Spring Practice Report - 3.9.13

Although he was hired in late December, the Gary Andersen era officially kicked off Saturday afternoon with Andersen's first practice as coach of Wisconsin.

MADISON - Crisp new jerseys and music blaring through a massive set of speakers at the McClain Center Saturday afternoon proved enough for it to feel a revolution was afoot for the Wisconsin football team.

Not that it took much, because in the words of new coach Gary Andersen, this was "kind of pretend football."

Saturday marked not just the start of spring football but also the official beginning of the Andersen era, and any onlooker would have no trouble picking up on the differences compared to a practice under his predecessor. Donning only helmets and no pads, players were broken into position groups and worked on individual skill drills before spending the final part of practice in no contact sets with 22 players on the field.

A different vibe

Anyone who stepped within earshot of the McClain Center could hear the bass bumping for the entirety of the two-hour practice. Macklemore, Michael Jackson and Rick Springfield's hit Jesse's Girl, along with country, rap and dubstep beats brought an entirely fresh feel to the first spring practice.

The eclectic playlist, put together by Andersen with input from players, earned positive reviews from those on the field. It brought a welcome distraction to the tougher moments of a long practice and lightened the mood.

"Everything's different — the tempo is a little bit different, a bit more upbeat tempo, I would say," sophomore running back Melvin Gordon said. "With the music, I like it. It takes your mind off the pain and you're vibing with the music and it gives you a little boost."

Aside from the excitement it provided, Andersen revealed a more strategic motive for the tunes pouring onto the field from the sideline — replicating the crowd noise typical of a game setting. And it worked for junior quarterback Joel Stave, who said the manufactured noise forced him to come through loud and clear on every call.

"We do get in situations on offense and on defense where it's very, very loud," Andersen said. "If you're in a controlled environment where there's no crowd noise or music or what have you, you get a little soft in your voice and you don't communicate the way you need to in those critical situations."

The battle ensues

The most heavily scrutinized spot on the football field for Wisconsin this spring will be under center, and if Saturday is any indication, it won't be one that ends any time soon.

Stave and Cut Phillips, recently granted a sixth year by the NCAA, split reps equally in the full team drills that concluded practice. Danny O'Brien and redshirt freshman Bart Houston also saw significant reps under center, and all four took part in a handful of drills where they rolled right out of the play-action.

Both Stave and Phillips were generally on target throughout practice, though Phillips seemed to try to connect on passes that were either longer or into tighter spaces and saw more fall incomplete as a result. All four showed the ability to throw an accurate deep ball, but Phillips' longer throws looked like they could use some more zip while Stave admitted he had some issues getting the ball to fly in a tight spiral on his throws.

"It was good start," Phillips said. "Obviously it's a little rusty, [just like] every time the first time you get back out here, but it's just fun to be out here. Build on it, get in here and watch the film and we got several more practices."

Houston, a highly-touted recruited out of California powerhouse De La Salle, showcased what may be the strongest arm in the Badgers' rotation. Some of his deep throws were off the mark, but usually because they were overthrown and even on shallow routes he fired off bullets into the arms of his receivers.

After two hours of practice, all four appeared to have the required skills to be Wisconsin's starting quarterback. And each was just as confident they could be the starter come September.

"That's kind of how you have to look at it if you want to continue to compete — it's always got to be your spot until someone takes that from you," Stave said. "That's the way I try and look at it."

Life without Montee

With less than seven weeks remaining before the NFL Draft, former Badgers' tailback Montee Ball took in Saturday's practice from the sideline in non-playing attire.

The man who rushed for 5,140 yards over four years at Wisconsin watched as his longtime backup James White and Gordon took reps with the first team. Both showed promising breakout speed in the 11-on-11 drills and burst through holes that pushed them several yards deep into defensive territory, where potential tacklers could only touch the runners.

As he enters his own senior season, White said he had already grown accustomed to not having No. 28 on the field. He also said he thinks he added an extra bit of quickness through winter conditioning and is confident he — along with Gordon and Jeff Lewis — can make up for the massive offensive hole Ball leaves in this offense.

"We both can do a little bit of everything — catch the ball in the backfield, we could block, we could run with power, run with speed," White said. "I think we have a lot more speed in the backfield [with] me, [Gordon] and Jeff as well."

Gordon described the competition for the starting running back spot between he and White as "friendly competitive," as the two are close off the field and spend much of their free time together.

"We're real cool, but we know on the field it does get competitive," he said. "James wants the starting spot, feels like it's his time and I want to make a name for myself. We both understand how it goes."

Gordon proved his speed on the Jet Sweeps that often brought big gains for the Badgers' offense in 2012, but each said they could be the kind of up-the-middle power runner that has been the cornerstone of Wisconsin football for decades.

Other notes

Andersen said linebacker Ethan Armstrong will not participate in spring ball as he recovers from planned shoulder surgeries but should rejoin the team this summer. Armstrong started all 14 games last year alongside Mike Taylor and Chris Borland and ranked third on the team with 93 tackles.

Former fullback Sherard Cadogan has switched to linebacker ahead of the spring season. The redshirt junior lost the starting fullback spot to Derek Watt early last season and Andersen said he recommended the switch to Cadogan.

After practice UW's new coach said the offensive line is on "very thin ice" in terms of having enough players healthy for spring football. Coaches will carefully regulate the playing time of guard Kyle Costigan, according to Andersen. The redshirt junior, started nine games for the Badgers last year.

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