You look at all three quarterbacks and you can tell O'Brien has the most game experience. Throwing only two interceptions and completing over 70 percent of his charted passes during fall camp, O'Brien impressed me with his consistency and his intelligence. Looking at him compete, he reminds me of Scott Tolzien the way he plays the game, knows the playbook and knows where he's going to be able to find an open receiver.
O'Brien never took any unreasonable risks with his throws (when he did, he never forced the ball into double coverage and they were put where only the receiver could make a play on it), always comfortable taking the easy pass to the open receiver and having confidence in his offense to move the chains in any spot. In third-down situations, O'Brien always seemed to know what he needed to do to get his team a first down, because he admitted that the UW offense is more productive the longer it stays on the field.
Curt Phillips is a great story after overcoming three ACL surgeries and is a very knowledgeable quarterback and his knee, thankfully, never encountered any setbacks during camp where he had to miss a rep. The only knock on him was that he wasn't always accurate with his throws, a product that led to multiple interceptions and could be caused by his inability to firmly plant on his surgically repaired knee. Canada said at the beginning of camp that Phillips was probably the healthiest he's going to be, so there's obviously some questions about his durability.
Joel Stave has the strongest arm of the three quarterbacks, but was the most inconsistent on a practice-to-practice basis. Stave completed the most deep passes, but also seemed to miss a lot more of the easy ones compared to the other two. He certainly has the tools to be a solid UW quarterback down the line, but that time is not now.
Which players impressed you most during fall camp?
On offense, I really like O'Brien and Melvin Gordon from a skill player standpoint. I think Rob Havenstein (who we'll profile tomorrow) had a tremendous camp and looked great coming off shoulder surgery. He has the ability to possibly move to left tackle next season to replace Ricky Wagner because he is so big, so mobile and has so much potential.
On defense, I was really impressed with how Ethan Armstrong progressed. Combine him with Taylor and Borland, the linebackers could be the best group of three in the country. Just like last year, Devin Smith had a tremendous camp, so keep your fingers crossed that he can stay healthy. The jury is still out for me on David Gilbert, who has the skills but still looked a little rusty in certain drills. If he can get in a groove during the nonconference season, he'll be dangerous.
How will Peniel Jean's injury affect the defense for the first two months of the season?
I don't think it will have the same impact that Smith's injury did last year – the injury that UW coach Bret Bielema said may have cost the team a national championship shot. I don't know if I exactly buy that logic, but Smith was playing good last year and Jean had been having a good camp up until the injury. The difference is Smith was a starter and Jean was going to be the team's starting nickel corner, and the Badgers do have some depth at the position unlike last year.
I think since the injury happened early, UW will be able to give meaningful reps to both Devin Gaulden and Darius Hillary. We've been hearing for a year now how gifted Hillary is and I saw it during camp with his pass coverage. I think fans should be excited to see the youth movement at that position. Is this a loss for Wisconsin's defense? Absolutely. Will it cost the team victories? Time will tell.
Montee is going to get the majority of the carries in conference play, but I wouldn't be surprised if the carries are more balanced between Ball, White and Gordon through the nonconference season. My opinion is twofold. First the coaching staff wants to keep Ball healthy for the conference season, especially when the Badgers play solid run defenses in Michigan State and Ohio State the second half of the season. There's no point in pounding the ball with Ball in the second half of nonconference blowouts.
The other reason is to simply get Ball use to playing again. Not having been tackled since the Rose Bowl and being held out of all spring and fall scrimmages, Ball will have some rust on him no matter what he or the coaching staff says. By slowly building his carries, you're giving your Heisman Finalist a chance to get his legs back underneath him. Wisconsin has done this before with its quarterbacks, slowing increasing the number of passing plays in the nonconference season to get a new quarterback acclimated to the offense and the surroundings.
With two solid backups and only one ball to share, the UW coaching staff can afford to take this approach to let both White and Gordon shine in different opportunities. I don't think the UW staff needs to give Ball over 20 carries until the season opener.
What wrinkles do you think Matt Canada is going to use on offense?
I think Wisconsin fans will see a lot more of James White on the field in key situations. After Montee Ball shined late, white was relegated to mop-up duty, but everyone knows he can. Dating back to the spring, the Badgers use two-back sets and even three tight-end formations that are unique this season.
With the question marks UW has at receiver, the Badgers have put White and Ball on the field at the same time and have had White in motion and lined up as a slot receiver. Even though Ball had nine more receptions than White last year, White might be the team's best pass catching back, a notion that running back coach Thomas Hammock didn't admit but hinted at recently.
"He's attacked the camp every day and been a great leader for our group," said Hammock. "He's shown the young guys how to work day in and day out. He's been very, very consistent as a guy we can depend on come this fall."
With what Canada has done with him in the offense, it's going to make White a very dangerous and viable option that is going to open up opportunities for Ball and the tight ends. I think White might be the comeback player of the year on Wisconsin's football roster.
How big of weekend could this be for Wisconsin in recruiting?
If you mark a weekend's success by whether or not the Badgers get a commitment, then this weekend likely will be a success. Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge has been after three-star cornerback Sojourn Shelton for ages, even after the Florida cornerback committed to Florida State. Shelton fell out of favor with the Seminoles and now appears to the Badgers' player to lose. Bielema doesn't like to let players commit to his program without seeing the campus first, and Saturday will be Shelton's first trip to Madison. From the way he has talked about the program, a decision seems likely.
"The visit to Wisconsin is an important one," Shelton told us on August 19. "If I had to make a decision today I would choose Wisconsin, but I've talked with my parents about it. Like I said I have some questions that I would like to be answered but it's a possibility I could commit when I'm on my visit."
If Shelton commits, the Badgers would have a pair of solid cornerback with him and three-star Minneapolis defensive back Keelon Brookins.
On the hardwood, the Badgers are welcoming in Ohio forward Nigel Hayes, an important visit considering the Wisconsin coaching staff has to make a favorable impact on him since he picked up an important offer from Ohio State at the beginning of August.
"They have been watching me and it makes me feel good, like it would any kid to see a coach at your game watching you," Hayes told us on August 18. "As for my feelings, I feel really good about them because they've been in contact with me the most and are pushing for me the hardest. They basically love me."
Hayes will likely take more visits, so a commitment from him would be a huge surprise and boost for the Badgers.
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