Luke Fickell and his University of Wisconsin football coaching staff have proved over the past six weeks the power of perception.
Fickell, who was hired to lead the Badgers in late November, was able to land 13 players out of the transfer portal and amass 247Sports' eighth-ranked transfer class nationally without a snap of evidence that his plans will work at UW. The portal closed at midnight Wednesday, but players who submitted requests to transfer still could be processed in the coming days.
The excitement and belief Fickell and new offensive coordinator Phil Longo built with transfers led to three of the six highest-rated quarterbacks in program history landing in Madison, as well as the top-graded receiver in program history donning cardinal and white.
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Seven of the baker’s dozen of incoming transfers are at the quarterback or receiver positions, as Longo’s Air Raid offense ensures opportunities for those positions to shine. Longo’s offenses are fast-paced and have put up points and yards across multiple NCAA levels and will be put to the test in the Big Ten, Longo’s third Power Five stop in the past six years.
The work that Fickell, Longo, associate head coach/receivers coach Mike Brown and the rest of the staff have done to recruit players to a reimagined UW essentially confirms what many believed: The Badgers’ offensive style under Paul Chryst and coaches before him was a hindrance in attracting top-level talent at the sport’s most important position, quarterback, and what’s becoming the second-most impactful spot, wide receiver.
UW’s new staff didn’t move the Madison campus closer to where these players live or lower the academic standards of the university, two other oft-cited reasons for the Badgers struggling to recruit these positions. Neither Fickell nor Longo have a pile of championship rings to dazzle these transfers, and UW still won’t be favored to win the Big Ten next season despite the improvements made. But the shift started by Fickell, Longo and Co. to attract players like quarterback Tanner Mordecai and receiver CJ Williams could have lasting effects.
“Coach Fickell is looking to the future,” Williams told BadgerExtra last week. “Coach Longo is looking to the future. We’ve got (two) senior quarterbacks who can battle it out right now, and then three, four guys to develop. … That kind of just makes me more confident in the team and the situation that I came into.
“I think with me coming in here being one of the higher-rated receivers they’ve ever got, I think we can get a lot more of those. Just based on how I think the offense can produce this year, I think (UW) is going to be a landing spot for a lot of high-skill-level athletes for years to come, especially with coach Fickell, coach Longo and coach Brown, the way that they're doing things. I think we're gonna show out on the field this year.”
Here are four other takeaways from the Badgers’ work during the first transfer portal window.
Immediate impact for some
Fickell previously found success inserting a transfer into his lineup and getting immediate results last season. Miami (Ohio) linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. came to Cincinnati and became the football program’s first unanimous All-American after racking up 137 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 2022.
Fans cannot expect all of UW's recent transfers to put up those numbers next season by any stretch, but a few will hold a substantial influence on where this team goes in 2023.
That starts with Mordecai at quarterback, a player who brings successful starting experience to Madison. He completed 66.4% of his passes for 7,152 yards and 72 touchdowns in two seasons at Southern Methodist.
Jake Renfro, a first-team All-AAC center for Cincinnati in 2021, could slide into a role as a starter in an offensive line room needing to replace the NFL-bound Joe Tippmann. At the very least, he adds another body to Jack Bicknell Jr.’s group for competition. Renfro’s former Bearcats teammate Joe Huber adds depth and versatility to the group. Huber, a 6-foot-5, 310-pound former walk-on, told BadgerExtra in early January that he most likely will work at guard, but he also took reps at center and tackle at Cincinnati.
Williams only caught four passes for 34 yards as a true freshman at Southern Cal, but Rivals ranked the Santa Ana, California, native as the No. 47 recruit and No. 7 wide receiver in the 2022 class. UW returns its top three contributors in the wide receiver room, but the 6-2, 190-pound receiver provides another big-framed target to a group now led by Brown. Bryson Green led Oklahoma State in receiving touchdowns (five) while reeling in 36 receptions for 584 yards in 2022.
