Every Wisconsin football offseason serves as a quest to remake the team with better depth and more impactful playmakers through the transfer portal. And though it’s unknown how those additions will perform until the season begins, what the Badgers have accomplished — at least on paper — appears to be a step in the right direction.
Wisconsin has added 12 scholarship transfers, all of whom are on campus and participating in winter workouts ahead of spring practices. The Badgers shored up needs at multiple positions, particularly at linebacker, where five of their seven defensive newcomers will play.
Most, if not all, of these transfers should significantly shape what Luke Fickell’s second season looks like. Let’s rank each of them on their expected impact this season.
1. QB Tyler Van Dyke (previous school: Miami)
Fans are in wait-and-see mode after a rocky season for Van Dyke at Miami. That Wisconsin’s offense largely struggled in the first season under Phil Longo despite enormous excitement probably also has something to do with that feeling. But no player among the transfer group will be as important to the success of the team. Van Dyke’s best season at Miami, as a redshirt freshman in 2021, came in an air raid system with similarities to what Longo wants to run. If Van Dyke stays healthy as a fifth-year senior and recaptures the form that he showed in throwing for 2,931 yards and 25 touchdowns, then the offense could take a major step forward.
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Landing an experienced playmaker like Thomas represented a significant victory. He spent his first three seasons at Cincinnati under Fickell, the last of which resulted in his finishing third on the team with 70 tackles. Thomas transferred to Arkansas, leading the Razorbacks last season with 90 tackles to go with 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Thomas has one year of eligibility and should plug into the defense nicely after the departures of Maema Njongmeta and Jordan Turner.
3. ILB Tackett Curtis (USC)
Of all the transfer portal additions for Wisconsin this offseason, Curtis is the one with the biggest long-term impact potential because six of the 12 newcomers have just one year of eligibility. Curtis, who has three years left, represents the icing on the cake for Wisconsin’s linebacker makeover. He played in 12 games at USC with eight starts as a true freshman and finished with 40 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. Thomas and Curtis, as well as returning inside linebackers Jake Chaney and Christian Alliegro, could help to form an impressive two-deep.
What led Tackett Curtis to pick Wisconsin in transfer portal?
4. OLB John Pius (William & Mary)
Projecting how a player will transition from the FCS to the FBS can be a challenge. But it’s hard to deny Pius’ productivity at William & Mary, where he racked up 171 total tackles, 40.5 tackles for loss and 24.5 sacks while earning first-team All-America honors twice. Pius, who has one year of eligibility, fills a need as an explosive and dynamic edge rusher who played some of his best games last season against FBS competition. Darryl Peterson and Jeff Pietrowski are the only returning outside linebackers who played more than 35 snaps last season, and Pius would appear to provide something different for the unit.
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5. CB RJ Delancy III (Toledo)
Wisconsin found success last season with a slot cornerback who had one year of eligibility remaining, Boston College transfer Jason Maitre. Delancy arrives in Madison with one year of eligibility and the potential to replace Maitre as the starter in the slot. He does have the versatility to play multiple spots. According to Pro Football Focus, Delancy played 198 snaps at Toledo last season as the wide corner and 182 snaps as the slot corner. But the Badgers have a need in the slot. Wisconsin started Austin Brown in that role during the ReliaQuest Bowl after Maitre declared for the NFL Draft. And though Brown is a viable option, he also gives Wisconsin an enviable two-deep at safety alongside Hunter Wohler, Preston Zachman and Kamo’i Latu. Delancy, who has played in 38 career games, has 61 tackles and two interceptions in his career.
The saga of how Lowery committed to Wisconsin and decommitted less than 24 hours later, only to fire a pair of sports agents and end up with the Badgers anyway, is behind him. Lowery has the potential to occupy a big role at outside linebacker. He appeared in 27 career games with 14 starts at Syracuse. And he finished his redshirt sophomore season with 46 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Lowery was listed at 6 feet 4 and 239 pounds and said outside linebackers coach Matt Mitchell liked his size and length, as well as his ability to play in space and rush the passer off the edge. Wisconsin will be relying on a group that includes Lowery, Pius, Peterson, Pietrowski and Aaron Witt, in addition to a pair of freshmen.
