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Polzin: 5 biggest questions for Wisconsin football heading into training camp

"All in all, it makes for what should be an interesting next month for Chryst and the Badgers," writes Jim Polzin.

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Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) throws a pass during the first quarter against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Camp Randall Stadium Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. Jeff Hanisch / USA TODAY Sports
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MADISON — Paul Chryst began his news conference at Big Ten media days last week with an opening statement before taking questions.

The first one for the University of Wisconsin football coach was about Graham Mertz. Of course it was.

There are plenty of questions surrounding the Badgers as they get set to make final preparations for the 2022 season. Players report to training camp Tuesday, Aug. 2, and the Sept. 3 season opener against Illinois State is five weeks away.

Whether Mertz can take a big step in his development remains the key topic of conversation, however, and all eyes will be on the junior quarterback in camp. Chryst said in Indianapolis he liked what he saw from Mertz in the offseason and appreciates his growth as one of the leaders on the team.

"He's taking ownership of the things that he needs to do and does a great job of communicating, working with the rest of our players," Chryst said.

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There's a great deal of pressure on Mertz as he enters his third season as a starter. He finished 10th in the Big Ten Conference and No. 93 nationally in pass efficiency rating last season, throwing more interceptions (11) than touchdown passes (10) while completing only 59.5% of his pass attempts.

Those numbers need to improve significantly to take the pressure off a running game led by sophomore tailback Braelon Allen. Mertz said he could tell during the spring the game had slowed down for him, even as he was adapting to tweaks from new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram.

What changes Engram will make in the offense is another compelling storyline heading into the season, but it's hard to push Mertz off the top of this list.

This is Mertz's job, so don't get any ideas Chase Wolf or Deacon Hill will take his spot. Bottom line: Mertz needs to improve, and nobody knows that more than him.

"For me, my fuel is just how can I do my job better for my guys," he said in Indianapolis. "How can I make them have the best year they can have? That's what fuels me every day."

Here are four other areas I'll be watching during camp:

Here's the catch

Mertz and others have raved about the wide receiver corps, and there's a lot of potential at that position.

But it's a young and mostly unproven group beyond junior Chimere Dike, who produced 31 catches for 461 yards and two touchdowns over his first two seasons and is the clear No. 1 target for Mertz.

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The next four players behind Dike have a combined four catches for 80 yards: one for 15 yards from sophomore Skyler Bell and three for 65 yards from sophomore Markus Allen.

UCLA transfer Keontez Lewis saw action in 11 games but didn't catch a pass last season during his freshman campaign with the Bruins. Junior Dean Engram spent his first two seasons at UW playing defensive back before making the transition to offense in the offseason.

It's not like there's a security blanket at tight end, either. That position was short on bodies in the spring due to injuries, which was less than ideal as the Badgers work to replace Mr. Dependable, Jake Ferguson.

Carrying the load

Rank the positions on offense by strength and running back likely is at the top of most lists. Some of that has to do with uncertainty at other positions and some of it has to do with Braelon Allen, who rushed for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman.

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Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen (0) gets away from Arizona State Sun Devils linebacker Kyle Soelle (34) Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, during the 2021 Las Vegas Bowl at Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada. Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA TODAY Sports
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But it's going to be interesting to see how reps are distributed during camp by new running backs coach Al Johnson. It'd be wise to have a pitch count on Braelon Allen to keep him fresh throughout the season, and the three players behind him — Chez Mellusi, Isaac Guerendo and Brady Schipper — all are working their way back from injury.

Mellusi rushed for 815 yards and five touchdowns in nine games before tearing his ACL last season. Chryst said Mellusi is on pace to participate in camp, but his workload obviously will be watched closely.

The hope for UW is Braelon Allen and Mellusi can form a dominant 1-2 punch with one more tailback — junior Julius Davis also is in the mix — emerging as the No. 3 option. Guerendo is an intriguing prospect but it's hard to make plans for him in the offense because he's dealt with one injury after another during his career.

It's noteworthy that there are no newcomers in the mix. The only potential running back in UW's 2022 recruiting class — Cade Yacamelli — will begin his career at safety, and the Badgers didn't bring in any transfer tailbacks.

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Verona native Jackson Acker is the No. 1 fullback and can play tailback in a pinch, but UW really needs to keep Braelon Allen healthy and hope Mellusi returns to form.

Next up

It's probably no surprise the first three items on this list have to do with an offense that has been pedestrian the past two seasons. Nobody seems too concerned about the defense, even though it's in the process of replacing both high-end talent and a lot of experience.

That's fine. Jim Leonhard has been excellent as a defensive coordinator and deserves the benefit of the doubt.

But there are some issues that are worth monitoring on that side of the ball.

Like filling the playmaking void left by Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn, who combined for 13 sacks and 33 1/2 tackles for loss in 2021. That's a lot of production to replace at inside linebacker, where Jordan Turner and Tatum Grass ended spring atop the depth chart.

Junior Nick Herbig (nine sacks, 14 1/2 TFLs) is a star at outside linebacker, a position that's loaded with talent. Keeanu Benton and Isaiah Mullens are the leaders on a defensive front that should be solid.

UW needs playmakers to emerge in the back end. Cornerback Alexander Smith had a great spring, and the Badgers brought in three transfers — Jay Shaw (UCLA), Justin Clark (Toledo) and Cedric Dort Jr. (Kentucky) — to add depth and experience at that spot.

Sophomore safety Hunter Wohler is another potential breakout player. But Leonhard needs to build some depth behind Wohler and the other starting safety, John Torchio.

Special or just average?

An ongoing issue for UW is that it hasn't gotten consistent enough play from its special teams in recent years.

Chryst made changes on that unit, taking a committee approach after moving special teams coordinator Chris Haering to tight ends coach. That in and of itself is an interesting camp storyline, but there also are personnel issues to sort out.

The biggest one is who will handle place-kicking duties? UW brought in transfer Vito Calvaruso from Arkansas and immediately put him on scholarship. Calvaruso has a big leg and at the very least should be a weapon on kickoffs.

But Calvaruso missed time in the spring with a right leg injury, and redshirt freshman Nate Van Zelst took advantage by being consistent inside 50 yards. In-state product Jack Van Dyke is still in the picture but has battled injuries throughout his career.

All in all, it makes for what should be an interesting next month for Chryst and the Badgers. The team dubbed the favorite in the Big Ten West Division by the media who covers the conference enters camp with plenty of work to do between now and Sept. 3.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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