Even with this year’s football team not quite reaching the heights they were capable of, the season was still filled with fun surprises, vast improvement and stellar performances. There were many players that made an impact for the Badgers this year, but these were the athletes that truly made the season their own.
Comeback Player of the Year – Matt Henningsen
Plenty of players had missed time during the chaotic 2020 season, with Henningsen being one of them. The defensive end had a brilliant sophomore season in 2019, leading the team in defensive touchdowns and earning an All-Big Ten honorable mention. But a torn bicep in the first half of Wisconsin’s second game took him out for the rest of the season during 2020.
The Badgers certainly enjoyed having Henningsen again this year, playing a key role on Wisconsin’s d-line. In his senior season, Henningsen accumulated a career high in tackles for loss (5.5) and earned third team All-Big Ten honors.
Defensive Player of the Year – Leo Chenal
Somehow, on a defense that saw eleven different players get an All-Big Ten mention, Leo Chenal was able to stand out. His name was at the top of almost every defensive stat category — solo (58), assisted (48) and total (106) tackles, as well as tackles for loss (17.0), sacks (7.0) and forced fumbles (2). And besides solo tackles, he was top-5 in the Big Ten in all of those categories as well. It’s crazy to think that these totals would be even higher if he hadn’t missed the first two games of the season with COVID-19.
Chenal was the best defensive player on a team that ranked sixth in the country with 16.4 opponents points per game and allowed just 2.2 rushing yards per attempt. And spoiler alert, this isn’t the last time I’ll be talking about him.
Most Improved Player of the Year – Josh Seltzner
When evaluating the run-game, you can’t forget about the boys up-front. Not only did senior guard Seltzner improve his game from last year, but he was the forefront of a Badger’s o-line that saw great improvement throughout the season. Wisconsin allowed 10 sacks in the first four games of the year, before seemingly changing on a whim in the remaining eight games, where they allowed just five. Seltzner started 10 of the 11 games he played in this year, as compared to the seven starts he made in his previous 32 games.
Even with a revolving carousel of running backs this season, Wisconsin still managed 215.3 rushing yards per game, on 5.0 yards per attempt. Seltzner lead the way for this production, earning an official All-Big Ten first team spot, as well as making Pro-Football Focus’ All-Big Ten first team.
Offensive Player of the Year – Braelon Allen
You can give him the Freshman of the Year award too. Allen ignited an offense that appeared to be non-existent through its first four games. Prior to Allen’s emergence as lead-back during the Illinois game, Wisconsin averaged 18.5 points per game, the 8 games after saw them score at a mark of 29.5 points per game. In this time, the Badgers went on a seven-game win streak, where Allen averaged 144.7 rushing yards per game, on an insanely efficient 7.4 yards per attempt. He also was responsible for 11 of the Badgers’ total 27 offensive touchdowns in that period.
This was a player who, going into the season, was seen as the fourth string running back, behind Chez Mellusi, Isaac Guerendo and Jalen Berger. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that, as numerous commentators never failed to mention, he’s only 17. Allen’s season was recognized with an All Big-Ten second team honor, as well being named a semifinalist for the Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year award.
Most Valuable Player – Leo Chenal
Allen may have been the biggest story of the season, but it was Chenal who kept the defense consistent when the offense wasn’t able to get it done. As eye-popping as Allen’s stats were during the Badgers’ win streak, Chenal’s numbers were equally as impressive. He recorded over two tackles for loss per game in that seven-game stretch, as well as 6.5 sacks. He did this while also putting up double-digit tackles in three separate games, including a 17.0 tackle performance against Army, the most of any Wisconsin player since T.J. Edwards in 2018.
Chenal was the best player at his position in his conference, winning the Big Ten Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year award. His season was great even amongst the very best in the nation, leading the country in Pro-Football Focus’s run defense grade (94.0) and having the second-best overall linebacker grade (91.5). This year’s Badger team was built on their stellar defense and having one of the best players at their position certainly was a key reason as to why. I’m sure the 17-year-old will have plenty of chances to win in upcoming seasons, however.