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CFF Discussion - VP's thoughts on Wisconsin's new look offence in 2023
New OC Phil Longo brings a new system to Madison; which players could benefit from that and which might be taking a step back?
I love the Wisconsin football program, which I consider to be one of the true pillars of college football. What draws me to the program is its rich tradition and distinctive identity that it has established over the years. To me, these elements are what set college football (CFB) apart from the more sterile and formulaic product that is the NFL. I find the pageantry, passion, and raw energy of college football to be truly exhilarating, and the Wisconsin program is a shining example of what makes the sport so special.
One of my favourite traditions is the Paul Bunyan’s Axe rivalry between the Badgers and the Minnesota Gophers. It’s an old rivalry that dates back to 1890(!!), and is steeped in tradition and CFB lore. The fact that they play at the end of the season in often snowy weather is just a bonus, the perfect cherry on top of a delicious CFB sundae (Saturday), if you will.
On the field, the Wisconsin football program has established a tradition like no other at the RB position in the last decade. Looking at 2010-2021, an absurd nine out of those twelve seasons produced a 1000-yard rusher. Six of those seasons saw a RB receive over 300 carries. That level of volume funnelling is the stuff CFF dynamos are made of.
CFF managers everywhere took notice. Those of us who’ve been around this game for a few years remember Jonathan Taylor, who was a stud from day one, being drafted as the 1.01 in most drafts in 2019, and often taken in the same range the year prior in 2018 re-drafts.
Braelon Allen continued to carry the torch in 2021 and 2022 under head coach Paul Chryst. Unfortunately for us as CFF managers, the Badgers’ administration decided it was time for a change, and fired the previous regime. Former Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Luke Fickell now takes over, and one of his first hires was former UNC OC Phil Longo to fill the same position for the Badgers. Longo’s track record suggests that this is not going to be the same run-heavy outfit of yesteryear. That has ramifications for Wisconsin’s CFF outlook. Let’s take a look at which positions might benefit from the new regime, and which might have taken a hit.
RB Braelon Allen
Allen is one of the more mythical figures in CFF. Originally projected to play LB coming out of high school, the 6’2 235 pound sledgehammer broke out in 2021 as a 17-year old true freshman, carrying the rock 186 times for 1268 yards and 12 TDs. Although he did not take the step forward in production many CFF managers expected in 2022, he still produced a formidable campaign rushing 230 times for 1242 yards and 11 TDs while battling multiple lingering injuries. There is a long lineage of high-end RBs to come through Madison, and Braelon has been that next man up the past two seasons. Over the last decade and half, few programs in CFB have established a more tried and true identity on offence than the Badgers. This outfit wants to establish the run and out-physical you, and that makes their RBs extremely attractive from a CFF perspective. However, with the new regime in town, I don’t think Allen’s CFF profile is as attractive as before.
One of his first hires, Fickell brought in former UNC OC (2019-2022) Phil Longo, signalling a potential philosophy change in 2023. One of the staples of the Wisconsin football program over the last decade has been that when they find their guy at RB, they typically give him somewhere in the neighbourhood of 300+ carries. That’s probably not going to happen anymore for the Badgers (well, at least not while Longo is calling plays). Longo’s RB1 at UNC averaged 161 carries, carrying the rock 131, 182, 157, and 177 times between 2022 and 2019. I don’t like Allen’s prospects of seeing 250+ carries let alone 300+ next year, and for where he is likely to be drafted in re-drafts, I just don’t see the value anymore.
To make matters worse — the guy everyone forgets about — Chez Mellusi, returns for another season in Madison. Mellusi was actually the RB1 in 2021 when Allen was a true frosh, and only ceded the top spot when he went down with injury in the back half of 2021. Originally a Clemson Tiger, Mellusi is a pretty talented tailback in his own right, and is not going to go out quietly. He is a more dynamic player in the open field and a more effective pass catcher than Allen. Something Longo’s done in the past is rely on two RBs primarily, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see Mellusi play the Michael Carter role, and Allen play the Javontae Williams role in 2023. Unless Allen is extremely efficient with TDs (the way Williams was in 2020), he is probably not going to see enough volume to facilitate elite production in 2023.
At his current price, it’s unlikely I’ll own any shares of Allen this season, and I’ll take it a step further: my stance is buyer beware on #0.
Wide Receiver Room
There is a lot to like with the Longo offence when it comes to wideouts. In the last four seasons with UNC, Longo’s WR1 has gone over 1000 yards in each, including two 1000-yards WRs in 2019 in Dyami Brown (1034) and Dazz Newsome (1018). In addition to the WR1, the WR2 typically saw strong usage as well. UNC’s WR1 averaged 75 receptions, 1099 yards receiving and 9.75 TDs a season, while its WR2 averaged 50 receptions, 778 yards receiving and 7 TDs a season under Longo.
In 2021 and 2022, it was 5’11, 175 pound Josh Downs who led the way for the Tarheels. He lined up all over the field for UNC, but was primarily a slot receiver. The WR2 was 6’2, 200 pound Antoine Green. Green primarily occupied a boundary role in the offence.
As did Green’s predecessor Dyami Brown (6’0, 195), who led the Tarheels in receiving in both 2020 and 2021 with 1099 and 1034 yards receiving, respectively.
Dazz Newsome (5’10, 185), who was WR2 for the Tarheels in 2020 and 2021, primarily played in the slot.
The pattern appears to be that one boundary and one slot receiver typically see a lot of the targets in Longo’s offence, with no reservations on whether the player plays in the slot or on the boundary as far as WR1, WR2 roles go.
Chimere Dike, Keontez Lewis, Will Pauling, CJ Williams & Others
According to spring camp reports, it sounds like Dike, Lewis and Pauling have been the WRs working with the ones primarily, with Williams occasionally mixing in.
