"We need to get better every single day and have respectable competition with the offense every single day," Smith said after a 90-minute Wednesday practice. "Healthy competition gets both sides of the ball prepared. We just have to make sure we're competing hard and making plays."
From yesterday's afternoon practice to Wednesday morning's practice, the Badgers' defense looked sharper with their alignments and their reads. It could be the main reason why Wisconsin's offense scored only one touchdown during 7-on-7 drills inside the 25-yard line and never created much of a challenge during the two-minute offense to close practice.
"Mental errors could be detrimental, especially at the end of a game when we're working the two-minute (offense)," said Smith. "We're starting to focus in a lot."
Of all the players on the first-team defense, nobody appears more focused than Smith. So when defensive coordinator Chris Ash preached to the defensive backs to not let receivers get an advantage by getting over the top of the defender's leverage, Smith responded on the first series of the two-minute drill with a clip Ash will love to show in the film room.
"I've seen that play so many times, so I aligned deeper but watched his eyes so I could break on it as fast as I could," said Smith. "I feel a lot smarter than I did last year. This is my last opportunity, so I don't take it as another day of practice. I take it as another day to get better."
With Curt Phillips guiding the second-string offense, the defense avoided a backbreaker when junior Manasseh Garner dropped a contested pass that would have been a 30-yard gain into their defense's territory.
Phillips responded by completing a pass to Sam Arneson for seven yards and going back to Garner on third down for a five-yard gain and a first down. After a run with Jeff Lewis went nowhere and kept the clock running, good coverage down field caused Phillips to take off running. It was actually a good sign, as Phillips looked fluid and agile moving on his knee and got the Badgers to a third-and-2 situation.
An inside handoff moved the chains with 59 seconds left, but a slip by Garner cost the Badgers a potential first down. Facing third-and-5 from the defense's 40-yard line, more blanketed coverage by the secondary forced Phillips to scramble to the 36, burn his final timeout and create a fourth-and-1. A fumbled snap was recovered nicely by Phillips on the ensuing play to hand the ball off to Lewis, but Michael Caputo was right there to make the tackle for no gain.
It continues a string of good plays for Caputo, who made an interception yesterday working as the second-string strong safety behind Shelton Johnson.
"I feel good out there and I've been reading my keys and doing what I am supposed to do," Caputo said after practice. "I made the play, but the linebacker and the defensive line did their job to allow me to make the play. It's hard for me to take full credit."
Danny O'Brien worked with the first-team offense on the final series but, like his predecessors, had no luck. A drop by Jacob Pedersen was foreshadowing of things to come, as two high throws by O'Brien on third and fourth down ended practice.
With three seniors in the secondary, two veterans among the linebackers and depth on the defensive line, Smith is confident that the unit's showing in practice Wednesday is what the group can do all season long to opponents.
"We have a very experienced group, one of the most experienced groups I have been a part of," said Smith. "We have three seniors that have played a lot of ball and Dezmen Southward has been getting experience. Our linebackers are unbelievable and a d-line is unbelievable, as well. We definitely could be one of the best in the Big Ten, and we definitely want to be one of the best in the nation."
Red Zone Numbers
The only touchdown Wisconsin's offense scored all day came at the hands of O'Brien, who threw a perfect pass to the corner of the end zone that Montee Ball went up and secured. During various distances inside the 25, O'Brien went 4-for-6 for 39 yards. His two incompletions were a throw out of the back of the end zone and a back-shoulder pass to Kenzel Doe where only the sophomore could have caught it.
Phillips went 5-for-7 for 30 yards but never was able to get a ball over the goal line.
"Our quarterbacks don't make a lot of mistakes," said Smith. "If a DB is covering a receiver well, they aren't going to force the pass. I think that's a big thing that we have. We have really smart quarterbacks. Danny has a lot of playing experience, Curt has been here for awhile with a lot of experience being around the program and Stave is getting better every single day working hard. All three have a lot of potential. Every day it brings a lot of competition and helps us get ready for the quarterbacks we're going to face."
Third Down Numbers
In a quarterback competition that is still very much wide open, O'Brien went 2-for-5 on his third-down distances that varied from third-and-4 to third-and-10, numbers that could have been better had Garner not slipped coming out of his break near the marker and if his blockers had picked up a corner blitz.
Phillips unofficially went 3-for-4 on his attempts between third-and-2 and third-and-10, and moved the chains twice. He did take a sack on third-and-7 and completed a pass to Doe for only two yards on third-and-10.
Stave unofficially went 1-for-4 on his attempts and 0-for-3 on his passes, throwing one pass behind the receiver that was broken up and seeing redshirt freshman A.J. Jordan drop a completion on third-and-10.
Extra Points: Tight end coach Eddie Faulkner worked extensively on kickoff coverage, a unit that was previously coached by Joe Rudolph … Abbrederis, Doe, Melvin Gordon, Vonte Jackson and Jeff Lewis all fielded kickoffs … Receivers Abbrederis, Doe and Jordan Fredrick and tailback James White worked with the first-team offense during drills.