The wide, prideful smile rarely left Saeed Khalif’s face.
After all, Wednesday was a coronation for the University of Wisconsin football team’s director of player personnel. Khalif, his staff and UW’s coaches secured what is almost certain to be the school’s best recruiting class in the internet rankings era on the first day of the Early Signing Period, and he was happy to let anyone know.
“This is our Super Bowl. This is our celebration,” Khalif said. “This was a culmination of, for some, as long as an 18-month recruiting cycle. I’m feeling really good about the relationships that were formed and the work that had been put in.”
As of Wednesday evening, UW had the No. 15 class in the FBS according to ESPN and Rivals, and 247Sports ranked the class No. 16. The Badgers have never had a top-20 class in the internet rankings. With all 21 of the team’s recruits’ names signed to their National Letter of Intent, Khalif believes the program is establishing itself in new territory.
“We want to be a top program and we want ourselves recognized with top programs in everything that we do — our football play, our recruiting and our academics,” Khalif said.
“We want it all to measure up. So, yeah, it’s a big deal for us. We love to be in the conversations and people talking top-20 and that kind of stuff. Awesome to hear, that helps get us over the hump. We’re not, again, rating chasers, it just means we want our evaluation considered just like some of the other programs that you would consider a blue-blood. We’re a blue-blood program and that’s where we should be. And we have to work to continue to do that. And that means getting in some battles. And we want to feel like we’ve got a strong enough product to do that.”
Talent-rich defense gets richer
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard expressed similar excitement about the class.
His defense loaded up on talented, versatile linebackers and brought in intriguing prospects to mold in the secondary. But Leonhard — who went from Badgers walk-on to All-American to 10-year NFL veteran — wasn’t concerned so much with ratings as he was continuing what helped land these recruits.
“We had great success on the field, which was helping to translate into great recruiting, and now we have to take the talent that we have and continue to develop it and make sure that production shows up on the field at this level, right?” Leonhard said.
“That’s always a trick. We’re pleased with who we have, we feel like we do have the right guys on this team. That’s always been a strength of ours is identifying not only talent, but talent that fits with what we do and how we do it and in the leadership that we asked our players to provide, it always starts there.”
The Badgers brought in six players currently listed as linebackers — Jake Chaney and Bryan Sanborn on the inside; Ayo Adebogun, TJ Bollers and Darryl Peterson on the outside; and Jake Ratzlaff as a hybrid of both — that bolster positions of strength on UW’s defense. They also provide flexibility in roles.
Leonhard is specifically interested in using Bollers, a four-star recruit out of Iowa, and Ratzlaff, a four-star prospect from Minnesota, in a variety of ways through their careers, and said others in the group can expand on traditional roles as well.
“There’s a little bit different body types, there’s a little bit different twitch at those positions. But within our defense, we just felt that versatility, it can be a lot of fun to use,” Leonhard said. “We like to put a lot on that group and put them in different roles and ask them to do different things. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of success at those positions in certain ways and we’re just trying to continue to add to the versatility of that group. And we feel like we’ve done that.”
Offense adds playmakers
In the trio of Nolan Rucci (five stars), Riley Mahlman (four) and JP Benzschawel (four), the Badgers reinforced the talent pool of an offensive line coming off back-to-back strong classes.
But the Badgers also added six skill-position recruits — three tailbacks, two receivers and a tight end — that could have a quick impact.
“We were really excited about the class,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said.
“We thought that they really bonded well and thought what they liked about Wisconsin was what we like about Wisconsin and it’s what we like about them. Some of the core attributes, some of the things that kind of drew them in and made this place interesting to them, were the same reasons … I remember going to some of those places and saying, ‘Man, you’re a guy that everything that you do reminds me of somebody that would be ultra-successful in our program.’ It’s just kind of cool that they saw it the same way.”
Verona’s Jackson Acker, Eau Claire Memorial’s Loyal Crawford and Antwan Roberts of Nashville, Tennessee, bring an array of skills at the running back spots that UW can utilize when they arrive. Rudolph said Acker’s explosiveness and physicality as a runner stand out, while Crawford’s speed, change of direction and home-run ability set him apart. Rudolph called Roberts a complete back who’s excited to show what he can do.
It’s a rarity the program brings in three tailbacks — the previous two times it happened were 2014 and 2002.
“The why was we had two really good ones in-state that we weren’t going to let out of the state,” Khalif said. “And then the emergence of Antwan, who came over from Tennessee, and came to a game, spent the time here. We love the family, we love what he was about. So we’ve kind of said, ‘Well, we can’t have too many.’”
A quiet winter ahead
It’s unlikely the Badgers add to the 2021 class between now and the Feb. 3 signing day; the 21-player class and the potential for seniors to return make roster construction a challenge.
The Badgers haven’t been aggressive in the transfer market, but NCAA rule changes likely to come in the spring may make adding those players easier.
“It’ll be a need-based, it won’t be a free-for-all,” Khalif said on how the Badgers would attack the transfer market.
“We can’t take as many kids right out of the portal, and then some of them are another man’s junk, so we have to be real careful about doing that, too. So it’s all gonna be about what the needs are and where we feel like the kid fits. Did you leave because you were a problem? Or did you leave because you didn’t play? What makes you think you could play here?”
Still, Khalif and Rudolph left the door open a crack — the former mentioned the case of a stud defensive lineman needing a new home and the latter if an instant-impact playmaker were to be interested.
Khalif said after Wednesday his attention is on the plans for landing the next record-setting class in 2022.
Breaking down the Badgers recruiting class by position