MADISON, Wis. — New Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell often says that he doesn’t want to build a program by relying on the transfer portal.
Yet the Badgers’ success this year could depend largely on how well Fickell can integrate the 17 transfers he has brought in since coming over from Cincinnati. The 19th-ranked Badgers open Fickell's debut season Saturday by hosting Buffalo.
Fickell said he doesn’t plan on adding that many transfers in a single year ever again. He consistently emphasizes continuity.
“Obviously things can adjust and adapt, but I’d be disappointed if we weren’t 85-90% taking guys out of high school, having them for three, four or five years based on whether they have the opportunity to play at the next level," Fickell said Monday. “And then sprinkle in the ability to find some, not to say difference makers, but guys who can fill holes and gaps and things you need based on how years go.”
Fickell altered that plan this year because he had more holes to fill than usual as a first-year coach installing a new scheme with the arrival of offensive coordinator Phil Longo. All those newcomers should help Fickell find more success in his first season at Wisconsin than he did his opening year at Cincinnati.
Cincinnati went 4-8 in 2017 during Fickell’s first season – the Bearcats had the same record the year before his arrival – before going 53-10 over the next four years and reaching the College Football Playoff in 2021. Now that players no longer need to sit out a year after transferring, teams can reshape their rosters much sooner.
Wisconsin would like to replicate the success future Big Ten rival Southern California had under first-year coach Lincoln Riley last season. USC went from 4-8 in 2021 to 11-3 in 2022 after adding about two dozen transfers, including Heisman Trophy winner and former Oklahoma quarterback Caleb Williams.
The Badgers have their own ex-Oklahoma quarterback in Tanner Mordecai, who spent three years as a Sooners backup before transferring to SMU and throwing a school-record 72 touchdown passes over the last two seasons. Mordecai wanted to finish his college career at a Power Five school after opting against entering the 2023 draft. He considered Wisconsin an ideal fit.
“Coach Fick is a winner, as we’ve seen at Cincinnati,” Mordecai said. “Mixture of that with Coach Longo. I think Coach Longo is at the top of the game as far as offensive minds go. And then combining that with a place like Madison, to play for the Badgers. It was a mixture of all three that created an opportunity I didn’t want to miss out on.”
Plenty of Mordecai’s receivers also played elsewhere last season. Wisconsin’s collection of transfer receivers includes Bryson Green (Oklahoma State), CJ Williams (Southern California), Quincy Burroughs (Cincinnati) and Will Pauling (Cincinnati).
Mordecai says he has cohesiveness with all the receivers even though they hadn’t spent much time together. They benefited from spending the first week of training camp about an hour's drive from campus at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
“I think Platteville was a good thing for our team,” Mordecai said. “It was a chance to grow together even tighter.”
Transfers expected to start Saturday include Mordecai, Green, Pauling, left guard Joe Huber (Cincinnati), nickelback Jason Maitre (Boston College) and kicker Nathaniel Vakos (Ohio). Former Cincinnati center Jake Renfro probably would have started as well if a foot injury hadn’t sidelined him.
Second-teamers who played elsewhere last year include Williams, quarterback Braedyn Locke (Mississippi State), defensive end Darian Varner (Temple), outside linebacker Jeff Pietrowski (Michigan State) and cornerback Nyzier Fourqurean (Grand Valley State).
Williams credits Wisconsin’s returning players for making sure the newcomers fit right in.
“I think as we’ve gone on throughout spring ball, fall camp, all those different things, it’s kind of improved, that camaraderie we have,” Williams said. “It went from maybe something being a concern, to now it’s a strength.”
Senior linebacker Maema Njongmeta is one of the holdovers from a team that went 7-6 last year. Njongmeta said the defense held a cookout and watched a UFC fight together and the team held various player-led meetings to make sure everyone got to know one another better.
“It’s been really fun to watch the transfers really integrate to the point that guys don’t really think of them as transfers anymore,” Njongmeta said. “It’s pretty cool.”