In 16 days, the Camp Randall stands will actually be full, which is why defensive coordinator Chris Ash – while not naming his starters publicly – has a great idea who will line up on his side of the ball when Wisconsin hosts Northern Iowa September 1.
"The 11 guys running with the ones on the first day of camp will likely be the guys," said Ash, referring to Beau Allen, David Gilbert, Ethan Hemer and Brendan Kelly on the defensive line; Ethan Armstrong, Chris Borland and Mike Taylor among the linebackers; Marcus Cromartie, Shelton Johnson, Devin Smith and Dezmen Southward in the secondary.
"It's been a lot easier this year rather than last year. We really have to prepare for (three) styles of offense here at Wisconsin because of what our offense does, what we face in the league and what we will face against Northern Iowa. It's a challenge from that standpoint but when you have veteran guys that have played on game day, it's a lot easier. We're a lot further ahead than where we were a year ago."
O'Brien Airs it Out
With his entire receiving corps blanketed with coverage on a play-action rollout to his left, Danny O'Brien waited as long as he could before tucking the ball and running. Although compared a lot to former UW quarterback Scott Tolzien, O'Brien definitely runs quicker and managed to turn the broken play into an 8-yard gain.
He can also throw, too. During the two-minute drill, O'Brien utilized solid protected pocket to hit Jeff Duckworth on an inside slant route with a pass that was a near-perfect spiral, had good zip and hit the receiver right where it needed to be.
It wasn't the first time during the practice where O'Brien aired it out. During 7-on-7, O'Brien was confidently completing shorter passes to his running backs in the flat and tight ends on out routes, but went deep once to Jared Abbrederis for big results. Being defended by Devin Gaulden, Abbrederis gave Gaulden a little arm bar that knocked the sophomore down, allowing the junior receiver to haul in an easy pass for a 65-yard touchdown.
In the last week, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has complimented the play of junior Manasseh Garner and true freshman Reggie Love as players who have put together some complete practices. The most consistent of the group in terms of work ethic appears to be redshirt freshman Jordan Fredrick, who returned to practice after suffering a painful calf bruise the night before.
"He has a high care factor. He really cares and wants to get better," said wide receiver coach Zach Azzanni said of Fredrick. "He shuts down this building every night. I have to tell him to go home and get rest because he's grinding on the field and he wears me out. His work ethic is really, really making his game improve."
Opposite Abbrederis, Azzanni has run a lot of players through the ‘Z' position in addition to Fredrick. During two-minute drill segments, Doe and Fredrick were the first-team receivers while Duckworth, Garner, A.J. Jordan and Chase Hammond all worked with the second team.
"There is some talent in there," said Azzanni. "We're just up and down right now."
Thursday was certainly a down day for the receivers, as the Badgers' receivers dropped a number of catchable balls during team drills.
"We had a poor day of practice," said Azzanni. "One day we'll look like the Packers and the next day we'll look like an eighth grade team. We just have to keep plugging away."
Azzanni says his goal in 2012 is to go into the season with six receivers he could fully rotate on to the field. Admitting that the goal might not be viable this season, Azzanni is confident to say his group is much better now than they were at the end of spring camp.
"We're heads and shoulders better," said Azzanni. "From that standpoint I am really happy. We have to go out and keep developing."
One of the under publicized position battles heading into the season opener is the competition to replace four-year starting kicker Philip Welch. While Kyle French got the experience last year with Welch being out (going 3-for-5 on field goals and 26-for-27 on extra point attempts in seven games last season), true freshman kicker Jack Russell possesses a powerful leg.
"It's a dead heat," said co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, who also works with the kickers. "There is no clear leader right now. We need to find somebody who can be consistent who will be our starter on both field goal and kickoffs."
For the first time in camp, Wisconsin ended practice with each kicker making field goal attempts in front of the entire team. French unofficially went 2-for-4, hitting field goals from 26 and 38 while missing from 31 and 47. Russell went 3-for-4 and hit from 24, 30 and 37 while missing from 46.
Junior linebacker Chris Borland also made a 42-yard field goal attempt, but his right-footed kick fell just short. Bielema told the boosters gathered that Borland made a 50-yard field goal with his left foot the other day.
According to Partridge, Wisconsin is not opposed to letting one kicker handle the extra points and the field goal attempts and another kicker do the kickoffs.
"If one declares he is better than the other, we'll use both," said Partridge. "Right now it's dead even."
Russell registered 68 touchbacks on 82 kickoffs (89.2 percent) last season for Waunakee.
Another Watt on the Move
Four years after his older brother made the switch from offense to defense, Derek Watt has embraced the move from defense to offense. In a move done to bolster the fullback position and to try and get him on the field quicker, Watt has created a position battle in just his first week on the job.
"He's probably taken to that faster than I could have ever imagined," Bielema said Wednesday. "And I think Thomas Hammock, as you all know is a hard coach to please at times, and I think he was kind of overwhelmed."
Taking practice reps with sophomore Sherard Cadogan, Watt - 6-2 and 227 pounds - isn't the ideal size to take on speeding linebacker or massive defensive linemen, but has really benefited from his background knowledge on defense.
"There's a lot of carry over," Bielema said. "I do think a defensive guy moving over to offense has a bigger advantage because he knows, ‘OK, I'm blocking that backer.' He knows it. So his knowledge is good, we know his effort is good, he's able to move and bend (in pass protection) … that's something that takes time to develop, and he was pretty natural."