Notes: 'We Can Be Better'

Although No.10 Wisconsin lost eight players to the NFL from an offense that averaged a school-record 41.5 points per game, the vibe of confidence from some of the players at UW's Media Day was noticeable, and those players are confident that UW's offense can match the success of last year's group.

MADISON - It's only been two days on the practice field for the University of Wisconsin, but sophomore running back James White can already tell that the vibe is different than it was a season ago.

The excitement of starting a season is still there but knowing that the tenth-ranked Badgers return a lot of pieces from the team that won a share of the conference championship last year.

"We know what we have coming back from last year," White said during UW's Media Day. "We had a lot of key people that left, but we have a lot of key people coming back that are capable of filling those roles. We are very strong on defense, very strong on offense and a new quarterback coming in. We are all out here grinding out and that's going to help us fill the void and become a great team."

White is right with the fact that Wisconsin loses a lot of key pieces from its rose Bowl team a year ago. The Badgers return just 11 of 22 starters and roughly half of their 105-man roster has yet to play in a game. Still, Wisconsin has 25 players on the roster that have started at least one game in their career, including quarterback Russell Wilson, who started 36 games in his three years at N.C. State.

But Wisconsin's offense, a group that averaged a school-record 41.5 points per game and lost eight players to the NFL, can be a better overall unit?

"Last year, there were a lot of people that either didn't play that much or redshirted that are very capable of playing," White said. "We have a system here where the coaches are going to get the best out of you in practice and have the next guy ready. If you are in a position to be on the field, the coaches are going to have you ready."

White and position teammate Montee Ball showed last season that no matter who is on the field, the offense is still able to click. White was the conference freshman of the year after leading the team in rushing (1,052 yards) while Ball led the team with 18 rushing touchdowns.

It's a reason both players were named to the Doak Walker Award list, but there's a reason Wisconsin has three more weeks to practice before its opener on Sept.1.

"I sure as hell hope James is right but this group hasn't done anything yet," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "We don't have a year, a first down or a point yet. I like the group and I think if we approach things the right way and maximize their opportunities, we have a chance to do some things."

Finally Finding A Home

There's no question that Manasseh Garner is a complete athlete. In his high school career, Garner caught 83 passes for 1,267 yards and 21 touchdowns and had 149 tackles, 10 sacks and four interceptions. Wisconsin recruited Garner as an H-back but his talent and versatility was too great for head coach Bret Bielema to leave on the bench.

Garner was utilized as a defensive end, a wide receiver and a gunner on special teams last season but with so many coaches prying at him and giving him information, it was a challenge to succeed. He was moved to H-back at the start of the spring, but Bielema has moved Garner back to wide receiver, which is where he apparently will stay through the course of the season.

"He was kind of a jack-of-all-trades last year," Bielema said. "I think we may have given him a disservice to play him offensively and defensively and a little special teams. One of the things we tried to do as coaches was hone him in to a specific slot. That's where he's been at wide receiver since the start of spring ball last year and you can see the development coming out of him.

With Toon out in the spring, Garner was the team's leading receiver in the spring game. With Wisconsin losing three wide receivers from last year's squad, it appears Garner has the inside track to be the team's No.3 receiver.

"Manasseh is a willing soldier and he's very athletic," Bielema said. "He's a kid that I really think that I think in the next three weeks is going to take a big jump."

A New Position Battle

When listing off the number of position battles at Big Ten media days, Bielema mentioned nothing about the kicking positions. Over a week later, that has changed.

Senior kicker Philip Welch handled kickoff and field goal duties the past three seasons, but it's apparent that sophomore Alec Lerner and redshirt freshman Kyle French are both pushing for both spots.

"Phil has obviously done it, he's been successful at it, but I think Kyle French and Alec Lerner are hitting the ball extremely well," Bielema said. "You're not going to be given a position just because you have been there.

Bielema said the kickers were a perfect 8-for-8 in competitive field goals in the first practice. Welch missed at least one — the only kicker to miss — on the second day. Welch has been the Badgers top placekicker his entire career in Madison. He's UW's all-time leader with 153 career extra points made and ranks second in school history with a 77 percent field goal percentage, career field goals made (54) and points (315).

But with a couple of costly misses, including one in last season's Rose Bowl loss to TCU, Welch has to earn his spot back atop the depth chart this month. Through two practices it seems as though it's off to an interesting start.

"It's a competition and there's a competition not only for the field goal spot, but also for the kickoff spot," Bielema said. "I think those two younger guys want to have it and we always have our ace in the hole, Chris Borland, who's perfect so far on PAT's."

Another battle to watch is who will be returning kicks and punts for Wisconsin. Bielema mentioned Friday that guys like Aaron Henry, James White and Kenzel Doe are all in the mix for punts and kicks, but Doe, who was recruited primarily for his abilities as a returner, says he's been focusing this summer like it is his job to lose.

"I am just trying to work hard each and every day," Doe said. "I am trying to catch every punt return and keep working hard. If I do that and the coaches feel they need me and I can play, then throw me out there because I always want to play, no matter what."

Extra Points: Sophomore Travis Frederick, the expected starter at left guard, squatted 730 pounds, according to Bielema. "They just kind of stopped him because he shouldn't be able to do that," Bielema said. "Physically, he's a freak of nature. Mentally, he's a freak of nature." … Jeff Lewis and Melvin Gordon have both changed their bodies a year ago and appears at least one of them will contribute … The first recruit in the 2011 recruiting class, Jake Keefer finally was able to put on the Wisconsin jersey and start practicing. "It's been a long time coming," he said. "I've been waiting for quite awhile and I am just really thankful to get that opportunity. It's great to hit the field with such a great group of teammates."

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