MADISON — The University of Wisconsin’s offense, lauded as potentially one of the best in school history last season, featured plenty of talented weapons to pair with three-year starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
Yet, the Badgers finished ahead of just 11 FBS teams in passing offense at 157.7 yards per game.
In a year where UW fell short of expectations in many areas, perhaps none were more surprising than its shortcomings in the passing game.
Nearly all key skill position players return for 2019, and the Badgers hope to use this offseason to reestablish their offensive identity.
“I believe that you always want to be balanced,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “You’re going to need (the run and pass game) both to be good. I think you’re always striving to do that within what your group can handle, and obviously we’re early in that process for defining this offense’s personality.
“We’ve got some good players coming back, so it’s this group’s opportunity to build its own identity.”
The Badgers boast the nation’s best running back in Jonathan Taylor, who gained 2,194 rushing yards in 13 games last season despite the lack of a downfield passing threat. UW’s offense expects to center around the Doak Walker Award winner once again in 2019, but more support from its aerial attack may be necessary to get back on track.
“I think that’s a big thing, and it’ll help loosen up the box,” Badgers running back Garrett Groshek said. “It’ll only help the run game if we can take shots and complete shots and be able to move the sticks with the ball in the air rather than just having to keep it on the ground.”
UW’s quarterback play dropped off last season. Hornibrook struggled to produce at the level he did in 2017, finishing with just 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in nine games, while Jack Coan went through an adjustment period when Hornibrook missed time with a head injury.
The Badgers’ pass catchers weren’t blameless, either. A promising group of receivers failed to meet high expectations and provide Hornibrook or Coan with much help.
“I know it was on both of us — receivers, quarterbacks,” junior Kendric Pryor said. “There were some plays of us not getting open, coverage sacks or other things that may happen. But that’s something we’ve been working on a lot — getting off the line, using our hands. You’re most open when you’re out of your breaks.”
Hornibrook intends to transfer to Florida State after graduating in May, leaving UW with an open quarterback competition this offseason.
Coan’s taken the large majority of first-team reps during spring practices that were open to the media so far, with true freshman Graham Mertz, sophomore Danny Vanden Boom and redshirt freshman Chase Wolf splitting second-team reps evenly.
Pryor and other teammates said they’ve noticed more maturity and confidence in Coan this spring versus last season, when the sophomore completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 515 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions.
While he’s the frontrunner to win the starting job, Mertz owns the physical tools to make a run for the No. 1 spot while Vanden Boom and Wolf have experienced positive moments this spring as well.
“A lot of those quarterbacks are really stepping up,” tight end Jake Ferguson said. “It’s good to see those guys step up and start taking a leadership role even though they’re pretty young.”
The Badgers will hope for improvement from the position regardless of who wins the job. If they do, a receiving group that includes Pryor, Ferguson, A.J. Taylor and Danny Davis — along with a couple more promising wideouts — still holds the potential for a belated breakout season.
“If we’re not making those plays in practice, obviously, there’s not a magic flip that’s going to switch in a game,” Pryor said. “So it’s just kind of connecting in those practices and then when we aren’t practicing, the more time we put in with the quarterbacks (the better).”