Spring Game: Positions to Watch

In its quest to win a third straight Big Ten championship, Wisconsin returns a lot of key components on both sides of the football, but still has questions that need answering. In preparation for Saturday's spring game, Badger Nation gives its positions to watch.

Positions to Watch

1, Quarterbacks

The play of the quarterbacks was the top position under the microscope last season, as Wisconsin needed to find a suitable replacement for Scott Tolzien. With the decision of Russell Wilson still months away, the combined performance under center of 21 of 55 (38.2 percent) for 232 yards, with three interceptions, one fumble and no touchdown passes had many concerned.

With the arrival of Danny O'Brien at the end of May, many faithful are already crowning the former Maryland quarterback as the Badgers starter under center September 1 against Northern Iowa, meaning the level of concern following Saturday, no matter the outcome. Truth of the matter is that the quarterback play needs to improve, because what will happen if O'Brien doesn't catch on right away or an injury occurs?

Wisconsin needs a capable, consistent backup and neither Joel Stave nor Joe Brennan is at that point yet. Both have had some ups and plenty of downs, as consistency and confidence seems to be the number one enemy at this point. Throughout team drills, either quarterback rarely strings together a bunch of good throws or throws the deep ball.

Both have improved from where they were in the fall. Some veterans have said Stave has a good grasp of the huddle and Brennan has showed to have a good arm. Part of the struggles can be attributed to the offense being in transition with new offensive coordinator Matt Canada putting his imprint on the program, but the QBs have got to step up and prove they can play at the Division 1 level.

2, Wide Receivers

Much like the quarterback position, no player has stepped up to the plate and seized a starting spot heading into summer. In fact, some practices look like no player has a desire to play with the amount of mistakes and drops that are made. Granted redshirt junior Jared Abbrederis has missed most of spring to rest a foot injury, but the void he left behind is gaping.

Jeff Duckworth was penciled into the No.2 spot, but he has had a quiet spring. Young players like Marquis Mason, Isaiah Williams, Kenzel Doe and A.J. Jordan look good at points, but have failed to string together consistent plays. Part of that has to do with the struggles of the quarterbacks, but a lot of plays have been left on the field.

Over the course of spring, we have seen Wisconsin split out Montee Ball and James White as receivers and used some three tight end formation sets. That could be a common theme this year if the receivers continue to underperform. The group is young, but youth can only be used as an excuse for so long. If wide receiver coach Zach Azzanni had a say in it, youth would never be an excuse.

3, Cornerbacks

Senior Devin Smith likely won't play as he continues to recover from his broken foot and a lingering sports hernia issue, but he'll be ready by the summer. In the meantime, the three-man rotation of Marcus Cromartie, Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean will get a chance to show fans that the secondary isn't going to be a weak point of the team this season.

Cromartie was a little shaky after being thrust into the starting lineup following Smith's injury, but has turned in a solid spring camp. Singled out in previous years by the coaching staff because of his lack of focus, Cromartie has been solid as a rock throughout camp, looking quick on his breaks and has well defended his assignments.

Bielema hinted that Hillary might see some reps at safety during the spring, but the redshirt freshman has been one of the top underclassmen on the defensive side of the ball with his play. He's been slowed late because of a hamstring, so his status for Saturday is in question, but the Ohio native has good awareness and uses his receiver background to play the ball in the air as well as anybody.

Jean was another benefactor of the Smith injury and he's used the 14 games he played in last season to really bolster his confidence. Seeing a lot of time with the first-team defense, Jean uses every bit of his 5-11 frame to disrupt receivers' routes and make plays on the ball. He is showing signs of a young Antonio Fenelus, and Jean has a stranglehold on the third cornerback/nickel spot heading into the fall.

4, Offensive Line – Right Side

The left side of Wisconsin's offensive line is set, as Ricky Wagner (left tackle), Ryan Groy (left guard) and Travis Frederick (center) bring the most experience and have utilized every rep with the first-team offense this spring. The right side of the line is a different story, as new offensive line coach Mike Markuson has rotated a ton of players in those positions to find the right fits.

The two players that have stood out in the last week are senior walk-on Robby Burge at right guard and redshirt junior Casey Dehn at right tackle. Both players are likely working with the first-team offense because of injury – as right guard Dallas Lewallen and right tackle Rob Havenstein will return in the fall following surgery – but both have put past mistakes behind them to take advantage of their opportunities.

Burge endured a difficult 2011 season, missing two blocking assignments in the punt wedge formation that led to two blocked kicks, two huge momentum shifts and contributed to two heartbreaking losses in back-to-back weeks. Burge lost his spot following the Ohio State but while Burge was struggling, Dehn was at home after having quit the team.

Both have shown a new level of aggressiveness at their positions and have cleared gaps and lead sweeps with good consistency. How they've grown this spring is key to the position battles they'll be a part of heading into the fall.

5, Special Teams

In 10 practices the media has been allowed to watch, the media has seen probably three total field goal attempts and zero punts. Needless to say, the group is still full of question marks. Redshirt sophomore Kyle French appeared in seven games last season, mostly in the beginning of the season when Philip Welch was recovering from a leg injury. French went 3-for-5 on his field goal attempts and 26-for-27 on his extra point attempts and also dabbled in kickoffs. French hasn't shown as much leg power as Welch, so it'll be interesting to see how much stronger he is heading into his second kicking season.

Drew Meyer – a walk-on redshirt freshman from Hartland, Wis. – was ranked as No. 13 punter in the nation and No. 30 kicker by Kohl's and averaged 40.4 yards per punt as a senior. Little is known about him, which will make this spring performance important for him to silence fans who are concerned that the Badgers have to replace four-year starters at kicker and punter.

6, Outside Linebacker

Two positions of the linebacker trio are set with Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, but the battle for strongside linebacker has been the best position battle (actually, the only position battle) on the defensive side of the ball during spring. Conor O'Neill, who came on late last season as a playmaker on special teams, started with the first-team defense, but A.J. Fenton emerged following practice five and has never looked back.

Unlike O'Neill, Fenton has yet to make his mark in any area on the field, admitting that he's been discouraged at times with his progress. He admitted to feeling a sense of urgency following spring, and started using his new frame (he shed 10 pounds off his frame to get some speed back) to his benefit. UW coach Bret Bielema said Fenton is playing his best stretch of football in his young career, and many would tend to agree. O'Neill will be on the white team while Fenton will be on the cardinal squad, giving fans a compare and contract opportunity between two talented redshirt juniors.


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