The end has arrived in our weeklong series on the most difficult players to replace on each Big Ten team. Before signing off, we’ll look at Wisconsin, reigning champion of the West Division. The Badgers are breaking in a new coach this spring as Paul Chryst inherits a team that returns several key pieces but also loses a few players critical in paving the road to 11 wins in 2014.
B1G SHOES TO FILL: Melvin Gordon, RB
Why: If you don’t know, well, what have you been doing for the past seven months? Gordon enjoyed the best season ever last fall by a Wisconsin back – and that’s saying something. His 2,587 yards ranked second in FBS history behind Barry Sanders’ 1988 total. The Heisman Trophy runner-up, Gordon was a workhorse, rushing 343 times in 14 games. He was efficient, averaging 8.1 yards per attempt. He was a big-play waiting to happen, a receiving threat, and he removed pressure from Wisconsin’s quarterbacks in a tumultuous season at that position.
The skinny: Really, there’s no race for the starting job. Clement is the man after rushing for 949 yards and 11 touchdowns alongside Gordon last year. He’s a strong runner in the mold of the line of Wisconsin greats who have rated annually among the Big Ten’s best for most of the past two decades. But the Badgers traditionally prefer to play two backs. And behind Clement, little experience awaits. Ogunbowale, a converted defensive back, rushed for 193 yards in late-game work as a sophomore.
B1G SHOES TO FILL: Derek Landisch, LB
Why: Landisch teamed with Marcus Trotter, also gone, at inside linebacker to form a wall in the heart of the Wisconsin defense that most opponents found difficult to penetrate. Of the duo, Landisch was the big-play guy, recording 16 tackles for loss and nine sacks. He grew into an important role as a senior after starting two games in 2013 behind All-American Chris Borland. Success in coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defensive scheme requires the kind of strong play at linebacker that Landisch provided in his final season.
Replacement candidates: Leon Jacobs (6-2, 230, junior), T.J. Edwards (6-1, 229, redshirt freshman), D'Cota Dixon (5-10, 206, sophomore), Keelon Brookins (5-10, 209, sophomore), Nick Thomas (6-2, 230, freshman)
The skinny: Outside linebackers Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert return to ease the adjustment of the new guys inside. Still, the development of Jacobs and Edwards, the leading contenders to start in the middle, is essential. Jacobs showed good skill last year in collecting 12 tackles against Illinois. Brookins moves over from an outside spot, and Thomas enrolled early this spring as a solid prospect out of Florida.