MADISON, Wis. — Luke Fickell has reiterated the same philosophy about his transfer portal views during his first two interview opportunities as Wisconsin’s new coach: He’d prefer to recruit and develop players but understands that in the modern era of college football, plugging gaps at positions of need will be vital every offseason.
This offseason, in particular, figures to feature as much movement as Wisconsin’s roster has experienced in some time. It will be up to Fickell and the coaching staff he hires to determine how best to tackle that challenge. But it seems clear the transfer portal, which opened Monday, will require a significant chunk of Fickell’s attention.
“I always worry about if you add too many people that don’t have three, four, five years to build the relationships here that you can really kind of mess up some of the cultures and things that have been built,” Fickell said. “That’s what I think they’ve done a really good job of here. It will be an interesting three weeks for me to be able to assess and figure out some of those things along with the guys around me.”
Fickell is attempting to stock up on the recruiting trail, as he spoke to reporters Sunday night via video call while being driven in a car to the Chicago area to meet with prospects. The early signing period runs from Dec. 21 to 23. However, Wisconsin has several positions that need upgrading because of player departures to the transfer portal or recruiting losses, and interim coach/defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard announcing his departure after the season adds another layer to the process of keeping the roster intact.
Here’s a look at the positions (hint: most) that could benefit from transfer portal additions.
No position requires replenishing more for Wisconsin this offseason than quarterback with the departures of Deacon Hill and Graham Mertz. Hill was passed on the depth chart earlier this season by Myles Burkett and transferred during the allotted 30-day window after Paul Chryst’s firing. Mertz, a three-year starter, announced his intention to transfer Sunday and entered the portal Monday, setting up a new era at quarterback.
As it stands, Wisconsin is set to have two scholarship quarterbacks on its roster for next season: Burkett, who will be a redshirt freshman, and incoming freshman Cole LaCrue. Assuming fifth-year senior Chase Wolf does not come back (he could use the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted during the pandemic), then Wisconsin is going to need two quarterbacks. Fickell likely will work to recruit a second high school prospect to join LaCrue. Cincinnati four-star quarterback commit Brady Drogosh would be a huge pickup. There will be no shortage of potential options in the portal, with a path to immediate playing time possible given the inexperience in the room.
Wisconsin is really hurting for depth at receiver and absolutely needs to build the room back. Markus Allen and Stephan Bracey entered the portal after Chryst was fired. Allen is headed to Minnesota and Bracey to Western Michigan. The Badgers lost both of their 2023 wide receiver commitments in November, when Trech Kekahuna and Collin Dixon decommitted.
There are seven scholarship receivers remaining for next season, led by Chimere Dike, Skyler Bell and Keontez Lewis. Cincinnati decommit Malik Elzy, a Chicago native, is set to take an official visit to Wisconsin this weekend. Illinois also is in the mix for Elzy.
Wisconsin could use multiple linemen, particularly on the interior. The Badgers have 11 scholarship linemen who could be back next season, though center Joe Tippmann is a candidate to pursue the NFL. Logan Brown was dismissed from the program in October for an incident at practice and has since announced a transfer to Kansas. Michael Furtney entered the transfer portal Monday. Christopher Terek, a member of the 2023 recruiting class, decommitted and flipped to Notre Dame.
The only offensive lineman still committed to Wisconsin is James Durand. Wisconsin is among the schools interested in Penn transfer Ben Hoitink, a native of Slinger, Wis., who was a multiyear starter at guard. Jake Renfro, Cincinnati’s starting center during its run to the College Football Playoff in 2021, is in the portal and could be a candidate to follow Fickell to Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is set to have six scholarship tight ends next season with Jack Eschenbach moving on and Jaylan Franklin entering the portal as a graduate transfer. It has yet to land a tight end in the 2023 recruiting class. That could change if Fickell and his staff are able to sway three-star tight end Jackson McGohan, who decommitted from Cincinnati on Monday. McGohan is a 6-foot-4 and 235-pound prospect from Miamisburg, Ohio.
Wisconsin did extend a scholarship offer Nov. 26 to Division II All-America tight end Kyle Morlock of Shorter University. He caught 30 passes for 446 yards with six touchdowns this season. Auburn and West Virginia have also offered Morlock.
Braelon Allen has dealt with constant rumors about his future at Wisconsin, dating to last month when a message board post surfaced about his potentially transferring to Michigan. Allen subsequently denied that report and reaffirmed his commitment to Wisconsin on Tuesday. Allen’s choosing to return to Wisconsin for his third season represents a major win for the Badgers.
Update: sources tell me Braelon Allen is a Wisconsin Badger. https://t.co/icFKmN7q3Y
— Braelon Allen (@BraelonAllen) December 6, 2022
Backup Chez Mellusi has already said he intends to return for a fifth season. Still, third-string tailback Isaac Guerendo, who ran for 385 yards and five touchdowns this season, entered the portal Tuesday as a graduate transfer. Wisconsin lost 2023 running back commit Jaquez Keyes on Monday night. Keyes, an Ohio native, wasn’t recruited by Fickell and his staff at Cincinnati. Wisconsin does have a commitment from in-state running back Nate White and has four scholarship running backs on the roster for next season, in addition to fullback Jackson Acker. But there could be room to add a player with the right fit.
Starting nose guard Keeanu Benton is done after the season, and freshman defensive lineman Tristan Monday entered the portal and transferred to Arizona State on Monday. Wisconsin’s two defensive line commits in the 2023 class, Jamel Howard and Roderick Pierce, decommitted last month, leaving the Badgers without anyone coming in at the position. Fickell and his staff are pushing hard to bring Howard back into the fray. Howard also is considering Big Ten schools Michigan and Illinois.
Nick Herbig, among the FBS leaders in sacks and tackles for loss, seems like a reasonable bet to pursue the NFL after his junior season, though he hasn’t made any declaration yet. The status of Isaac Hamm, who committed in Wisconsin’s 2022 class but spent the year at Madison College because of academics, is unclear. It’s worth noting that senior C.J. Goetz was not among the 15 Badgers to be honored during senior day and could opt to return. Wisconsin does have a commitment in the 2023 class from Jordan Mayer, who projects as an outside linebacker.
Wisconsin is losing three veteran corners who transferred into the program last offseason with Jay Shaw, Cedrick Dort Jr. and Justin Clark. Semar Melvin entered the transfer portal Tuesday.
Alexander Smith has said he’ll return for a sixth season, giving the Badgers an experienced leader in the group. But much of the roster at that position features players with little or no college experience: Al Ashford III, Avyonne Jones, A’Khoury Lyde and incoming freshmen A.J. Tisdell and Jace Arnold, who have yet to sign with the Badgers. Wisconsin is among numerous schools that has inquired about North Carolina transfer cornerback Tony Grimes. On the recruiting front, Cincinnati decommit Jonas Duclona could be a name to watch in the 2023 class.
Starter John Torchio is moving on, and Titus Toler opted to transfer this week. Senior Travian Blaylock missed this season with a torn ACL in his right knee and could choose to return. Four-star safety Braedyn Moore, who decommitted from Cincinnati last week, is expected to visit Wisconsin. The Badgers have six safeties set to be on the roster for next season: Hunter Wohler, Kamo’i Latu, Preston Zachman, Austin Brown, Cade Yacamelli and incoming freshman Justin Taylor.
(Top photo of Graham Mertz: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)