New offensive coordinator Phil Longo promises an Air Raid in Madison. Do the Badgers have the talent to pull it off, or will they revert back to the run game?
By Nathan Denzin, BADGER STRIPES
It’s an exciting time in Madison, as new head coach Luke Fickell and offensive coordinator Phil Longo have promised to give Wisconsin Badgers fans something they’ve never seen before – an Air Raid offense.
Wisconsin’s football identity has been set in stone as a grinding run game since Barry Alvarez took over in 1990. Only three Badgers in program history have gone for more than 1,000 yards in a single season, and nobody has done it since Jared Abbrederis in 2013.
On the other hand, Longo has had at least one thousand-yard receiver in his last six years. That includes AJ Brown for Ole Miss in 2017 and 2018, then at North Carolina, Dyami Brown in 2019 and 2020, Dazz Newsome in 2019, and Josh Down in 2021 and 2022.
But Longo’s impressive offensive statistics didn’t exactly translate to a wildly successful program over his tenure at North Carolina. The Tar Heels had a 30-22 record from 2019-2022, slightly off Wisconsin’s record of 30-17. The Badgers’ 2020 season was cut a few games short due to COVID-19.
That North Carolina record should have a caveat too, as UNC allowed over 30 points per game in 2022. The Badgers allowed just 20.5 points per game in 2022.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for the way that Wisconsin has won football games. (Fickell) brought me here to put in an offense that is diverse and balanced,” Longo told a UW writer back in January. “We are by no means ever going to stop running the football here. We’re just probably going to get to it in a different way.”
“I’d like to throw the ball as effectively as we run the ball,” he added.
So, we know the Badgers run game led by 19-year-old Braelon Allen will be solid. Do the receivers have what it takes to make an Air Raid work?
Starters: Chimere Dike, Will Pauling and Bryson Green
We’ll begin with the projected starters for the Badgers wide receivers, and top of the list is Chimere Dike. He was the Badgers’ top wideout in 2022, hauling in 47 catches for 689 yards and six touchdowns. Not much has to be said about Dike here. He has great hands and runs crisp routes. The senior had good chemistry with Graham Mertz last year, but did record five drops. That’s not terrible over 12 games, but a drop rate higher than 10% is certainly an area for improvement.
Now we get to the more interesting receivers projected to start against Buffalo. Will Pauling is a Luke Fickell guy who came with his coach from Cincinnati, and is projected to start in the slot. The redshirt sophomore impressed coaches in spring practice, and has moved up the depth chart fast. Pauling recorded just 12 catches for 122 yards in 2022, but was hampered by an MCL injury most of the year. If he can work his way into the fold, coaches expect a return to form, who put up over 1,100 all purpose yards his junior year of high school.
Bryson Green, a transfer from Oklahoma State, is the final projected starter out of camp. The junior is coming off his best season yet, catching 36 passes for 584 yards and five touchdowns for the Cowboys. Green missed all of spring practice with an injury, but should still have a starting spot locked down after his productivity last year. He will have to look over his shoulder though, as the next trio of wideouts are all hungry for the number three spot.
Second group: C.J. Williams, Skyler Bell and Keontez Lewis
C.J. Williams is one of the Badgers’ most anticipated transfers of the year, after a disappointing freshmen season with USC. The four-star recruit put up just four catches for 34 yards in five games there after graduating high school a semester early for spring practice. Now in his sophomore year, Williams will look to capitalize on his talent and work his way into the starting lineup. Don’t be surprised if Williams takes Green’s spot this year, or if he is WR1 in 2024.
The Badgers second-most-tenured receiver is redshirt sophomore Skyler Bell, who found himself in the second group after a number of transfers came in. Bell was projected to be the starting slot receiver before camp, but his spot seems to be grabbed by Pauling. In his freshmen season, Bell hauled in 30 passes for 444 yards and five touchdowns, earning him an honorable mention for the freshman All-American team. He will likely see a fair amount of snaps this year, and could start as the third wide out if Green isn’t ready to start the year.
After transferring from UCLA in 2021, Keontez Lewis made some noise for Wisconsin in 2022. The junior impressed down the stretch, snagging over half his total catches and yards in just the last four games of the season. In total, Lewis caught 20 passes for 313 yards and a trio of scores. He was most effective as a deep-ball threat, and will likely continue in that role in 2023.
Could anyone else make an impact?
Quincy Burroughs is one hot pick to make his way up the depth chart this season after following Fickell and transferring from Cincinnati. The redshirt freshmen didn’t play last season, but made a few plays that impressed coaches in camp. Vinny Anthony II, who will likely serve as a kickoff specialist, is another player to keep watch. Anthony didn’t record a catch last year, but did run the ball five times. If he can put his speed together with better routes, Anthony could be an X factor.
In other Wisconsin Badgers news…
Wisconsin basketball fans got their first taste of AJ Storr last week, when the transfer from St. Johns averaged 15 points and 5 rebounds a game as a part of the Bahamian national team. Storr was able to flash his athleticism on a team with NBA stars Buddy Hield and Eric Gordon, though his shooting splits weren’t great.
Basketball coach Greg Gard has also said he expects multiple freshmen to play significant minutes this upcoming season. That in itself is a bit of a break from tradition at Wisconsin, who usually only plays freshmen if they look like Johnny Davis. Gard said that Gus Yalden, John Blackwell and Nolan Winter are all in the mix for playing time in 2023-24.