Three University of Wisconsin football players -- running back Braelon Allen, linebacker Maema Njongmeta and quarterback Tanner Mordecai -- along with several other Big Ten West standouts discuss which peers could break out this season.
The University of Wisconsin football team went 13-11 in Big Ten Conference play over the past three seasons, and it’s not hard to figure out which side of the ball deserves the most blame for that run of mediocrity.
The Badgers averaged a measly 11.4 points in those 11 defeats and failed to score more than one touchdown in eight of those games.
It’s no wonder fans are excited by the arrival of offensive coordinator Phil Longo and his version of the Air Raid system. Longo promises the Badgers will still run the ball a lot, and standout running back Braelon Allen is on record saying he’s thrilled by the idea of not looking across the line of scrimmage and seeing eight-man boxes all the time.
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Will Longo and Co. light up the scoreboard in 2023? That’s one of the big questions heading into Luke Fickell’s first season in charge of a program in the midst of transition.
BadgerExtra staffers Colten Bartholomew, Jake Kocorowski and Jim Polzin broke down what offensive players they’re eager to watch when training camp gets underway in Platteville on Wednesday:
Bartholomew: So let's start with the offense, because that's what's gotten most people's attention this offseason with the significant changes in scheme.
Jake, lead us off — who's a player you're keeping an eye on when training camp opens on Wednesday?
Kocorowski: I'm looking at the tight end position and one Clay Cundiff. The Kansas native suffered the season-ending leg injury at Ohio State last September and did not go through team periods during spring practice.
Cundiff returns the most production in the tight end room at the college level, though just 12 receptions, 228 yards and three touchdowns as he has dealt with injuries. With UW installing the Air Raid scheme, just how much will this position be utilized on the field?
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And with that, who will find snaps once the season starts between several players that includes Cundiff, Jack Eschenbach (19 career receptions, 179 yards), Hayden Rucci (six receptions, 75 yards, one touchdown) and then Jack Pugh and Riley Nowakowski? Pugh and Nowakowski received first-team snaps during the spring, and Allen mentioned them as potential breakout players this season during Big Ten football media days.
Clay Cundiff
UW tight end Clay Cundiff participates in an April 8 practice at Camp Randall Stadium.
Jake Kocorowski | Wisconsin State Journal
Bartholomew: I had Pugh on my list. Cundiff is the most well-rounded tight end the Badgers have, but Pugh's athleticism is a difference-maker. With the amount that Longo is splitting the tight end off into the slot or out wide, a guy like Pugh could be a significant factor in this game plan.
Polzin: Great pick, Jake. That would have been my first choice as well. I'm so intrigued by what Cundiff could do in this offense. He's averaging 22.8 yards per catch during his career - that's not a misprint - but he's had really bad luck with injuries. There's a ton of quantity at that position, but it's lacking in star power. If Cundiff can stay healthy for a full season, I feel way better about that spot.
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Bartholomew: Also, Cundiff might be the unluckiest football player I've ever covered. Back-to-back seasons ending on freak broken legs is simply crazy.
Kocorowski: I think what I'll be watching the most with Cundiff, and really all the tight ends honestly, is just how their chemistry with the quarterbacks, particularly Tanner Mordecai, grows over the time we get to watch preseason camp. The other four received reps during the spring, so how can he slide in and carve out a role?
Bartholomew: I agree with Jim's point — tight end seems to have a lot of guys who can contribute, but lacking one who you'd say you're really sure of.
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My pick is somewhat similar to Jake's in that he's coming off injury. Center Jake Renfro was in the transfer portal and followed Luke Fickell and Co. after being the Bearcats starting center for two seasons. He missed the 2022 season with a knee injury, then hurt his ankle about a week into spring practices.
The Badgers simply don't have any other centers who are ready to play. Tanor Bortolini struggled mightily snapping the ball when he tried to shift from guard to center this spring, and I think he's too good at guard to ask him to be the backup center too.
Polzin: Not shocking: Colten picked an offensive lineman.
Bartholomew: Correct. Very on-brand. But this line's ceiling is only good if Renfro doesn't pan out. If Renfro can be even close to what Joe Tippmann was last year, the ceiling becomes really good to great.
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Kocorowski: Bortolini would have been my No. 2 pick on my list, just to see where exactly does he play on the line? It'll be one of the interior spots, but Renfro's status could loom large here.
Bartholomew: Fickell said in Indianapolis at Big Ten media days that Renfro's workload will be monitored, so we might not get to see a ton of him early in camp. UW could ramp him up closer to the Sept. 2 opener against Buffalo.
Polzin: I thought it was notable at Big Ten media days that Fickell was encouraged by the depth on the offensive line.
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Bartholomew: Yeah, I think there are five guards who could play and at least four tackles. Center depth was clearly an issue after spring, but maybe they've gotten that figured out this summer.
Jim, who do you have?
Polzin: I'll be keeping my eyes on Bryson Green at wide receiver. We didn't get to see much of Green in the spring because he was recovering from a shoulder injury and limited to individual work. But if we rewind six months after UW had made its haul in the transfer portal, Green was probably the non-quarterback who I thought might have the biggest immediate impact for the Badgers. He had 36 catches for 584 yards last season at Oklahoma State and led the Cowboys with five touchdown receptions.
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I always feel like I'm hyping up this wide receiver group too much after being so impressed in the spring by transfers Will Pauling (Cincinnati) and CJ Williams (Southern Cal), veteran holdovers Chimere Dike, Skyler Bell and Keontez Lewis and intriguing young players such as Vinny Anthony II, but that group all of a sudden looks deep and dynamic. And Green only makes it better.
Bartholomew: Agreed, Green's addition to an already talented group is super intriguing. I think he's one of the rare guys that Longo could move between the outside and the slot, but maybe he wants to keep him on the outside since that's what he did more often at Oklahoma State.
Jake Renfro
UW offensive lineman Jake Renfro participates in individual position work on March 28 at the McClain Center.
Jake Kocorowski | Wisconsin State Journal
Kocorowski: How Longo and associate head coach and wide receivers coach Mike Brown figure out reps amongst this group of players will be very interesting to watch during the first two weeks of camp. You could say they have a full two-deep of starting capable players at the three receiver spots. Add in Anthony and someone like Tommy McIntosh, who had a strong performance during "The Launch," and the Badgers may have eight contributors from that room this season.
Polzin: I'd throw in Quincy Burroughs, another transfer from Cincinnati, as someone I could see contributing in some fashion.
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Bartholomew: That's where the up-tempo style really changes things. The Badgers didn't have the depth to play a lot of receivers in the past, nor did they have an offense that needed to go too far down the line at receiver. Now they'll have to.
Kocorowski: Agh, I forgot about Burroughs as well. That just speaks to the apparent talent and depth in the room.
Bartholomew: I also want to mention we didn't want to be boring with this list, but we'll all be focused on Mordecai, too.
Former college quarterbacks turned network analysts who will cover the Big Ten this season – Rick Neuheisel (UCLA), Michael Robinson (Penn State), Gary Danielson (Purdue), Matt Cassel (Southern Cal) and Todd Blackledge (Penn State) – give their thoughts on the Badgers’ switch to Longo’s Air Raid scheme
Polzin: Good point. I do want to see if Mordecai has taken a step since the spring. I expect he has.
As long as we're talking quarterbacks, Nick Evers is another player to monitor just to see if he's more comfortable in the offense. His athleticism and arm strength stand out, but he needs to be a lot more consistent.

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