Cloud of uncertainty hangs as Badgers football team prepares to open training camp
The COVID-19 pandemic has the Badgers and the college football world walking on eggshells while games are set to start in a matter of weeks.
Uncertainty hangs like a cloud over the University of Wisconsin football team as it prepares to open training camp on Monday, Aug. 10.
The Big Ten Conference announcing the Badgers' schedule last week gave clarity as to who they'll play and when, and the program deciding to open training camp four days after it originally planned are two rare instances in which questions can be answered. The COVID-19 pandemic has the Badgers — who are scheduled to start the year Sept. 4 against Indiana at Camp Randall Stadium — and the college football world walking on eggshells while games are set to start in a matter of weeks.
If the season can be played at all is questionable, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said Wednesday when the schedule was announced, and how programs handle testing and other virus matters still needs to be ironed out. The Big Ten announced its COVID-19 requirements Wednesday, but players are asking for more in terms of testing, health insurance and penalties for noncompliance.
The Badgers released updated COVID-19 testing numbers Thursday, stating 21 of 259 student-athletes have tested positive since they began returning to campus in early June. The athletic department is releasing only cumulative figures, so the number of positive cases on particular teams is unclear, as is whether the positive tests have come when athletes return to campus or when they've been on campus.
UW, which was ranked 12th in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll, will have fall practices structured differently due to the virus. On-field work in recent weeks has been done in small groups in order to comply with a Dane County order on gatherings. A message asking UW officials if the team will have to comply with the order during training camp wasn't answered. The Big Ten said Saturday it won't progress to full-padded practices until further evaluation is done; practices will be conducted with players wearing helmets.
"We understand there are many questions regarding how this impacts schedules, as well as the feasibility of proceeding forward with the season at all," a statement from the conference read.
No Badgers player has publicly stated they've opted out of the season, but it remains a possibility as long as the team practices and plays. Big Ten and NCAA policies protect players' scholarships if they decide to sit out due to COVID-19 concerns. The conference has lost some of its top players — Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman, Purdue receiver Rondale Moore, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Michigan State lineman Jordan Reid — to opt-outs.
All of the COVID-19 concerns overshadow what is a pivotal training camp for the Badgers to answer on-field questions.
UW must find weapons on offense to replace star running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Quintez Cephus, both of whom left a year of eligibility on the table to go to the NFL. Taylor was a second-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts, while Cephus was taken in the fifth round by the Detroit Lions.
Taylor and Cephus combined for 3,156 scrimmage yards and 33 touchdowns a year ago. That accounts for 52.2% of the total offense and 58.9% of the offensive touchdowns the Badgers amassed en route to a Big Ten Championship Game appearance and Rose Bowl berth.
Replacing Taylor, a two-time Doak Walker Award winner, appears to be the work of a handful of backs this season. Redshirt sophomore Nakia Watson looks to be the front-runner for the starting role, and senior Garrett Groshek will pick up some of the load along with his usual third-down duties. There are a handful of other backs — Julius Davis, Isaac Guerendo, Jalen Berger — who may be able to carve out a role as well.
Cephus' production may be harder to replace because Badgers receivers haven't had much opportunity to work with new position coach Alvis Whitted. Whitted, who came from the Green Bay Packers coaching staff, was hired shortly before the pandemic forced UW's campus to close.
UW fans will continue to clamor for redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz to take snaps this season, but without spring practices, it's hard to see him unseating incumbent senior starter Jack Coan.
The Badgers have the most returning defensive production in the Big Ten, according to ESPN's metric, and their 81% ranks 17th in the nation. Nine starters return for that unit, including the entire defensive line and secondary groups. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has seven cornerbacks at his disposal with significant snaps from last season.
Replacing linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr — both of whom graduated and made their way to the NFL — will be difficult, but the strengths of other areas on the defense could be enough to overcome their loss.
A concern for the UW defense is how players recovered from injuries during the spring and summer. Burrell (left arm), nose tackles Keeanu Benton (core) and Bryson Williams (left leg), and safety Scott Nelson (left leg) all had injuries that would have kept them out of spring practices had they been held. Nelson and Williams were dealing with knee injuries suffered in games last year that forced them to miss time.
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