Wisconsin football ready to evolve with Luke Fickell setting out to alter identity of Badgers program

What an interesting time right now for the Wisconsin badgers. The program has become a model of consistency over the past 30 years. Wisconsin was mostly a minor in the Big Ten when Barry Alvarez took over the program in 1990, but has since become one of the conference’s stalwarts, even though the Big Ten itself has undergone major changes.

However, things will look a little different in 2023. While the state of Wisconsin has changed from Alvarez to Bret Bilem and then to Paul Christ — with the addition of Gary Andersen’s bizarre experiment — the formula has essentially remained the same. There were big, tough boys in Wisconsin doing tough, boyish things. It was a program of several tight sets, a 220-pound ram running back and a furious defense. It wasn’t 3 yards and a cloud of dust, but 3 yards and a world of pain.

But for some reason, in 2022, the plan that had been successful for a long time fell out of favor. After starting the season 2-3, Paul Christ was fired after a 34-10 home loss to Illinois. Jim Leonhard, a former Badger and defensive coordinator long considered the head coach, was named interim. However, Leonard did not get a permanent job. Instead, Wisconsin stepped outside the family and brought in Luke Fickell, the former Ohio State linebacker who led Cincinnati to the college football playoffs.

After three decades of knowing what we’re getting from Wisconsin, there are many questions this spring that we don’t yet have the answers to.

Off-season changes

It will probably take less time to write about what hasn’t changed. Paul Christ left, as did most of his staff. Fickell arrived, and not only did he bring in a new staff, but a new approach. The ground and pound style associated with Wisconsin football is a thing of the past. Spread has replaced it.

Phil Longo is the new offensive coordinator. Longo has spent the past four seasons as offensive coordinator in North Carolina, where Sam Howell has thrown for 10,283 yards and 92 touchdowns on Longo’s offense. Wisconsin’s all-time best passer is Darrell Bevell. He threw for 7,686 yards in four seasons from 1992 to 1995, throwing for 59 touchdowns, also the most in Badgers QB history. Russell Wilson’s 2011 season at Madison, where he threw for 3,175 yards and 33 touchdowns, was the most prolific season the Wisconsin QB had ever had. Statistically, this would have been Sam Howell’s third best season in North Carolina. Howell was replaced by Drake May, who had 4,321 yards and 38 touchdowns last year as a freshman on Longo’s offense.

So, yes, things will probably look a little different. However, Longo went out of his way to mention that just because he’s thrown the ball a lot in the past doesn’t mean the Badgers will air it. Powerful play still lives inside the reversal, and with Brelon Allen’s offensive presence, the offense will be built around his strengths.

Speaking of players, another change has been made to the quarterback. Graeme Merz moved to Florida while Tanner Mordecai, Nick Evers and Beidin Lok moved to the team. Mordecai has far more experience than either of them and is expected to be a starter this fall.

Mike Tressel, nephew of former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, becomes defensive coordinator. He held the same position at Cincinnati under Fickell in 2022. Tressel spent 14 seasons at Michigan State, so he has a lot of Big Ten experience. It will be interesting to see how the Wisconsin defense develops. The Badgers mostly played in a 3-4 formation, but more often it was a 2-4-5 formation with two wide players. Tressela’s Cincinnati defense played mostly in a 3-3-5 formation. Although there will be some changes, they will not be as drastic as those seen on the attacking side of the ball.

Names to know

  • Tanner Mordecai, defender: Mortdecai played 12 games in three seasons with Oklahoma before moving to SMU, where he started 24 games for the Mustangs over the last two seasons and developed into one of the top-scoring passers in the country. Mortdecai threw for 7,152 yards and 72 touchdowns with the Mustangs, and his familiarity with the principles of the new offensive form in Wisconsin makes him a natural favorite for a spot in the starting lineup. No Wisconsin QB has thrown 30 passing touchdowns in a season since Wilson did in 2011. Alex Hornibrook was the closest with 25 in 2017. Meanwhile, Mortdecai scored 33 last season and 39 the year before.
  • Brelon Allen running back: Allen burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2021, rushing for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns. His 105.7 yards per game was second to Kenneth Walker of Michigan State, a Heisman finalist. Last season was a similar one for Allen, as he rushed for 1,242 yards and threw for 11 touchdowns but finished fourth in the league in rushing. This season, Allen could have been more useful than anyone else in Wisconsin’s offensive line, even if the team doesn’t have the ball as often. He regularly saw eight- and nine-man fronts, as opponents didn’t feel much need to worry about Wisconsin’s pass lately.
  • CJ Williams, ReceiverA: Wisconsin’s receptionist has a lot of experience, but not as much production as I’d like, given the philosophical shift in offense. Enter CJ Williams, a four-star former recruit from Mater Dei High School. Williams moved to Wisconsin from USC, where the 6’2 wide receiver caught four passes for 34 yards as a rookie last season.
  • Darryl Peterson, linebacker: Despite minor differences in formation when Wisconsin moves from Leonhard to Tressell on defense, the outside linebacker position has long been key to Wisconsin’s defense and this is not expected to change. The Badgers lost Nick Herbig and CJ Getz (total 13 sacks and 24.5 tackles). Darryl Peterson looks to be next in line for the position. He played 13 games in the red shirt last year, finishing with 27 tackles and two sacks.

Spring forecast

Spring will be a critical period for Wisconsin as the program attempts to speed up the transition as quickly as possible. It’s one thing when you’re replacing key players in positions and maybe you’re working with a few new managers and transfers. Bringing in a brand new coaching staff with a new system is more of a challenge.

When this team comes together, there will be many unfamiliar faces on the training field and there will be an adjustment period. However, while some fans may better understand the potential growth issues, Wisconsin has been one of the top programs in the West’s Big Ten. The 2023 season could be the division’s last year, and it’s the last season before USC and UCLA join the conference.

Wisconsin fans will expect the Badgers to contend for at least a division title and a Big Ten championship game. This spring will be a key part of bringing the goal to life.


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