The 2020 season was like getting a sweater at Christmas for the University of Wisconsin football team.
It was better than nothing, and the team appreciated the chance to play at all after the season looked to be lost. But it wasn't what the Badgers wanted, and it was memorable for the wrong reasons. Before they put it in the back of the closet and forget about it, the Badgers have to do something with their 4-3 season.
They have to own it.
“People are making excuses for last year for us,” senior linebacker Jack Sanborn said. “As a team, I mean, those games happened. Those games, we went out there, we got beat. And that's just another thing that we’ll learn from.
“Look at it, learn from it and use that to then go into this year and have a better year. I think with the coaching staff that we have, the players that we have, the talent is there and everything. I think that we have a great shot. It just matters what we do in between the lines.”
UW has a list of convenient sources to choose from when examining its issues from a year ago. The COVID-19 outbreak that hit the team after its first game infected key players like quarterback Graham Mertz and multiple coaches, injuries to top receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor limited the passing game and limited practice time hurt a program built on development rather than rolling out a roster full of top-end talent.
But other issues — namely inefficient red-zone offense and a lack of turnover creation from an otherwise strong defense — cost them chances at wins against Indiana and Iowa. For all the things that were out of their control a year ago, the Badgers’ missed opportunities on the field are what they’re focused on correcting as they open training camp this week.
“One thing I've seen was guys coming together, guys putting in the extra work,” senior cornerback Faion Hicks said. “Even after doing workouts, whether it’s film or going on the field and doing something extra with a technique. And this is for every position. That's actually my first time ever seeing anything like that since I’ve been here. … So that kind of made me realize this team is going to be different.”
A number of outlets, including Athlon Sports, Cleveland.com’s media poll and ESPN, have picked the Badgers to win the Big Ten Conference’s West Division and earn a spot in the league’s title game. If that comes to pass, it would continue the program’s recent run of up-and-down seasons.
After going undefeated in the regular season and winning the Orange Bowl in 2017, the Badgers went 8-5 in 2018. They followed that with 2019’s 10-4 campaign that included a Big Ten West title and a Rose Bowl berth.
If the offense can stay healthy, senior tight end Jake Ferguson believes the struggles of 2020 won’t carry over.
“It feels like we have all the right pieces in the right places right now, and I’m excited,” he said. “It feels like everybody's bought in, it's a good locker room, it's a tight-knit group. And I mean, it just feels good to be almost back to normal, getting back to it.
“I think that's what's also getting a lot of guys excited. Making them want to work every day, making them want to come in every day and just give it everything they’ve got. I think that's going to be really special. And hopefully that builds onto this season and helps us in those first games.”
At Big Ten Media Days, UW coach Paul Chryst described how one of the lessons of last season was to appreciate playing the game and the time the team spent together.
That time was significantly decreased as the team tried to limit in-person contact to combat the virus. Even customary team meals the night before games were nixed and players connecting with family members after games was barred. UW’s locker room was also split between multiple sites to avoid too much congregation.
Some COVID issues could arise this season, but it doesn’t appear likely they’ll be as widespread as they got to be last season.
As the new season nears, Hicks said the simple fact of the Badgers being able to face challenges together — as opposed to the on-your-own feeling of 2020 — will make a difference.
“Now that we do have the opportunity (to be together), let's take advantage of this,” Hicks said.
“We realize how much it can be taken away from us and how big that can be. I see guys taking advantage of the opportunity to just be in a stadium. We couldn’t even work out together, you know? … You can see guys just happy to be with each other. That team camaraderie is kind of building. It’s amazing.”
Get to know the Wisconsin Badgers' 2022 football recruiting class
Myles Burkett became the Badgers’ first Class of 2022 recruit when he announced his decision in January.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from Franklin is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and Rivals, and showed great mobility and arm strength in his junior season. He battled back from a knee injury as a sophomore to throw for 1,236 and 11 touchdowns and rush for 180 yards and a score in a pandemic-shortened season.
He’s the first in-state quarterback to earn a scholarship out of high school since 2011.
As his recruiting stock started to rise, the Badgers were able to secure a commitment from Fall Rivers’ Barrett Nelson in late June.
