MADISON, Wis. If you caught former Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema in the right frame of mind, willing to look ahead beyond his usual "1-0" shtick, he would talk longingly about the Badgers' future. Occasionally, it seemed, it was as though he wanted to skip this season to reach the next one.
Without hesitation, he told anyone who would listen before the season that his 2013 team would be the best he'd ever coached during his tenure at Wisconsin.
A look at the returning talent up and down the roster reveals Bielema was on to something even if he didn't stick around long enough to see his prediction come to fruition.
Eight offensive starters and seven defensive starters will return to a team that reached its third consecutive Rose Bowl, creating plenty of optimism for new coach Gary Andersen's first season in charge. Wisconsin's punter and top two kickers also return and should prevent any drop-off in special teams.
Offensively, the Badgers certainly will miss the astounding production of running back Montee Ball, the all-time FBS touchdown leader, a two-time consensus All-American and this year's Doak Walker Award winner. But Melvin Gordon has been waiting in the wings for two years behind Ball, and he appears ready to showcase himself as a player who can handle 15 to 20 carries per game next season. In limited duty this year, Gordon finished with the best yards-per-carry among the team's running backs (10.0) and tallied 621 yards rushing with three touchdowns.
Gordon, a sophomore-to-be, will be paired with senior tailback James White, who also has bided his time behind Ball. In 2010, White was a 1000-yard rusher and the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year before Ball surpassed him in the playing rotation. Gordon and White should give Wisconsin one of the top backfields in the conference once again.
Unlike last offseason, when Wisconsin had to replace Russell Wilson at quarterback, every quarterback who took a snap in 2012 is expected to return for 2013. Curt Phillips, who started the team's last five games, should earn a sixth year of eligibility after petitioning the NCAA. Joel Stave, who started six games, will be fully healthy after breaking his collarbone this season, and he very well could be the Badgers' quarterback of the future. Even Danny O'Brien, the team's starter for the first three games, will be back. The trio combined to throw for 2,167 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Wisconsin struggled some to develop a consistent passing attack, and a big reason was the team's inability to find a No. 2 wide receiver behind Jared Abbrederis (837 yards receiving, five touchdowns). But each receiver who caught a pass will be back with another year of experience. Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe demonstrated development as the season progressed, combining for 317 yards receiving with a touchdown.
Tight end Jacob Pedersen was named the Big Ten's top tight end in 2012, and he'll open his senior season as a reliable threat in the passing game once again. Pedersen caught 27 passes for 355 yards and four touchdowns. Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson also present solid options at tight end.In the locker room following Wisconsin's 20-14 Rose Bowl loss to Stanford last week, Badgers offensive coordinator Matt Canada acknowledged how good the team could be next season, even though he won't be around to see it. Canada will serve as offensive coordinator at North Carolina State next season.
"This was the tough year," Canada said. "This was the year to work through a lot of things and a lot of transition. They'll have a top offense in the nation with all of the great guys they have coming back and I know a quality staff coming in. They'll do a great job."
If there is a significant question surrounding Wisconsin's offense beyond developing a second wide receiver, it centers on the team's offensive line. The Badgers lose left tackle Rick Wagner and center Travis Frederick, who is leaving a year early to enter the NFL Draft. Wisconsin's "plug and play" model on the line has worked in years past, but two new players will need to emerge for the team to continue its dominance up front.
Defensively, Wisconsin could once again rank among the nation's best, particularly against the run. Six of Wisconsin's front seven are expected to return, including linebackers Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong, who combined for 197 tackles. Losing linebacker Mike Taylor and his team-best 123 tackles will hurt, but the Badgers have plenty of talented linebackers to help fill the void. Derek Landisch, for example, tallied 11 tackles while making his first career start for Borland against Penn State this season.
Wisconsin loses three senior starters in the secondary cornerback Devin Smith, cornerback Marcus Cromartie and strong safety Shelton Johnson and they will be no easy task to replace. Only free safety Dezman Southward returns among the team's regular starters in the secondary.
Still, a group of 26 seniors will lead Wisconsin into the 2013 season there were just nine seniors on this year's team. So as Bielema surmised, the future is bright.
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