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Wisconsin: Luke Fickell is the new sheriff in town

Luke Fickell
Photo Credit: Jim Bauer Via Flickr

When I hear someone say the name Wisconsin Badgers, I think of Barry Alvarez coaching a ground and pound offense with Ron Dayne. Brett Bielema running PJ Hill all over Big Ten defenses week in and week out. Gary Andersen’s one-two punch of James White and Melvin Gordon. Paul Chryst making Jonathan Taylor a household name gaining 6,174 yards in three seasons.

But, as the saying goes, out with the old and in with the new! On November 27, 2022, Wisconsin hired Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell to take over in Madison. The Columbus, OH native reportedly passed on opportunities at other big-name schools in the previous year as he and his family wanted to stay in the mid-west. And when the chance to coach the Badgers was offered Fickell could not say no.

Fickell took over at Cincinnati in 2017 and led the Bearcats to a 57-18 record and the Group of Five’s first ever playoff appearance in 2021. On December 27, 2022, Fickell made his Badgers coaching debut, a 24-17 win over Oklahoma State in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.

The hiring of Fickell ends an era of ground and pound offense at Wisconsin. At Big Ten media days a reporter asked Coach Fickell why he would want to change things at Wisconsin knowing the history of their success. In his answer, Fickell described that while the offense will look different than it has in the past, the core of the offense will still be the big uglies up front.

Luke Fickell
Photo Credit: Eleven Warriors Via Flickr

“It’s about people. And when you get the right people together, they understand regardless of who they are labeled to be, you know, whether they’re a ground and pound guy, whether they’re an Air Raid guy. What is the core value to the things that you do? And it might look different but deep down as you dive into it, it’s still going to be about the guys up front.”

Fickell has hired Phil Longo to be the Badgers offensive coordinator. Longo coaches an Air Raid style of offense. However, Longo will adjust his style to the players who have remained with the Badgers even with the change in offensive philosophy.

“We’re going to be more diverse, maybe, than we’ve been here.” Longo said to reporters back in January when asked about what the offense will look like. He understands that there are players on the Wisconsin roster who cannot be left out of the game plan. “I’d be an idiot not to run the football here with the backfield that we have and the offensive line that we have.”

The Wisconsin faithful will need to learn to adjust as well. Gone are the days of three yards and a cloud of dust. Over the past five seasons Wisconsin has been inside the top 100 in passing yards per game only once, in 2019. This year the offense will be more balanced than in recent years, but as Longo says, don’t read too much into that. “Balance to us is not 40 runs and 40 passes. Balance is distribution of the football to all of the weapons we have in the offense.”

Wisconsin returns 10 starters on offense and the one player not returning, quarterback Graham Mertz, will be replaced by former SMU quarterback, senior Tanner Mordecai. Fickell was also able to get former Oklahoma quarterback, redshirt freshman Nick Evers through the transfer portal. Both Mordecai and Evers are familiar with the Air Raid offense and should drastically increase the Wisconsin passing numbers.

The top two running backs, junior Braelon Allen and senior Chez Mellusi, are back. Even though Longo runs an Air Raid style, the offense can utilize either the run game or the pass game. So having Allen and Mellusi back, along with the entire offensive line, gives Longo options on offense.

The Badgers return five of the top six receiving leaders from 2022. Coach Fickell hit the transfer portal and brought in Will Pauling from Cincinnati, Bryson Green from Oklahoma State and CJ Williams from USC. This group, along with the tight ends, will be a very experienced group who should give Mordecai plenty of options to choose from. There very well may be multiple Wisconsin receiving records broken in 2023.

Longo has experience in changing styles with a new team. He was added to the staff at Sam Houston State in 2014. When he took over the offense there was a transition from the triple option to his Air Raid offense. In 2016, his last season at Sam Houston State, the offense averaged 547 yards per game and finished the season 12-1.

The defensive style will change a bit, too. Mike Tressel is the new Wisconsin defensive coordinator, and he will incorporate some of former defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s concepts to his 3-3-5 defense.

The defense returns eight starters from last season, including leading tackler senior linebacker Maema Njongmeta. Look for Njongmeta to potentially be featured more in the pass rush in Tressel’s defense.

In his opening remarks at Big Ten media days Coach Fickell mentioned that, since he was hired, he has been asked the same question over and over, what are the expectations for year one. And he made it crystal clear that he expects the Badgers to win.

“We have one objective and that’s to play for a championship. I don’t think that’ll ever change, whether it’s year one, year two, three, four, or five. That’s what our objective is.”

2023 will bring excitement to the Wisconsin faithful! No more Boring Ten West football. No more run, run, pass, punt, field position offense. No more huddles and running the play clock down inside 10 seconds. Welcome the wide open, fun and gun, RPO style of offense to Madison, WI. In other words, welcome to 2023, please leave your 1995 offense at the door. Buckle up, Badgers, it will be a fun and FAST ride!



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