Always having been a big fan of spring football, former UW head coach and current Athletic Director Barry Alvarez never focused on which side wins and rarely focuses on how good the offense or defense is doing. Instead, the spring game is about seeing individuals take it to the next level and certain positions that were once weaknesses turn into strengths.
"Watch the individuals," Alvarez said, "(and) find someone that jumps out."
Through five weeks, it's evident that Wisconsin's strengths this year are going to lie on the defensive line (which returns every starter except J.J. Watt), with the secondary (which has two senior cornerbacks and senior safety Aaron Henry), with the running backs (which return two players that rushed for at least 996 yards and 14 touchdowns last season) and with the offensive line (which returns four starters, has successfully flipped right tackle Ricky Wagner to left tackle and have Travis Frederick returning after redshirting last year after four starts in '09).
Still, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered so with Alvarez's thought process in mind, Badger Nation, after covering in-depth the 12 open spring practices, gives its six individuals/positions to watch for Saturday.
Alvarez, like everybody else, is going to be watching the position under center, especially since he's seen firsthand what a successful quarterback can do at the University of Wisconsin. Brooks Bollinger, Jim Sorgi, John Stocco, Tyler Donovan and Scott Tolzien all have the same thing in common: they didn't overwhelm you with their athleticism or talent, but were solid athletes that managed the game, didn't make mistakes and gave the team a chance to win.
"We're going to be a nice football team, but we have to find a quarterback that is going to be consistent, someone that is not going to turn the ball over, someone that is not going to lose games for you and gives you a chance to win," Alvarez said. "That's the one position I'm anxious to see."
Walking out of the spring game last year, Dave Ryerson, a Badgers fan from Ripon, Wis., that makes the trip every year told me blatantly that Wisconsin would be in trouble if Tolzien got hurt, eluding that the freshman Budmayr was far from impressive in his first public appearance.
Budmayr struggled in the spring game, finishing 12 of 25 84 yards and two interceptions, most of which came against the first team defense. While he has yet to start a game (none of the quarterbacks on the current roster have), Budmayr played well in three contests and has challenged himself this spring to become a better quarterback.
While the key for a UW quarterback during a regular game is safe, high-percentage passes instead of forcing throws and challenging the defense, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst knows the only way for his group to get better is to make mistakes. Budmayr has thrown plenty of interceptions in practice, but the sophomore quarterback has made plenty of good ones, and his mobility is better than Tolzien's, meaning the Badgers can confidently let him move out of the pocket and make a throw on the run.
"I feel very confident and ready to go," Budmayr said this spring. "Taking advantage of each day and each rep I get is so valuable. Really, it's getting better each day and it makes me excited."
But with Curt Phillips out to at least June, the Badgers are relying on two freshmen to win the back-up role, a position that neither of which is ready to have. Brennan has getting most of the reps with the second team offense and shows flashes of his potential, but has had problems throwing the ball consistently and leading the offense down the field, two things that he'll need to be crisp on tomorrow.
"It's a growing process for me," Brennan said this spring. "I just have to take each day as it is and try to get better. Most of these plays, I have gotten familiar with my freshman year in the summer, but there are also some new plays and new schemes I need to learn. It's about taking on rep at a time and just trying to get better."
Stave was never expected to in the quarterback hunt when he graduated from school early to enroll in Madison in January, as he simply wanted to start learning the offense and get use to what was coming in the fall. But having handled the workload reasonably well, Stave has done work with the second-team offense the last few practices, adapting well to the speed of the game by being more on target with his throws and made some plays and decisions in move-the-ball and red-zone segments.
The Badgers know what they have in Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis, who should be the top two receivers come the fall. But with Toon having been out all spring following toe surgery, the Badgers' lack of the depth at the position has showed. Yes, Abbrederis has caught virtually everything that went his direction this spring and he's become the favorite target of Budmayr, but the Badgers need more players to make catches, especially now that one of their options, Marquis Mason, will miss this season after recently tearing his ACL.
Duckworth has the most experience out of the group – playing in five games last season and catching three passes – and has finally showed progress after being hampered with a shoulder injury during the early parts of his career. Hammond is the most physically intimidating of the group at 6-foot-5 and has shown flashes, but it's still obvious that he's still learning the playbook.