Jason Maitre projects as a cornerback with the ability to play as a slot nickelback for UW’s revamped defense under coordinator Mike Tressel. He played in 44 games for Boston College, tallying 133 tackles, three interceptions and 22 passes defended. The Badgers lose contributors Jay Shaw, Cedrick Dort Jr. and Justin Clark from this room.
UW will miss the impact in the middle with nose tackle Keeanu Benton declaring for the 2023 NFL draft, but the program added depth to its defensive end position with Temple transfer Darian Varner. He claimed first-team All-AAC honors last season after recording 35 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in 10 games.
Kicker Nate Van Zelst performed well with an injured Vito Calvaruso sidelined most of last season, connecting on 11 of 14 field goals with a long of 47 yards. However, Ohio transfer Nathanial Vakos provides further competition to the group after a freshman campaign when he went 22 of 27 on field goal attempts. He made 5 of 9 from 40 yards or longer, and he hit a 56-yarder during the Bobcats’ bowl game against Wyoming.
Project players fit Fickell’s goals
The Badgers’ activity level in the transfer portal was a surprise in some sense because of how Fickell spoke about the portal in multiple news conferences since his hire.
“I'm going to be honest with you, that's not the way we want to continue to build our program,” Fickell said about the transfer portal Dec. 13. “It's not the vision that I have. I don't think that's the vision for what this place is and should be — meaning that you take high school kids, you develop them over (a) four- or five-year period, and you get amazing results.”
Fickell said the program will use the portal to fill gaps, and the coaching staff obviously felt the quarterback and receiver rooms lacked the necessary depth of talent to run Longo’s offense. But Fickell mostly landed pieces that add upside for years to come, similar to a high school prospect. Only Mordecai and Maitre have a single year of eligibility remaining among the incoming transfers. That leaves 11 players who can develop and impact multiple seasons.
Two of the transfers, receivers Quincy Burroughs and Will Pauling, were Fickell’s recruits at Cincinnati, so he clearly believes in their futures and sees them as Power Five players.
Fickell and his staff needed to revamp the team in their first offseason, but expect more long-term, multi-year transfers to be part of Fickell’s plan when recruiting the portal.
Scholarship overload a concern
UW recently found program-changing talent both for the present and future through the transfer portal, but the team may be scrunched in one particular area when June comes around, however.
FBS programs are allowed 85 scholarship players on their rosters. UW is under that number entering the spring semester because eight of the 14 true freshman signees will not make it to Madison until the summer. The six who will begin winter conditioning and be eligible to participate in spring ball include quarterback Cole LaCrue, cornerbacks Jace Arnold and Jonas Duclona, safety Braedyn Moore and linebackers Tyler Jansey (inside) and Jordan Mayer (outside).
BadgerExtra projects 90 scholarship players on the roster by June. Will spring ball competition at several positions lead players seeing the — as BadgerExtra columnist Jim Polzin called it Wednesday — “writing on the wall” and depart the program?
More to come?
The transfer portal will open again May 1-15, giving players a chance to seek new opportunities after participating in spring practices. UW may look to bolster a few position groups in the second window after seeing how the roster develops in the spring session, or may need to replace some roster slots if it loses bodies to the portal.
Tight end could be a position to watch. Clay Cundiff has skills as a receiver and is a capable blocker, but freak leg injuries have ended each of the past two seasons for him and it’s yet to be seen how he recovers from the left leg fracture he suffered in late September at Ohio State. The Badgers have other tight ends who have shown value, like Hayden Rucci, but they’ve have injury histories as well. If young players who haven’t played much so far like Cam Large and Jack Pugh don’t step up, Fickell and Longo may look to add another tight end to the mix.
Finding a running back to serve as a changeup for junior Braelon Allen and senior Chez Mellusi may also creep up the coaches’ priority list. Mellusi has missed time with injuries in both of his seasons at UW, and Allen’s bruising running style has led to late-season injuries each of the past two seasons. Longo’s offense may decrease the number of carries for Allen and Mellusi, thus lowering their risk of injury, but the unproven options behind that duo could lead to an addition to that room.
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