This class is great. The End.
OK, OK. I know you’re going to want a little more than that. But on first blush, you’re looking at a class that’s just hanging around the Top 25 of two major recruiting services with a preferred walk-on that the Badgers were in on before an unfortunate knee injury wrecked his senior season (hello, Cam Phillips). You’ve got a potentially foundational stew going for the future. I mean, obviously results may vary, but that’s for down the road. We all could be dead anyway.
This week, we celebrate the new class of Wisconsin Badgers.
After a flirtation period that was a little too lengthy for some tastes, four-star quarterback Graham Mertz shut down recruiting and became the highest-pedigree pro-style prospect the Badgers landed. Of course, with the regression of Alex Hornibrook and Jack Coan not maximizing his minutes on the field, the hype train for Mertz is already barreling down the tracks.
Slow down. Not because Mertz won’t get there, but because Graham Mertz is a top-five pick in the NFL Draft if he steps onto Camp Randall Stadium from day one and is as good as Scott Tolzien. Be patient. With good health he’s going to be top-notch.
A reported sports hernia injury stopped Julius Davis from having a fully deployed senior season, but the in-state three-star from Menomonee Falls running back came into his senior season with offers from LSU, Notre Dame, and USC, and according to WisSports.net, he rushed for 607 yards and seven scores while he was healthy. Obviously, disaster would have to strike for him to get starters reps as a true freshman. But there’s a reason that in the year where Chris James and Taiwan Deal graduated, they only brought one running back in on a scholarship.
We’re also moving away from a world where fullbacks get scholarships on a regular basis. I mean, between Chris Pressley and 2019 signee Quan Easterling, the Badgers have used the position mostly as a home for wayward linebacker prospects. But in Easterling, you have a former local Akron commit from Archbishop Hoban that has skills you give a space to. Easterling puts defenders on skates and is athletic enough to be used as an H-back on pass routes.
Wide receiver was a little bit star-crossed. Of the three Badger decommitments, both Nolan Groulx and Marcus Graham were set to be the answer at the position. But while Wake Forest and Stanford, respectively, get to find out what happens there, the Badgers earned the flip from Stephan Bracey. A high-school teammate of five-star left tackle and Wisconsin commit Logan Brown, the 5’10 Bracey is another speedster in the mold of Aron Cruickshank. Get him the ball in space, and he’s extremely dangerous. I’m also throwing in a mention of IMG Academy three-star walk-on Cam Phillips. Before the ACL injury, Phillips was one of the hundred best high school receivers in the country. Wisconsin’s got the time for him to heal and earn the scholarship and starters reps.
One of the early commitments that the Badgers landed that was a key to the promising class you have before you is tight end Hayden Rucci. The Lilitz, Pa., three-star product—four-star prospect by Rivals—committed in February, and with NFL bloodlines and an in-line skill set that could earn him reps quickly while he polishes his game, there’s plenty of reason to be excited. In October, the Badgers earned a flip from Kansas as three-star prospect Clay Cundiff decided to go to Wisconsin. The Wichita prospect has the sort of skill-set that has a little bit of everything on the table. It’s a point of personal privilege, but I always enjoy a versatile skill set.
For most people, the discussion of the best prospect in the class of 2019 is definitely going to fall to either Mertz or the five-star prospect in Brown. Obviously, the prefix before Brown’s name is enough to tell you to be excited, but he’s a tailor-made left tackle who if everything breaks right physically, is going to join Joe Thomas in the pantheon of best Badger offensive linemen. Joe Tippman, on the other hand, survived his senior season at Fort Wayne, Ind. (Bishop Dewenger), keeping that fourth star to his name. Odds are very good the 6’6, 285-pound Tippman is not going to stay at left tackle for the Badgers, but Tippman’s likely going to start somewhere before he graduates.
Yes, the Badgers signed three offensive linemen in the past two classes, but remember the class of 2020 already has three offensive line commits in Dylan Barrett, Jack Nelson, and Trey Wedig, with their fourth commit in Ben Barten being someone who could grow into being an offensive tackle.
One of the interesting races to pay attention to for next season is who gets to be the back-up nose tackle. Right now, the only scholarship nose tackle is Bryson Williams. For this class, the Badgers currently have three prospects that could have the opportunity to play from day one. In Keeanu Benton, the Badgers have a three-star prospect from Janesville Craig who has skills on the amateur wrestling mat that add certain transferrable skills to an athletic 6’4, 285-pound frame that could allow him to potentially slide over to defensive end should the need arise. He had a big senior season and is the obvious local favorite. In Gio Paez, the Badgers get a three-star from Cornelius, N.C. that has that first-step and motor to put offensive lineman back on their heels. Like Benton, Paez could conceivably find purchase as a future defensive end, but he has definitely got that upside to make future interior offensive lineman have a problem. Rodas Johnson from Columbus, Ohio (St. Francis De Sales) is going to be coming in with arguably the highest regard, as the Badgers beat out schools like Oklahoma, Penn State, and Texas to land the three-star prospect.
Linebacker has been a position in recent years where they’ve consistently found monsters who have had little shine on the recruiting radar. In Spencer Lytle, you get a prospect that would have gone to Clemson if the Badgers didn’t earn the commitment of the Redondo Beach, Calif. (St. John Bosco), three-star prospect. The Badgers defense works at full flower with someone who can make quarterbacks worry from the outside linebacker slot. That could easily be Lytle’s future.
That’s not to say that the Badgers aren’t going to the future with fun linebacker prospects that did not have much shine on the trail. Though Grantsburg, Wis., three-star recruit Leo Chenal probably could have received some fun offers if he didn’t decide to be the Badgers’ first commit of 2019. He’s one of those Wisconsin prospects that goes about 6’2 and 215 pounds, runs about 4.6 in the 40-yard dash, and plays with a nastiness about them. Give it a year, and he’s probably ready to contend.
Maema Njongmeta has a highlight reel that makes you wonder just how Iowa State was his only other Power Five offer. Being 6’1 probably keeps him on the inside, but the three-star from Buffalo Grove, Ill., is still a raw talent with room to grow with what that reel shows. Skyler Meyers, the three-star from Blue Springs, Mo., dominated the suburban Kansas City area, and has arguably the best hair of the class of 2019.
At cornerback, with St. Thomas Aquinas prospect Semar Melvin, the Badgers have a prospect coming in with a big senior season which earned him a fourth star from Rivals. The quality of high school competition he faced will definitely help his transition. James Williams was a summer surprise commit for the Badgers, but a four-year starter at another top-notch program like Hollywood Chaminade that Michigan was at least somewhat serious about is definitely the sort of prospect that you’re happy to add. Dean Engram is a Washington D.C. three-star prospect who played both sides of the ball, and will bring great hands to a solid defensive skill set.
Commit No. 19 of the 19 prospects that the Badgers signed on Wednesday is Titus Toler, a four star-safety who previously committed to Colorado. A high school teammate of Lytle, Toler closes against the run like someone bigger than his 5’11 180-pound frame, and has the closing speed and ball skills to be a severe problem in the passing game. Of course, you know exactly how effusive I am about this prospect.
With recent history, the expectations game has grown for the Badgers. The question has started to become, “Can this be a class that gets the Badgers a national title?” I’m not here to tell you that the Badgers will be carrying a crystal ball in a future January, but one gets the sense that this is a class that can help the Badgers get a playoff spot even if some of the “can’t miss” prospects fall by the wayside.
It’s promising. Very promising.