Chimere Dike is a 6’1, 200 pound senior who’s been with the team since 2020.
Keontez Lewis is a 6’2, 205 pound junior who began his career at UCLA in 2021. He transferred to Wisconsin in 2022. Lewis is a graduate of East St-Louis High, which is an absolute football factory producing the likes of Luther Burden and Dominic Lovett at WR in recent years.
Will Pauling is a 5’10, 185 pound redshirt sophomore who followed Fickell to Wisconsin from Cincinnati.
Despite being with the reserve team, WRs CJ Williams (6’1, 200) and Skyler Bell (6’0, 195) have been flashing in camp as well. Williams originally began playing college football at USC, after an illustrious career at national powerhouse Mater Dei High. He was a highly coveted recruit coming out of high school, with virtually every program vying for his services.
As we’re coming up on the 2023 NFL draft, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Williams participated in what is likely the greatest and most decorated high school football game ever.
The list of names that participated in this single game include: potential first overall draft pick QB Bryce Young (Alabama), potential top-ten pick and #1 overall rated player in 2019 LB Nolan Smith (Georgia), top-ten NFL draft pick OT Evan Neal (Alabama), five-star CB and likely day two NFL draft pick Eli Ricks (Alabama, formerly LSU), five-star RB Trey Sanders (TCU, formerly Alabama), five-star WR Bru McCoy (Tennessee, formerly USC/Texas), five-star CB Domani Jackson (USC), five-star LB Raesjon Davis (USC), high four-star RB Noah Cain (LSU, formerly Penn State), four-star WR CJ Williams, four-star athlete Sean Dollars (Nevada, formerly Oregon) among many others who committed to schools such as Oklahoma, Florida State and Washington.
Which WR to target for CFF?
Dike is the most productive of the aforementioned WRs thus far in his career. He finished 2022 averaging 12.4 FPG (1-ppr), catching 47 passes for 689 yards and 6 TDs. Bell finished behind him as the Badgers’ WR2, averaging 9.3 FPG, catching 30 passes for 444 yards and 5 TDs.
Lewis averaged 5.8 FPG with the Badgers, catching 20 passes for 313 yards and 3 TDs. Pauling only averaged 2.7 FPG at Cincinnati in his last season and has yet to play a meaningful role in an offence for a full season thus far in his career. Same thing for Williams, who played at USC last season in his freshman year.
You can add Oklahoma State transfer WR Bryson Green into the mix as well, who’s apparently been practicing with the twos primarily.
My takeaway? There is definitely reason to be interested in this room for CFF purposes, but it is not clear exactly who of these players to target. As Dike is the most productive returning player and is still practicing with the ones, I will default to him. He has a similar frame to Dyami Brown and Antoine Green, two players who, as mentioned earlier, played on the boundary in Longo’s offence.
It is also possible that a TE emerges as one of the top two targets in the offence. Longo’s TE1 last season caught 35 passes for 507 yards and 4 TDs. The TE2 caught 29 passes for 358 yards and 4 TDs. So we know Longo is not opposed to utilizing the TE, and there is a long lineage of productive TEs in Wisconsin’s football history. A name who’s been buzzing during the spring and was productive in limited action last season is Clay Cundiff, who finished 2022 averaging 8.3 FPG, catching 9 passes for 142 yards and 2 TDs in four games.
QB Tanner Mordecai
Longo’s QB1 Drake Maye lit the ACC on fire last season. Maye threw for over 4300 yards, 38 TDs to 7 INTs and added an additional 698 yards on the ground and 7 scores. He finished 2022 averaging 32.7 FPG (4pt passing TD).
In 2021, UNC QB Sam Howell would finish the season with over 3000 yards passing, 24 TDs to 9 INTs, and ran for an additional 828 yards and 11 scores (~ 28 FPG). As good as these numbers were, they were actually worse from a passing standpoint than Howell’s 2020 performance, in which he passed for over 3500 yards and 30 TDs to 7 INTs, and ran for 146 yards and 5 more scores (25.1 FPG).
Howell’s breakout season came in 2019 as a freshman under Longo, in which he passed for over 3600 yards, 38 TDs to 7 INTs and ran for 35 yards and 1 score (23.3 FPG).
So, it seems like Longo knows what he’s doing with his QBs, and the FPG numbers keep getting fatter year by year. Now he has veteran and former CFF stud Tanner Mordecai, who transferred to Madison by way of SMU and Oklahoma. This is likely Mordecai’s job to lose and I’d be shocked if he is not QB1 for the Badgers in 2023.
I am highly interested in Mordecai as a CFF asset. I’ve rostered him in the past — 2021 when he played for SMU under Sonny Dykes and new Clemson OC Garret Riley. Mordecai lit it up that season averaging 28.5 FPG. His 2022 numbers weren’t as great (25.5 FPG), however, and there were rumblings that SMU’s staff were considering benching him for Preston Stone. That never materialized, and Mordecai would go on to finish the season for the Mustangs. I am a bit concerned that the trajectory for Mordecai appeared to be going in the wrong direction last season, as he had some of his worst performances of the year to close out the season. It’s not unlikely that the staff told him they intended to go another direction that offseason, prompting the move to the portal for Mordecai.
Still, this is a talented player who’s been an elite CFF asset in the past. Even in his down year, he still averaged over 25 FPG. Something we should be mindful of is the distinction between real-life football and fantasy football. Mordecai may be a better fantasy QB than he is an actual QB. Can he turn it up another notch now that he’s in Power-Five (P5) play? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I like Mordecai as long as the price doesn’t get too high. I’d probably buy at a mid round pick.
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