The most gifted of the group, however, appears to be the true freshman Doe, who enrolled with Stave in January. Doe looks a lot like former Badger David Gilreath in stature and speed, and he's been thrown right on to the second team offense. He's had some ups and downs, but the impressive thing about the 5-foot-8 freshman is that he always seems to bounce back from a bad practice.
"I just have been working hard," Doe said this spring. "I go up to the offices and watch film every day. I learn because I want to get ahead, get ahead, ahead, ahead. I have been doing a lot of running. Me and Manasseh Garner work out a lot alone, just to try and get better each and every day. I am just trying to get better each and every practice."
An unfortunate twist of the ankle has left Wisconsin's number one tight end likely on the bench for the spring game, but it's allowed senior tight end Jake Byrne the opportunity to prove his worth. In three seasons, Byrne has caught only three passes (all of which came last year) in his career after primarily being on field goal and PAT.
With Pedersen having been out the last two practices, Byrne has certainly taken advantage of the opportunity, catching a number of passes over the middle Tuesday and a couple of passes for first downs during the two-minute drill Thursday.
Wozniak has been in the plans from day one, but the redshirt sophomore always seems to have a problem with his MCL, which has been strained the last two spring camps and forced him to be a spectator during critical junctures. Throw in the fact that he missed UW's first six games after suffering a fractured left shoulder in camp and it's been a tough go for the tight end from Loveland, Ohio.
Wozniak recovered from the strain yet again in just 12 days, and has been actively involved in the last two practices running routes and catching passes.
With Pedersen out, these two will be the main focus for the offense, and can give the Badgers a glimpse to those trying to replace All-American Lance Kendricks.
Defensive Ends - Brendan Kelly
Kelly was highly talented and highly skilled when he committed in the 2008 recruiting class, so much so that he made his debut in the season opener against Akron. After playing only three games, however, Kelly suffered a season-ending hand injury in practice and the problems kept continuing, battling through a serious groin injury during a plagued 2009 season before redshirting last season to try and get healthy.
Three surgeries later to fix the four muscles that were torn off his pelvis, Kelly, who is attempted to get a medical redshirt for a sixth year of eligibility, is finally ready to go.
With the Badgers needing to build depth at the defensive end position due to Watt leaving, Kelly is providing a boost because of his health. Having participated in most practices and having put on significant weight in the offseason, Kelly continues to play his way into the rotation and seems to be a valuable commodity once again.
"I've never seen a guy around this program so much," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "But he just hasn't been on the field, but he's continued to train. He's been able to condition. And if you guys remember, we played him as a true freshman, because he's a really good player. So, (last) Saturday, he might've been our best defensive end if you just rate every snap productivity. Because he hasn't played so long, he's got a lot of desire to get out there, and he's a great kid. So it's great to finally see him back out there."
Linebackers - Marcus Trotter
There's no Chris Borland in the mix until June and when he returns, he is expected to take over the middle linebacker position from Culmer St. Jean. Normally, Ethan Armstrong would be the No.2 middle linebacker, but he is also on the shelf this spring. It was the perfect opportunity for Marcus Trotter to flex his muscles.
Trotter, a preferred walk-on from Milwaukee Marquette High, had to prove to UW coach Bret Bielema he was good enough to play linebacker, especially since Bielema told him that he wanted to start him out at fullback. Trotter, who nearly committed to Minnesota as a preferred walk-on, said he wanted to prove himself as a linebacker and that if he couldn't do it, Bielema had the right to move him to fullback.
After putting in work in the winter to get bigger and stronger, Trotter won't be moving anytime soon, as he finds himself receiving all his reps with the No. 1 defense every practice.
"It is amazing," said Trotter, who will be on scholarship after this season. "I would never think that coming here last summer as walk-on, knowing that I was going to be on scout team, that during spring ball I was going to be given a chance with the ones. It is a good thing."
Trotter has worked extensively this spring with Mike Taylor and Kevin Claxton and has been a playmaker. Despite still learning the playbook, Trotter always is going full speed and always seems to make a play. His role is yet to be defined when his teammates return 100 percent healthy, but fans should enjoy what he brings to the table Saturday, especially since they'll be seeing it soon enough.
Badger Nation will be covering and tweeting from the spring game Saturday. Follow us online and on Twitter (www.twitter.com/TheBadgerNation) before, during and after for all the news regarding the game and the recruits