The offensive tackle was 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds after his junior season, and his quickness off the ball has made him a load on both the offensive and defensive lines. Nelson is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star on Rivals.
He had offers from Iowa State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue and others before choosing UW.
Nelson’s father, Todd, was a Badgers offensive lineman in the late 1980s, and his brother, Jack, is currently an offensive lineman for UW.
After wowing UW coaches at a pair of camps, Monroe tight end JT Seagreaves accepted a scholarship offer in late June.
Seagreaves is an intriguing prospect for the Badgers — at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he has the physical frame to grow into an imposing tight end, and he possesses sprinter speeds. He’s averaged more than 21 yards per catch each of the past two seasons and was starting to gain more Power Five conference interested when he committed to UW.
Seagreaves is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star according to Rivals.
In multiple trips to UW’s campus in June, Cade Yacamelli was called “a football player” by UW coaches rather than locking him into a position. He earned a scholarship offer after an impressive camp workout and accepted it in late June.
The consensus three-star athlete was starting to earn more recruiting attention from Power Five schools when he accepted the Badgers’ offer. UW was the first Power Five offer for the 6-foot, 200-pounder. He’s played receiver, running back and defensive back in high school, but likely projects as a receiver or defensive back in college.
The Penn Trafford High School product has good quickness and change-of-direction that make him dangerous with the ball in his hands.
When A’Khoury Lyde accepted a UW scholarship offer in late June, he became the first player on the defensive side of the ball to commit in the 2022 class.
Lyde (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), a consensus three-star recruit, has strong ball skills and a willingness to hit that separates him from other cornerbacks.
The Wayne, New Jersey, native is the eighth-ranked player in his state, per Rivals.
The Badgers landed a tall, speedy receiver when Tommy McIntosh committed in late June.
The DeWitt, Michigan, native stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 200 pounds. He uses his body to shield off defenders at the point of the catch and does well catching the ball away from his body. His Hudl page lists a 4.47-second 40-yard dash time, and he has breakaway speed when he gets in the open field and can use his long strides.
A consensus three-star wide receiver chose the Badgers over offers from Cincinnati, Indiana, Iowa, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.
UW beefed up its defensive front by landing defensive tackle Curtis Neal.
Neal — a 6-foot-2, 310-pounder — had more than 25 scholarship offers, and reportedly was deciding between UW and Ohio State at the end of his recruiting process. Neal is a product of William Amos Hough High School in Cornelius, North Carolina, where the Badgers found receiver Devin Chandler in last year’s cycle.
Neal, with his size and strength, likely fits best as a nose tackle in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme.
Jim Leonhard may have found another rangy, smart cornerback to add to his secondary in Avyonne Jones, who committed in to UW in late June.
Jones — who hails from Southlake, Texas — was on campus the weekend of June 18 for an official visit and had narrowed an extensive offer list to UW and California. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back was previously committed to Oklahoma State, but retracted that commitment in late May.
With good recovery speed and a good feel for getting his hands between a receiver’s at the point of the catch, the consensus three-star prospect is a good fit for what UW cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat said he wants from his position group.
The Badgers landed the top-ranked player in Wisconsin for the sixth consecutive recruiting class when Joe Brunner committed the last week of June.
Brunner — a 6-foot-6, 300-pound prospect from Milwaukee who attends Whitefish Bay High School — is a consensus four-star recruit and a top-10 offensive tackle in the nation.
He held at least 16 Power Five scholarship offers, including ones from a majority of the Big Ten Conference, LSU, Notre Dame, Oregon and Tennessee.
VINNY ANTHONY II
Receiver Vinny Anthony II — a consensus three-star prospect from Louisville, Kentucky — joined UW's class on June 30.
Possessing a good burst of speed and long arms that extend his catch radius, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Anthony has a chance to play across the formation as a receiver.
Anthony chose UW over Cincinnati and Duke.
Austin Brown — who hails from Johnston City, Illinois, a small town outside of Carbondale — was considering offers from Boston College, Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern before choosing UW. The consensus three-star prospect had 21 known scholarship offers.
Brown committed to UW on the Fourth of July.
At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he has a good frame already and his high school film shows a willingness to lay big hits and attack blockers. He also plays quarterback for Johnston City.