With at least three scholarship players leaving the program after this season and having brought in two scholarship lineman in each of the last two recruiting classes, it would appear that next season's offensive line would be even thinner in depth than this season's sturdy group, a unit that has only missed two starters for one game all season.
It has been a gamble and involved some adjusting, like the coaching staff projecting guards Travis Frederick and Kevin Zeitler to redshirt but ended up playing as freshman, but as coach Bret Bielema alluded to in his Monday news conference, sometimes the gambles pay off.
"Ricky Wagner jumped in, we really didn't project that being able to happen, and to be quite honest, Peter Konz, I thought he was going to be a defensive lineman and, in my opinion, probably one of the best centers in college football," Bielema said. "Not probably, I've had numerous people tell me that. There's been a little bit of checks and balances there."
Still, Bielema said the emphasis for this recruiting class was huge on offensive linemen. That emphasis has been a big payoff, as Wisconsin has received verbal commitments from three four-star linemen - J.J. Denman, Kyle Dodson and Dan Voltz - and one three-star lineman - Walker Williams. The Badgers are also pursuing five-star lineman Jordan Diamond, who is expected to announce his decision in February.
"This year needed to be a big year for us," Bielema said, "and it is."
Curiously, none of Wisconsin's offensive linemen targets hail from in-state, a strange occurrence seeing as Wisconsin's three-person senior and two-person junior scholarship class all are Wisconsin natives.
"In-state recruiting is so dependent on (parents) deciding to have big kids and what year," Bielema said. "What we want here at Wisconsin isn't really normal. You need to have a certain frame and a certain look to you to get what we want and what we are able to do."
Wisconsin has not signed a scholarship lineman since Dallas Lewallen, last season's offensive scout player of the year, since the 2010 signing class. Bielema mentioned that Lewallen had to have surgery to repair a left knee injury and could miss part of spring ball.
There's no question senior quarterback Russell Wilson has developed a great connection with senior Nick Toon and sophomore Jared Abbrederis, as Toon continues to climb the UW record books and Abbrederis asserts himself as the team's biggest threat. But with Wisconsin looking for a third receiver to step out from the pack, the Badgers got a glimmer of third-year sophomore Jeff Duckworth on Saturday in the 62-17 win over Purdue.
Coming into the season with three career catches (the only player other than Abbrederis and Toon with college catches), Duckworth has caught eight passes for 134 yards in eight games this season, including two catches for 78 yards (a long of 66) against the Boilermakers.
"I think Jeff Duckworth, you notice in the film room how intelligent he is," Wilson said. "He gets things extremely fast. If coach wants Duckworth to do something in particular on the practice field or the game field and we talk about it in the film room, as soon as we go out to practice he's on it and he gets it every single time. He's got a lot of talented obviously, catches the ball extremely well, he's dependable, got good speed … when you have that and another guy to go to, that always helps."
Overcoming the White Out
After rushing 156 times for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns a season ago, James White earned the Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. This season, he's having a hard time earning any semblance of playing time. Through nine games, White has 102 carries, putting him on pace to equal last year's number, but has just 524 yards and six touchdowns, two of which he scored Saturday against Purdue.
It's nothing from a physical standpoint, according to Bielema, but just things not working out in his favor.
"I can't argue anything James is doing prep wise," Bielema said. "It's kind of the luck of the draw. We were putting him the third series for instance and his first series in there when all of a sudden, their three technique rips underneath a play that had already been successful in the game, makes a great play, tackle for loss and we're playing behind the chains and it changes the flow a little bit.
"What we wanted to do is get James on Saturday some opportunities to get in the end zone, get that feeling back and not trying to script anything. … I think for us to get James in the end zone was really good."
There's no question that White is dedicated. After the Michigan State game, White reportedly approached the UW coaching staff about possibly playing a part on special teams. After all, White said he had experience because he blocked a punt while playing the position in high school.
"Just another selfless example of a guy that just wants to do anything he can to help the team," Bielema said.
From the Infirmary
Bielema is hopeful that the Badgers will get junior defensive end David Gilbert back this week. Gilbert has been out since the Nebraska game, and said last week he was targeting the Illinois game as a return date.
Senior safety Aaron Henry did pool workouts Monday and Bielema is hopeful to get Henry back Tuesday in limited form. If Henry isn't able to go this week, Wisconsin will be without half of its opening day starters in the secondary, as Devin Smith is redshirting with a broken foot.
"There's been a concern ever since Devin Smith," Bielema said. "That put (Marcus Cromarite) in the situation where we are at. (Peniel Jean) was a little banged up for a couple weeks but fortunately he's back to being 100 percent, so that gives me a little reassurance with him and Devin Gaulden. At the safety position, we were going to go with either (Adam) Hampton or Dez (Southward), but Hamp had some back issues and played a limited role on special teams.
"At Wisconsin, you are going to have a delicate thin position at all times. It's kind of a pick and chose."
Most Valuable Players
Wisconsin and the Big Ten has similar thoughts in awarding its offensive and defensive MVPs following last weekend, as both named Montee Ball the offensive MVP and Chris Borland as the defensive MVP.
Ball rushed for a career-best 223 yards, the most rushing yards by a Badgers back since 2007, doing his damage on just 20 carries and scored three touchdowns in Wisconsin's win over Purdue.
"Montee chose us because what we've done," Bielema said. "Going back during Coach Alvarez's time and the history all those running backs were able to create kind of carried forward the same formula. I know if you sat down and talked with (Ball) and asked him why he chose Wisconsin, it's because we run a two-back I-formation and he wanted to be behind a fullback and play downhill football.
"That got him here, but what Montee has done since he got here is in his own hands."
Ball has scored 24 total touchdowns this season, matching the school's single-season record and just two behind the conference record.
"I am surprised Montee doesn't have more touchdowns," said Wilson. "He's extremely talented. You notice that in the practice field, you notice that in the film room and come game time, he's ready to go. He always wants the ball in his hands and that's a great thing to have in terms of a running back to make big time players when things aren't always there."
Borland finished with 11 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, two forced fumbles and returning an interception to the Purdue 5-yard line in Wisconsin's win.
"I think he has really grown in every game," Bielema said. "He's been in position to make a lot of plays. Chris has this little thing where we wants to improvise and make all big plays. Sometimes, the biggest thing you have to learn at linebacker is discipline and he's done very well."
"When you are watching the film and you see Abby show up in so many different ways, but I can't tell you how many times I have been amazed on Sunday you see him do certain things," Bielema said. "He's an exceptional football player that we are really blessed to have."
Extra Points: Wisconsin's November 19 game at Illinois will be at 11 a.m. and be television by either ESPN or ESPN2 … Bielema said Wisconsin is still evaluation kickoff coverage personnel. …Wisconsin is 16-2 in the regular season games played after Nov.1 in Bielema tenure.
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