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7. DL Elijah Hills (Albany)
Defensive line was among the most important positions Wisconsin needed to address. Wisconsin ended up with Hills, a 6-2, 280-pound defensive end who spent the past three seasons at Albany and has one year of eligibility. Hills was part of an Albany team that ranked No. 1 in the FCS in run defense last season. He recorded 31 tackles, nine tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks and blocked three kicks on special teams. Hills could have an opportunity to start but certainly figures to be a part of the rotation after Rodas Johnson and Darian Varner transferred. Only four returning defensive linemen — James Thompson Jr., Ben Barten, Curt Neal and Cade McDonald — have earned meaningful snaps. Hills played 779 defensive snaps last season.
Wisconsin, which added four transfer wide receivers to increase depth a year ago, picked up just one this offseason, Henry. The success of the group largely will depend on the progress of players already on the roster, and the performances of Will Pauling, Bryson Green and Trech Kekahuna stood out in the bowl game. Still, the Badgers needed reinforcements with the transfers of Keontez Lewis, Chimere Dike and Skyler Bell — all starters in 2022 under the previous coaching staff. Henry caught 24 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns last season at Michigan State. He also was MSU’s top kick and punt returner, which is a role he could fill at Wisconsin.
Adding a transfer portal running back was not necessarily expected with Chez Mellusi in for a sixth season and three tailbacks in the 2024 recruiting class. But Walker, who has one year of eligibility, figures to be a solid insurance policy behind the injury-prone Mellusi and as a potential stopgap while the freshmen develop. Walker, 5-9 and 216 pounds, finished his junior season with 102 carries for 513 yards and seven touchdowns as Oklahoma’s backup. Walker never earned a scholarship at Oklahoma but has one at Wisconsin, which speaks to how much the Badgers valued adding another experienced back. There are eight scholarship running backs on the roster, although Jackson Acker said after the team’s bowl game that he had talks with coaches about moving to an H-back role.
Long snapper might rank in a tie with holder for least talked-about position, but having a reliable performer is crucial. Pfeiffer arrives with one year of eligibility just as multiyear starter Peter Bowden moves on. He served as Cincinnati’s primary long snapper for the past four seasons, handling 198 punts and 255 field goal and extra-point attempts.
Scan Wisconsin’s roster at tight end, and it’s easy to see why the Badgers needed help. Tucker Ashcraft is the leading returning receiver at tight end after catching eight passes for 86 yards with a touchdown. Riley Nowakowski added seven catches for 57 yards and a touchdown. McGohan has three years of eligibility and, although he didn’t catch any passes as a true freshman at LSU last season, he has tremendous potential in Longo’s air raid offense. McGohan was a top-25 tight end in the 247Sports Composite out of high school and committed to Fickell at Cincinnati for nearly a year before Fickell left for Wisconsin. Some might argue McGohan is ranked too low on this list given the opportunities available. But his lack of college experience contributes to the uncertainty of how he’ll be used right away. Spring practice will provide a good indication of where things stand for everyone in this group.
Wisconsin revamped its inside linebackers group by adding three transfers (Northern Iowa’s Jahsiah Galvan had also been committed but flipped to Stanford after Curtis picked the Badgers). Cheeks doesn’t have the same level of experience as Thomas or Curtis. He played 18 defensive snaps and 69 snaps on the kick coverage and punt return units in two seasons at UNC. But, like McGohan, he was a highly decorated high school prospect — ranked in the 247Sports Composite as the No. 14 linebacker — who has loads of potential. Wisconsin’s inside linebackers should be better prepared to play the style that Mike Tressel wants in Year 2.
(Photo of Tyler Van Dyke: Jasen Vinlove / USA Today)