 3 running back?
Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi are going to carry the ball plenty, and they are viable pass-catching threats as well. Those two players have combined for 3,798 yards rushing and 30 touchdowns during their careers at Wisconsin. However, the Badgers didn’t have an answer yet for their third running back spot coming out of spring practices.
Jackson Acker is a leading candidate to occupy that role after transitioning from fullback last season. Acker missed several practices in the spring because of an injury and wore a yellow non-contact jersey for a portion of spring. Cade Yacamelli demonstrated flashes of his power and speed. The only other scholarship running back will be true freshman Nate White. Walk-ons Grover Bortolotti and Zach Gloudeman would be other potential options. Wisconsin may not need much out of a third running back this season, but Allen and Mellusi also have battled injuries during their careers, which is something to monitor.
9. Is Wisconsin ready to thrive in the Air Raid offense?
Perhaps nothing has brought more excitement to Wisconsin this offseason than the implementation of Longo’s Air Raid, which made the offense a more attractive destination for transfer quarterbacks and wide receivers. Spring practices provided 15 opportunities for the group to learn the system, but preseason camp is when things will really ratchet up a notch as the first game looms. Mordecai and Longo have expressed confidence they can succeed immediately.
“Who it will be strange for are the people who have been watching Wisconsin football all their lives,” said former Wisconsin and current Illinois coach Bret Bielema. “If it goes well, it goes well. But if it doesn’t go well, that’s potential landmines.”
10. How good can the defense be?
Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel installed several new wrinkles during his first spring at Wisconsin, most notably a dollar defense that features six defensive backs and creates multiple challenges for offenses. The goal is to use linebackers and defensive backs to take away windows from opponents that might be open against other teams, thereby causing constant confusion. The Badgers return their three leading tacklers with inside linebackers Maema Njongmeta and Jordan Turner and outside linebacker C.J. Goetz. Several other key contributors return on the defensive line and in the secondary.
“When we first got into this defense, I was like, ‘Coach, I feel like we’re leaving them too much space to run the ball,’” Njongmeta said. “The beauty of the defense is the offense actually doesn’t know. If you run it right, the offense doesn’t know who’s coming and who’s not and you can easily mess up their count. And more often than not, if you do it right, someone’s going to be left unblocked because the count is off.
“That’s actually the beauty of it. It confuses the offensive line. It’s confusing for them, and confusion causes them to play slow, and that’s where you make big plays. So I think there’s a lot of big-play opportunities, BPOs in this defense. I’m excited about that.”
(Top photo: Jeffrey Brown / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)