4 questions about the Wisconsin football team heading into camp

Aug 1, 2023 Updated 18 min ago
Staying patient through July has been a challenge for the University of Wisconsin football team.
Their team activities and workouts have brought them together and have given them just a taste of what training camp will be like. But with the first camp under coach Luke Fickell — the opening week of which is on the road in Platteville — days away, senior quarterback Tanner Mordecai said the team’s raring to get started.
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“OTAs in July has definitely gotten the guys kind of … smelling blood in the water for real football,” Mordecai said. “I know these guys are ready to roll. I think we get a few days of relaxation coming up, and then, you know, we're in for it till January. We'll be ready to go.”
An offseason of changes — from the coaching staff to the roster to the schemes on both sides of the ball — has fans and foes curious. Can the Air Raid offense take flight in a program that’s synonymous with devotion to the run game? Will the influx of transfers lift the team to a year like the one Michigan State had in 2021, or will it cause a disjointed team that the Spartans rolled out in 2022? Can the Badgers claim the last (for now) West Division championship before the Big Ten Conference’s new scheduling model kicks in?
Those questions will be answered from September-December. However, UW’s training camp is chock full of subplots to keep an eye on. Here are four things to watch for as the Badgers enter August.
1. Can Mordecai cut down the picks?
The first and last time fans got to see Mordecai, a transfer from Southern Methodist, the results weren’t inspiring: He threw four interceptions during an open practice at Camp Randall Stadium. It continued a pattern of putting the ball in harm’s way that Mordecai fell into midway through spring practices. He bounced back in the sessions following the open practice, but UW’s offense hinges on Mordecai properly managing risks.
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There were some mitigating factors that lessened the concern about the picks at that open practice like weather and miscommunication with receivers that can be avoided. Mordecai’s ability to engineer an efficient passing game was displayed at SMU, so a summer of getting on the same page as his targets may have been the cure.
2. How do Bryson Green, Darian Varner look?
Two potential stars for the Badgers this fall haven’t participated in a full practice yet. Transfer receiver Bryson Green (Oklahoma State) and transfer defensive lineman Darian Varner (Temple) are proven college players who were recruited out of the portal to be immediate contributors.
Green could uplift the revamped passing game with his route running and sure hands, and having him in the fold only makes the receiving corps deeper. Fickell said at Big Ten football media days that the staff hopes to use 22 players in the rotation on both sides of the ball. Green had a shoulder injury that held him out of spring practices, but has been healthy for workouts this summer.
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Varner brings some much-needed pass-rush expertise to the defensive line. He had 7½ sacks last year at Temple, while the returning defensive linemen for the Badgers had three total. His ability to play on the edge as well as over a guard helps the transition to more varied looks up front under coordinator Mike Tressel. Defensive line is one of the thinnest positions on the roster, so a healthy, active Varner would be a welcome sight.
3. Can young cornerbacks step up?
Fickell has had to reshape the cornerback group essentially since the moment he arrived on campus. It was light on experience outside of senior Alexander Smith and transfer senior Jason Maitre (Boston College) when spring practices ended, which led to the Badgers adding transfer Nyzier Fourqurean (Grand Valley State) and having contact with other corners in the portal.
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UW is going to need some of its younger corners to contribute — just how much is likely to be determined by the health of the group and how well those young players perform. Jace Arnold and Jonas Duclona enrolled early and became the second-string corners by the end of spring practices. Both showed toughness and competitiveness, but the kind of rookie mistakes one expects from a freshman. If this duo can provide some quality snaps to give the top group breathers during games, it’d be a boon for the defense.
Freshman Amare Snowden has the athletic ability to be a factor, but he’s a bit raw in his technique, so he may need some time before he can be expected to carry some of the load.
4. Will this scheme allow the offensive line to return to dominance?
Any coach, player or person around the UW program insists that while offensive coordinator Phil Longo is an Air Raid practitioner, the Badgers are going to run the ball. With backs like junior Braelon Allen and senior Chez Mellusi, it only makes sense to ensure those players get the kinds of touches that can impact the game.
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But what should be of greater concern to fans is the offensive line getting back to its ways to controlling the game. UW’s line in recent years hasn’t had the same advantage over opponents, particularly against its Big Ten rivals like Iowa and Minnesota. Whether Longo and line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. can get that edge back in this scheme has yet to be seen.
The optimistic view is that the passing attack will force defenses to back off the line of scrimmage and spread across the field. That evens the odds for the UW line and should allow their size and tempo to wear down the opposition. The pessimist might say that the changes in scheme don’t lend themselves to the linemen UW has recruited, and this scheme experiment won’t be fruitful.

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