Underrated Badgers to Watch For in 2018

Underrated Badgers to Watch For in 2018

Football

Underrated Badgers to Watch For in 2018

MADISON, Wis. – Returning 13 starters from a 13-win team a season ago, it’s not surprising that the University of Wisconsin began the 2018 campaign ranked in the top five in the country and have easily dispatched Western Kentucky and New Mexico the first two weeks of the season

Tougher competition awaits the Badgers, such as this weekend’s contest against BYU and in conference play. The Badgers will need plenty of lift from returning offensive starters like quarterback Alex Hornibrook, tailback Jonathan Taylor and a deep offensive line group, while a rebuilding defense will have to lean on seniors T.J. Edwards, D’Cota Dixon, and Olive Sagapolu.

There are a number of other players, however, who have earned the right to start or receive consistent playing time for the first time in their career that Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst and the staff will have to rely on to make the College Football Playoffs for the first time.

Here are a closer look at some freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors that the casual fan may not be familiar with.

FRESHMEN

Faion Hicks, CB, Miami, FL

In the second season under the direction of defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin is looking to replace seven starts from one of the top units in the country. One of the biggest unknowns at this point is the cornerback position, especially after the departure of redshirt sophomore Dontye Carriere-Williams. In steps former Hicks, a former three-star recruit who finished his high school career with seven interceptions and 75 tackles. Hicks possesses the talent to immediately step in and make an impact. Leonhard thought so, too, naming Hicks an opening game starter. Hicks has had a great start to his season, recording three tackles and a red-zone interception against the Hilltoppers and a pass breakup against New Mexico

Jake Ferguson, TE, Madison, Wis.     

There was no doubt coming into this season that Troy Fumagalli left big shoes to fill at the tight end position. Picked in the fifth round of the N.F.L. Draft by the Denver Broncos, Fumagalli in his time in Madison amassed 135 receptions, 1,627 yards, and seven touchdowns. More importantly, he was a safety blanket for quarterback Alex Hornibrook.

Coming off a redshirt season, Ferguson knew he would be one of the guys called on in that respect and he took advantage of it in his first start last Friday. The only tight end targeted by Hornibrook against Western Kentucky, Ferguson accounted for 43 yards on four receptions, including a couple of key third-down conversions. After the game, Ferguson said his strong fall camp gave him the confidence to go out and perform in his first big minutes.

“All the coaches called on me and asked ‘who do you want to be this camp and who do you want to be this year?’” Ferguson said. “So I kind of took that as a challenge to step up.”

Kayden Lyles, DE, Middleton, Wis.

With the graduation of three seniors and the season-ending injury to Garrett Rand, the emergence of Lyles is critical to the unit’s success. Liking flipping from the offense for this season only, Lyles has performed well in the opening stretch, including recovering a fumble to set up a touchdown last weekend. Although listed at 6-3 and 323 pounds, Lyles moves like someone 30 pounds lighter and has the hands and footwork to thwart single coverage to shore up double teams, keeping open alleys for linebackers. With sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk returning to man the other d-end position, and fellow redshirt freshman Matt Henningsen emerging as a capable No.3 option, UW’s d-line suddenly looks more formidable than it did a month ago.

Honorable Mention

Aron Cruickshank, wide receiver – Still learning the playbook but has a package installed for him in the offseason that takes advantage of his natural speed and play-making ability.

Deron Harrell, cornerback – The departure of Carriere-Williams opens the door for Harrell to get more reps at nickel. A grayshirt who came to Wisconsin labeled as an “athlete,” Harrell looks like a natural fit in Wisconsin’s defensive backfield.

Scott Nelson, free safety – Registering his first career interception last week, to go along with a team-leading seven tackles in the opener, it’s evident that Nelson is comfortable in his role working next to senior safety D’Cota Dixon.

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