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Wisconsin football recruiting: Inside Badgers’ battles in 2019 cycle

On the field, this most recent season excluded, the Wisconsin Badgers like to think of themselves as competing with the Ohio State’s, Michigan’s, and Penn State’s of the world for conference titles and College Football Playoff rankings. However, on the recruiting trail, the Badgers aren’t quite at the same level as their on-field rivals. Hell, until this year, Maryland was recruiting circles around Wisconsin.

The Badgers have always been known as a “developmental” program. They find under-scouted players and walk-ons and turn them into all-conference performers and NFL draft picks. While that is an admirable and difficult-to-imitate skill for the program, it will never quite get over the final hump of consistently competing for playoff berths without a higher talent floor.

So, the Buckeyes, Wolverines, and Nittany Lions are clearly the class of the Big Ten when it comes to recruiting rankings, finishing in the top three (in some order) over the last three years. But with whom are the Badgers competing? Are there schools outside of the Big Ten that UW constantly finds itself battling with? Does Wisconsin occasionally sneak a highly regarded player past the bigger “name” teams in the Big Ten? Let’s dive in and see who the rivals are on the recruiting trail.

Before we get started, we should set a ratings baseline from 247Sports’ composite rankings of some of the schools in the Big Ten.

4-Year Big Ten Recruiting Rankings

Team 2019 Class Rank 2018 Class Rank 2017 Class Rank 2016 Class Rank 4-Year Average
Team 2019 Class Rank 2018 Class Rank 2017 Class Rank 2016 Class Rank 4-Year Average
Maryland 14 5 4 7 7.5
Michigan 1 3 2 2 2
Michigan State 6 6 6 3 5.25
Nebraska 4 4 5 5 4.5
Ohio State 2 1 1 1 1.25
Penn State 3 2 3 4 3
Purdue 5 11 14 14 11
Wisconsin 7 9 7 6 7.25

The 2019 rankings are obviously not finalized since National Signing Day isn’t until February, but I do not foresee a seismic shift in them. You will note that Ohio State recruits well. Everyone knows this and it won’t change even now that Urban Meyer will no longer be the head coach. Michigan and Penn State are also good at recruiting! Again, if you are reading this article, this is not news to you.

What may come as a surprise to you is Team That Lost To Troy At Home This Year aka Nebraska is the fourth-best recruiting team in the conference over the past four years. I know it goes off brand for me to say something nice about the Huskers, but that ranking will likely be improved thanks to Scott Frost if we do this again in four years.

Michigan State had a post-CFP recruiting bump, but seems to have settled in as the sixth-best recruiting team in the Big Ten. Purdue and Maryland have, wildly, switched spots in 2019 with the Boilermakers skyrocketing up to fifth after being amongs the dregs of the conference, and the Terps, who had been mining the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia area) to great success, plummeting into last. Behind Rutgers. AND ILLINOIS! Yikes.

That leaves us with Wisconsin. The Badgers sit right in the meaty part of the Big Ten recruiting curve at seventh. For this season, at least, that is a tiny bit misleading since, while the Badgers do sit at seventh in the Big Ten, they are 27th in the country and have signed the best class in the “recruiting services era.” The Badgers are ahead of teams like Southern Cal, Miami, and defending national champion UCF.

With all of this background information out of the way, let’s take a look at the three biggest competitors the Badgers faced on the recruiting trail this past cycle. All star ratings are courtesy of 247Sports composite.

Stanford

A school with high academic standards, an irreverent band, and year-round warm temperatures? Sounds just like Wisconsin, don’t you think? Stanford runs a similar program to Wisconsin’s and you don’t need to look much further than at the type of kids both programs go after.

North Carolina athlete Marcus Graham committed to Wisconsin in April and seemed to be a solid commit for the Badgers even after Stanford offered over the summer, but Graham flipped in November and decided to eventually head west to join the Cardinal.

Prior to that, the battle between the two teams took place in a suburban Philadelphia home as the Badgers tried to woo quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s younger brother to Madison. Offensive lineman Jake Hornibrook ended up choosing to go to Palo Alto and you can’t blame him since he probably wanted to get as far away from the Inter-Ac’s conference footprint where Malvern Prep continually lost to The Haverford School (WOOOOOO GO FORDS!).

Sorry, everyone. That was your annual reminder that I am from the Philadelphia suburbs.

The two schools also courted three-star linebacker Maema Njongmeta. The Cardinal offered a walk-on chance with financial aid, but Njongmeta committed to Wisconsin with a scholarship offer and will be a great addition for the Badgers’ class.

Notre Dame

The Irish are a team about which everyone has strong feelings. I have yet to meet a college football fan who doesn’t care about them. It is infuriating that they don’t have to join a conference and can still recruit nationally and have linebackers with fake girlfriends. It just isn’t fair!

It is even more infuriating when Notre Dame beats your school for a recruit, which it did quite often against Wisconsin this cycle. The Irish locked down commitments from three four-star offensive linemen in which the Badgers were interested. Quinn Carroll (Edina, Minn.), John Olmstead (Metuchen, N.J.), and Andrew Kristofic (Gibsonia, Pa.) were all offered by the Badgers but chose to take their talents to South Bend.

Inside linebacker J.D. Bertrand (Roswell, Ga.) took an official visit to Wisconsin before committing to the Irish, meaning he had Wisconsin high on his list before taking his services to Brian Kelly’s squad. Safety Litchfield Ajavon and cornerback K.J. Wallace also had offers from the Badgers but chose Notre Dame.

The big recruiting victory for Wisconsin, though, was four-star quarterback Graham Mertz. You may have heard of him. The pro-style quarterback from Kansas chose Wisconsin, and then basically every team with a pulse offered him a scholarship. Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan, LSU, Notre Dame, and others all threw their hats in the ring. Mertz remained steadfast in his commitment to Paul Chryst and Wisconsin, and will be the crown jewel of the Badgers’ 2019 class.

Iowa

The Hawkeyes are a team that Wisconsin loves to hate and it is mostly because they are the same team … just separated by a very important state border. You get west of Prairie du Chien and all hell breaks loose, pretty much. To remain competitive in the Big Ten, Iowa has had to raid the ranks of Wisconsin high schools for years, and 2019 is no different.

Iowa offered Janesville defensive tackle Keeanu Benton, but he made the correct choice and accepted Wisconsin’s offer. The Hawkeyes were able to snag one player from the Badger state when they got Green Bay native defensive end Jake Karchinski to come down to Iowa City.

Mertz, Rodas Johnson, Spencer Lytle and Joe Tippmann were all offered by Iowa but declined and came to Madison. The Hawkeyes did win another battle with Wisconsin on the recruiting trail when tight end Josiah Miamen took an official visit to Madison (a loss to BYU, FYI) and then committed to Iowa the next weekend. After watching the BYU game this year, I committed to drinking plenty of beer, so I understand his quick decision.

There are a few other teams that Wisconsin battled for recruits during this cycle, namely:

  • Ohio State: OSU pushed hard for Mertz, according to the quarterback, and safety Bryson Shaw, who flipped from Wisconsin to the Buckeyes. Another target, running back Steele Chambers, also committed to Meyer’s program.
  • Penn State: Will sign linebacker Lance Dixon but lost out on defensive lineman Rodas Johnson.
  • Nebraska: Nabbed commitments from Badger targets offensive lineman Bryce Benhart, linebacker Nick Heinrich, and tight end Chris Hickman. The first two officially visited UW in June.
  • Clemson: Will sign defensive lineman Etinosa Reuben but didn’t sign Badger commit Spencer Lytle; also offered Mertz.

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