In terms of the questions we definitely had answered, we recognized that offensive coordinator Matt Canada is not going to reinvent the wheel with the offense. After three practices, the Badgers are still a ground-and-pound team that likes to incorporate the tight ends in the passing game, as Sam Arneson looked impressive the past week. The only new wrinkle was the Badgers using two running backs in an offensive formation … a smart move because James White is one of the top three skill players in the offense.
The other question we had an answer to was Borland. He definitely looks bigger but when you watch him go through drills, he doesn't look like he misses a step. He's great in space and solid with his lateral movements. It's hard to tell where exactly he's at since UW has yet to go 100 percent yet, but nobody should question Borland.
The two questions that we are starting to get answers to are the defensive backs and the linemen. The defensive backs look like a confident group, which I think stems from new assistant coach Ben Strickland. None of the four projected starters – Marcus Cromartie, Peniel Jean, Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward – had a bad week, and Darius Hillary showed that he's a confident, talented player. With Devin Smith out, Hillary certainly took advantage of his reps. The entire group had a number of pass breakups this past week. The only reason is I am not sold on the group quite yet is because the quarterbacking play.
Wisconsin's offense and defensive line is still slightly in flux, but we saw a number of players step up to the plate. Offensively, Casey Dehn and Kyle Costigan were impressive and will help the Badgers build depth. Offensive line coach Mike Markuson is rotating a lot of players on the right side of the line, trying to find some depth and trying to find some chemistry. UW's left side of the line is set with Ricky Wagner, Ryan Groy and Travis Frederick, so Markuson is able to take some liberties with some players.
The only question we didn't have answered (and the one we likely won't this spring) is the play of the quarterbacks. On Saturday's scrimmage, the quarterbacks were woeful, inconsistent and unable to make the big play. The Danny O'Brien countdown has definitely started.
Heading into this week, here are the five questions we are looking to have answered.
1, Gordon's got game
Ball who? That's not me saying that, but none other than UW coach Bret Bielema. Gordon was a stud running the football between the tackles during Saturday's scrimmage. He broke a tackle from Conor O'Neill in the backfield and was at full speed within three steps, resulting in a gain over 20 yards. Without question Gordon has talent – a real reason UW didn't stop recruiting him after he committed to Iowa – and will certainly be able to contribute this year. My question is – can he stay healthy and can he keep building on his impressive Saturday performance?
2, Who is No.2?
We know Jared Abbrederis is going to be the starting wide receiver, but which receiver is going to be No.2? After the first week of open practices, I honestly have no clue, as no receiver really stepped up to the plate. Jeff Duckworth has the most experience, but hasn't made many catches in team or 7-on-7 drills. Marquis Mason is improving but still needs to prove that he is over his ACL injury. Isaiah Williams is a big body, but he's a big body that needs to be more consistent catching the ball. Kenzel Doe simply needs to catch the ball, as he's had a ton of drops. Granted the passing game hasn't been great, but the receivers need to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way.
3, Who will lead the charge?
It's nearly impossible to replace a talent like Bradie Ewing, as his run blocking and pass catching skills were one of the big reasons the running game was so dominant last season. The Badgers are looking at Sherard Cadogan and Derek Straus at the position, but UW spent part of last week with both White and Ball on the field with no fullback. How will UW's run game look this week with/if a fullback in the mix?
4, Who's the third linebacker?
We know Borland and Mike Taylor are going to be the starters as long as they are healthy, but who is going to replace the serviceable Kevin Claxton at the other outside position? That position battle appears to be between O'Neill and A.J. Fenton. O'Neill is the more experienced of the two and has developed an ability to create plays, as his work on special teams yielded a couple turnovers for the Badgers last season. Fenton on the other hand has had as good of start to camp as one could ask for and arguably has made more plays than O'Neill. Both will/should play this season, but the battle is just heating up.
5, Can they really improve?
OK, I was hard on the quarterbacks above, but I had a right to be after watching them for three practices last week. Stave was marginally better than Brennan last week, but not by much. Brennan had a better scrimmage but again the margin is pretty paper thin. Both are still young and learning a new offense, but a new offense doesn't mean you throw passes at the receiver's feet, behind them or well over their heads. Unless O'Brien is an absolute mess in his first few weeks of fall camp, he'll start after what I saw last week. With four practices this week, can UW's two healthy QBs improve on the basic fundamentals to instill the confidence in the coaches and the media?