AJ Derby isn't just a tight end anymore. He's the former quarterback who has brought more wow factor to the position that was once thin.
The Hogs practiced for a little over two hours Saturday in full pads on the grass practice field, but did not scrimmage. There was no tackling to the ground.
Derby made three highlight reel catches in Saturday's practice, including a one-hand grab at the goal line in traffic in two-minute drills, good for a 30-yard TD play. He had two other catches in traffic with his hands extended over his head.
It was in stark contrast to last Saturday when Derby dropped what would have been a long TD grab. That comparison was on the mind of at least one player. A first-team defensive back trudging up the sideline after Derby's big catch late in the day, said, "He drops a wide open pass, but he catches that one?"
Head coach Bret Bielema said he was glad he let the media into the practice because he wouldn't have to try to explain Derby's eye-popping catches.
"I'm sure you guys probably saw it," Bielema said. "The kid is as talented - amazingly he reminds me so much of a young man that I recruited - that played for me - Dallas Clark who was a linebacker for me - I think I probably have told you this story.
"The kid couldn't read a power pull for me, he couldn't do anything but when there was coaching transition I said let's try him at tight end and he was All-Big Ten and was an All-American and first-round draft pick.
"Now I am not saying he is going to be all that, but the transition has been as seamless as I could imagine.
"Not just catching, I mean it's amazing to me how well he catches the ball. That's not an easy thing to run full speed in traffic and catch it. But what he does in the running game, other than when he has to block Trey Flowers. Flowers makes you look silly a lot of times. But just his routes , inside-out , his pulls, his pass-pro, his understanding.
"Now at the quarterback position he has had to get it all so it has kind of really helped and accelerated his learning but I am so excited. He changes our offense literally overnight."
Freshman Damon "Duwop" Mitchell also had a big catch in the two-minute portion of practice near the end of the day. Mitchell said he's also gotten some work in the return game, on kickoffs and punts.
Like Derby, Mitchell has made the move from quarterback, trying wide receiver in the last six practices. Has he embraced it like Derby?
"I was happy to see him make that play today. We've thrown some things to him," Bielema said. "He surprisingly has caught the ball extremely well in kicking situations, punt return and kick return. Which is another role that we'd love to explore with him.
"I think it's getting better for him. I'm not saying he's doing cartwheels down the hallway quite yet. But I think he realizes that he might be able to capitalize on that position and be good at it."
Cornerback Tevin Mitchel is out for the spring with a hamstring pull sustained one week ago. Brandon Lewis practiced, but Bielema said the sophomore defensive end will have knee surgery "to have some things cleaned up" after the spring.
Drew Morgan missed a few plays with a gash in his calf, but returned to finish the practice.
Bielema revealed that the Red White Game, set for 1 p.m. Aug. 26, would be "ones against the world." He said he might have a couple of special guests for the game. He would not give any details.
"It's all about continuity," Bielema said. "It's about us getting better. That's the reason I'll keep the ones together."
Bielema continued to praise the cornerback group with special words for Carroll Washington, Will Hines, D. J. Dean and Jared Collins.
"This time a year ago, we were trying to find one (cornerback) to rise up," Bielema said. "Right now, we have five guys, and we also have Chris Murphy and there may be two freshmen coming in the fall who can help."
That brings up the obvious question, could someone help the depth situation at safety?
"There is the possibility (after spring) that we could move guys to safety," Bielema said. "It's very obvious that we've gotten better at corner with (the arrival of assistants) Clay Jennings and Robb Smith."
Bielema confirmed that defensive tackle Horace Arkadie would not return to the team. Last week, he said Arkadie was "indefinitely suspended."
Bielema said there was work on spread offense for the defense on Tuesday and Thursday. He also noted that Thursday's practice is the only day he didn't see progress this spring.
"Very, very excited," Bielema said. "I thought our guys bounced back. Thursday was a practice that we backed off them a little bit physically and really for the only time in the course of the spring I felt we didn't move forward. I was really excited the way they bounced back today. still a lot of teaching and learning and everything else but I was excited about their tempo and energy today."
Korliss Marshall sparkled in portions of the day, making some nice catches. It followed a strong showing earlier in the week.
"He jumped back into things Tuesday," Bielema said, "and it was a freak show. He made a couple of runs that were off the charts. Everyone recognizes his impact. He's an exceptional player."
Bielema was asked about lack of depth at defensive tackle with Arkadie gone. He said he was pleased with Darius Philon and Demarcus Hodge, but noted Hodge is overweight after a hamstring injury slowed him during the winter.
"Yeah, I think Hodge needs to lose weight," Bielema said. "I think he and I together need to have that as our off-season objective. He is a guy that I think is extremely powerful. He has a great presence in the run game. He's just got to become more sudden for more plays.
"I think that Taiwan Johnson brings us something inside there that's a little bit unique. It's not the size or the girth, but he's a very explosive player.
"As visitors have come to practice that I really respect and appreciate and they watch defensive film, they keep talking about him showing up, so that's a good thing. Obviously we have two defensive tackles that we think might be able to come in and help us immediately in recruiting. So it's going to be fun to see that pan out."
Bielema was asked about the development of Deatrich Wise.
"Deatrich has at times been very, very explosive, a little more disciplined than he has in the past," Bielema said. "We've played him over at the heavy end spot, so he's kind of feeling his oats.
"Brandon Lewis, to give him credit, he will have surgery as soon as spring ball is done. He's got a bum knee that needs to be taken care of, so he's gutting through some pain I think and some swelling. He's a tremendous kid that I think has a tremendous upside.
"Jamichael (Winston) kind of goes back and forth whether we're going to use him at end or we could possibly use him inside. Tevin Beanum, unfortunately you saw him out there today, he has missed the last couple of practices with a concussion. He's a guy that I think can make some big gains in a short amount of time."
Bielema was asked if Tiquention Coleman was a linebacker or a safety. He worked at weakside linebacker Saturday, but Bielema said that was in preparation for nickel and dime packages.
"You know what, what we are doing there some cornerback run game prep and I wanted to get him at will linebacker," Bielema said. "He's a guy when we are playing a 10 or 11 team we could use him in a linebacker spot with DB skills. We know TQ is very powerful. He likes the physicality of the game and can run.
"The part we are trying to do is find him a (spot). He's more engaged than he ever has been. He sent out a tweet, we had to put him on twitter arrest. But, he loves to compete and if he does well on the field and continues to do well off the field, we'll continue to find a role for him."
How has the running game developed?
"I feel really good about … left tackle, right tackle, I feel pretty good about those positions," Bielema said. "At right guard Denver has had a good spring. I think he can be better. He wasn't involved in all the winter conditioning. He had a hammy that was bothering him. He's had to play himself into shape.
"I think left guard and center are wide open for people that want to take advantage of it. Our run game, I think (Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall), really all of them probably have a play or two that they're best amongst the group. So the more we can kind of rotate that through and better ourselves. Kody Walker also I think showed he can be a valuable player.
"At tight end I couldn't be happier with (Hunter Henry, AJ Derby and Jeremy Sprinkle). I think those are three tight ends. And then Alex Voelzke plays a role as well. We've got so many more tools than we had a year ago and in the bag of tricks that I think Coach (Jim) Chaney would like to go to that does some things. Then No. 1, you saw that today, too. I mean, Jared Corneilus continues to impress."
Derby Explodes with Big Catches
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