Unlike last year's spring game, there was more offense and more positives for fans to walk away from as the Badgers now transition into preparing for their summer workouts. Here is what stood out following UW's annual spring scrimmage, which was won by the cardinal squad comprised mostly of starters 21-10.
First-team offense looked cohesive
The group was without Montee Ball in the backfield and without Dallas Lewallen and Rob Havenstein on the offensive line, but the offense moved the ball consistently and effectively against the Badgers' second-team defense.
A year after neither offense scored a touchdown, the first-team offense scored a pair of first-half touchdowns by playing Wisconsin football: mixing the run and the pass and controlling the clock for over five minutes. The first scoring drive went 63 yards in 10 plays and the second went 51 yards in 11 plays.
"That was really nice to see," said quarterback Joel Stave, who led both of those drives. "Always we're going to run the ball here. Everybody knows that and that's what we're good at doing. Just to continue to do that, it's just a lot of fun to get out and do it."
After struggling with his consistency most of spring, Stave threw the ball consistency and effectively. While his first half numbers look average (8-for-16 for 72 yards), Stave was victimized by at least four balls that should have been caught by his receivers.
Stave finished 14-for-25 for 135 passing yards, a touchdown and his only bad throw was his last one, throwing a red-zone interception to Darius Feaster inside the 10-yard line in the final two minutes.
"Before the pick, I was feeling pretty good," said Stave. "It was a fun practice. Throwing the ball, I have had good practices and bad practices and I would say this one was one of the better ones."
"Those guys are strong, they're big, they work hard and they open up the holes for us," said running back Melvin Gordon. "I couldn't be happier with the way the offensive line worked today."
Gordon is Ready
The media has been touting him all spring as being one of the most impressive players during the 15 spring practice schedule and the redshirt freshman delivered with fans getting a chance to watch. Gordon scored one touchdown from two yards out, and unofficially racked up 122 yards on 17 carries in the first half.
Gordon finished with 30 carries for 159 yards (a 5.3 average) and one touchdown.
"Thomas (Hammock) and myself both wanted to see Melvin grind it out," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "That's one of the things he hasn't had to do, and that's something I was happy to see. He almost got stronger as the day went on, in my opinion. I am excited to see him handle a full game."
Although he was primarily going against the second-team defense, Gordon showed a burst getting to the edge and turning up field. More impressive was that Gordon was hard to bring down, as defenders routinely had to force him out of bounds. Gordon's first-half totals could have been even higher, but a holding penalty waved off a carry of over 30 yards.
"I feel like I can help this team," said Gordon. "I am sure the coaches will go over that, but I feel like I can help this team out this year."
Finally a wide receiver took a step forward
All spring, UW coach Bret Bielema and UW receivers coach Zach Azzanni had been pleading with the group all spring for somebody to step up and make plays. On the last opportunity to make a first impression, Chase Hammond – a redshirt sophomore out of Boardman (Ohio) HS – wasn't going to let another chance slip past.
Hammond was targeted early and often by first-team quarterback Joel Stave, catching the first pass of the game on third-and-7 and catching the game's first touchdown. On the inside slant route for the game's first score, Hammond out jumped a defender at the 2-yard line and muscled his way over the goal line.
"It's a good thing to know you can still play football after so long," said Hammond. "I get out there, make a few catches and I get more comfortable with this … The biggest thing to know with those good plays there is a lot of stuff to get corrected. We need to get into the film room and watch this whole spring many times this summer."
Hammond has struggled to gain footing throughout his career, including last year when he missed the entire first half of the season with a broken foot. Throw in the fact that he broke his right ankle his junior year of high school, resulting in a plate and six screw being put in that were eventually removed while at UW.
"He's a very athletic specimen," said Bielema. "At one point, they told me they weren't sure he was going to be able to play, and he's battled back from that. He's gotten a little tougher this spring … He's only a sophomore, so he's got a lot of good football in front of him."
Hold on to your Hats
As good as Hammond was, his battery mates weren't quite as consistent. Drops are still an issue with the younger receivers. Jeff Duckworth dropped a third-down pass on UW's first series (although he pass was thrown slightly behind him), Sherard Cadogan dropped a screen pass inside the 5-yard line and Isaiah Williams dropped a pair of would-be touchdowns. Williams was read the riot act from Bielema and was demoted to the second-team offense, and played much better as a result.
"To me it's just a mental thing," said Bielema. "It's a physical thing to catch the football but some of those guys it's ‘ho hum I dropped the football.' No, that's a first down. That's a touchdown. Those are the things that win and lose football games. When you are not in games, you have to stress it to them as a coach. Hopefully that came away with that today."
On the same accord, Joe Brennan really struggled for the second straight spring game working with both the first- and second-team offenses. He attempted five passes toward Marquis Mason, none of which were caught or even close to being on target, and telegraphed a lot of his throws that were fortunate to not be intercepted.
"I feel compared to last spring that I've been a lot better … but today was definitely a frustrating day for me," said Brennan. "It didn't go the way I would have liked it … I have to focus on taking what the defense is giving you and try not to create too many big plays. I've got to get the offense moving, and I didn't do that at all today."
Brennan finished 2-for-11 with 24 yards passing and was sacked once, which came in the two-minute drill.
"He's got the intelligence, he's got the ability, he's got to be able to understand, ‘OK, this is the play, this is where the ball goes, it's open, throw it, if not go to No.2,'" said Bielema. "Just process it."
First-team defense looked poise for breakout season
Even without Mike Taylor and Devin Smith, the first-team defense was stifling against the reserves. It's hardly a barometer considering some of the teams UW will go up against this season, but the Badgers' starters held the white squad to no points (the 10 point came on five rapid-fire field goals worth two points) and four three-and-outs.
"You have to keep in mind that we were going against the two offense … but I think we played well," said junior defensive tackle Beau Allen, who finished with three tackles for loss. "When we were pass rushing, it was kind of a race to the QB … We were joking amongst ourselves that we were competing against each other to try and get production. We played pretty well."
Although the top five tackles all came from the second-team defense, there were playing of playing among the starters in addition to Allen that came out firing.
Ethan Hemer added weight and strength and showed that when he shed Dan Voltz at the line of scrimmage to have a clear path to Jeff Lewis. The play resulted in a 6-yard loss, pinning the offense at the 11-yard line.
Derek Landisch, who will serve as Taylor's primary backup, was active and quick to the football and Brendan Kelly is playing with a ton of confidence after finally being healthy for the last year. With a defense full of returning contributors, especially on the defensive line, veterans like Kelly are expecting more consistency when it comes to sacks and tackles for loss.
"That's going to be huge," said Kelly. "Pressure helps the defense. We can help the DBs (and) LBs, especially if there's a mistake in the secondary. That's the play where you have to make that sack, you have to get that pressure, you have to affect the throw, bat down that pass. Because when you do that you not keep confidence, you put fear in your opponent."
Keefer doing whatever it takes
He's a more suited for the mike linebacker position, but Jake Keefer is in the position as a redshirt freshman to do whatever it takes to get on the field. Working at outside linebacker throughout spring, Keefer tied for second with six total tackles and added one tackle for loss. Redshirt sophomore safety Jameson Wright led all defenders with seven tackles, as the second-team defense only gave up two touchdown drives.
"We did all right," said Keefer. "We had a couple assignment busts which we'll watch and correct in the film room. Guys were working hard and flying around to the ball … It's been tough. I have never been an outside linebacker before in my life. The first few practices were tough until you get into the flow of the things. Whatever I can do to get on the field, I'll play wherever."
Keefer is one of many young linebackers that are in the mix for time down the road.
"We just want to get him on the field," said Bielema. "He's a very intriguing player."
French has gained leg strength
After getting a cup of coffee as a redshirt freshman during the nonconference season, the big question was whether kicker Kyle French would be able to build the necessary leg strength to hit the kind of kicks that his predecessor – Philip Welch – was able to for the past four years. During the breezy scrimmage, French showed he's improving.
Attempted 10 kicks during two rapid-fire kicking segments after the first and third quarter, French went 8-for-10 on his kicks. He missed a 37-yard try wide left in the first sessions, but went 5-for-6 in the second session after hitting kicks of 27, 32, 37, 42 and 52 yards. The only kick he missed was a 57-yard try that came up five yards short.
"You rather have a nice warm day with no wind, but the mental side of kicking (means) you have to push that aside," said French.
Knowing he was going to be the only kicker coming into the spring, French worked with assistant strength coach Brian Bott with quick muscle drills and focused on the mental side of kicking. The result has been an extra three to four yards. With Waunakee kicker Jack Russell walking on in the fall, French knows that the kicking competition will only get more heated.