Spring Football Preview: Offense

With Wisconsin set to begin its 15 spring practice slate on Wednesday, BadgerNation previews the Badgers on the offensive side of the ball.


Standing outside the locker room following the Capital One Bowl, Tanner McEvoy's focus was first and foremost on another below-average performance by the secondary. In the back of his mind, however, his focus was already on the spring and going back to the position the Wisconsin coaches brought him in to compete at.

"I want to play quarterback next year," said McEvoy. "I'll get a shot and see what happens."

With incumbent starter Joel Stave sidelined for the first part of spring practices, which begins Wednesday, McEvoy will be part of a group that includes sophomore Bart Houston, redshirt freshmen Connor Senger and true freshman D.J. Gillins who will get reps with the main offenses.

Wisconsin won't name a starter until the fall, but the spring will be a good indicator as to which quarterback(s) challenge Stave for the starting job in preparation for the Aug.31 season opener against LSU in Houston.

McEvoy is the quarterback Wisconsin's offensive coaching staff ideally wants to run the offense: a mobile quarterback with speed, athleticism and the versatility to beat defenses with his arm or his legs. It's a position UW has recruited to in the 2013, '14 and '15 recruiting cycles, and a reason why McEvoy was given such a long leash last fall to compete.

But with not getting to campus until the summer and not being able to work with the coaching staff until August, McEvoy didn't fare well after being tossed into the deep end of the pool. And after playing a key part of UW's defense at the safety spot the second half of the year, McEvoy didn't get a lot of time to study the offensive playbook. Still he feels confident in his increased level of maturity, familiarity with his surroundings and what he needs to work on to take the job.

"I do (think I have a legitimate chance to start)," said McEvoy. "That's my opinion. If you're going to play the position you've got to be confident in yourself. In all in comes down to the coaches, but I am going to go out there and try my best every day and see what happens."

After coming in rusty and playing himself out of the race last spring, Houston enters 2014 fully healed and confident, having turned his body into a solid 215 pounds and learned the nuances of studying film.

"I learned how to be a college quarterback with the mental side of things," said Houston. "I've got the tools. I can throw any ball out there. Throw it deep, throw it short or throw the intermediate routes, but being mentally prepared is completely different than high school."

The spring will also be the first opportunity for Senger and Gillins to advance their progression. Senger impressed players and coaches for his work on the scout team last season while Gillins enrolls a semester early after throwing for 7,271 yards and 76 touchdowns in his prep career.

"I think it's huge (that he's here early), because D.J. is a raw quarterback," said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. "He hasn't had a lot of quarterback coaching in his life. He's got all the raw talent to do it. His drop-back mechanics and his footwork has a lot of development ahead of it. I think I can really help him with that. I can't teach him to throw, and he knows how to throw. That's why he's here, so the spring will be huge for him."

Running Backs

A couple steps away from McEvoy at the Capital One Bowl postgame funeral was Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 143 yards but didn't convert a pair of critical short-yardage situations in the second half. Gordon spoke about his position group having a bright future ahead of them, but said the pressure to produce falls on him.

Although rushing for 1,609 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, Gordon found the end zone only once in UW's final six games.

"I just have got to lock in and push harder when I am closer to that goal line," said Gordon. "No matter what you got to get it. You got to get it."

Gordon is one of the early favorites for the Heisman Trophy in returning for his junior season and is expected to be the workhorse tailback along with sophomore Corey Clement (547 yards, 7 TDs last season), which is the main reason why both players are expected to be extremely limited over the course of the next six weeks.

That doesn't leave many options for new running back coach Thomas Brown to work with, especially since Derek Watt is going to be working at tight end (H-back) this spring, as well. Little-used senior Jeff Lewis might be able to benefit from a fresh start, as he is in line to get the bulk of the carries in game situations. In three seasons, Lewis has only 202 rushing yards.

UW will also likely utilize Austin Ramesh as the second tailback and walk-on Derek Straus at fullback. The fall will likely yield more results for this group.

Wide Receivers

Wisconsin security blanket is gone, meaning it's now or never for the Badgers to develop some talent at wide receiver.

Arguably the biggest hit to graduation on the offensive side of the ball, Jared Abbrederis had nearly 2.5 times the amount of receptions compared to the rest of the receivers last season (1,081 to 299), and he scored all seven of the group's touchdowns. Needless to say, someone has to step up.

The likely candidates appear to be Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe. Fredrick has proven to be an outstanding down-field blocker, leads the Badgers with 27 career receptions and has played in the last 27 games. Doe had an outstanding spring last season, but tapered off and missed time last season due to injury. He'll be heavily involved in special teams, but will that take some energy away from him in the offense?

After those two is a large group of unproven talent. Reggie Love (one career catch) redshirted last season after playing as a true freshman while Rob Wheelwright failed to make an impact in his first season. Both of those players will get increased reps with Alex Erickson (left knee injury) likely out until the summer.

Either way, the position is going to get a big influx of talented players when five 2014 signees start competing with the group in the summer.

"We want to create competition at the wide receiver position, and the young men in our program are working very hard to get themselves on the field," said UW coach Gary Andersen on signing day. "They're making strides. But we need to get that solidified with good numbers there, some young men that are going to expect themselves to come in here and compete at a high level."

Tight End

Despite losing three seniors following the 2013 season, including 2012 Big Ten Tight End of the Year Jacob Pedersen, the Badgers didn't find it absolutely necessary to take a tight end in the 2014 recruiting class. Although UW certainly looked at some top level tight ends, the Badgers were OK not taking one since redshirts Troy Fumagalli and T.J. Watt made significant strides in their development last season.

"They both put on 25 pounds, they are gaining strength and they are starting to understand the offense," tight end coach Jeff Genyk said. "Spring practices will be very significant for them. We feel good about our depth and we'll certainly want to replenish that after losing three seniors and Sam Arneson in 2015."

Wisconsin's returning tight ends have played a combined 57 games and Arneson is responsible for 36 of them. Despite having only 10 career catches, Arneson has four touchdowns, as he shown to be a threat in the red zone. The key will now be developing his all-around game, as UW needs pass-catching weapons down the field.

This spring will also provide the first real opportunity for Austin Traylor and Austin Maly to get playing time. Traylor has the most experience after Arneson (15 games) and while he hasn't caught a pass, he's a physical presence on the field and performed well last fall in 7-on-7 drills. Maly mirrors Pedersen's body type (6-5, 240 pounds) and could become a real contributor for the Badgers at the H-back position after battling injuries early in his career.

The one player to keep eyes on is Derek Watt, who will get some reps at tight end after spending the last two seasons as the team's starting fullback. Although proving to be an option in the passing game during his freshman season (catching 12 passes for 150 yards), Watt only caught three passes last season. With James White graduating, Watt became the top option on screens, as Melvin Gordon hasn't been utilized in that role.

Watt's already a solid blocker, so it'll be interesting to see if Wisconsin will use him on the line or split him out for downfield routes.

Offensive Line

While Wisconsin's offensive line will be the strength of the offense next season, returning four of five starters off last year's roster, this spring will again be about building depth and dealing with limited numbers.

Andersen has already ruled out center Dan Voltz (back) and Dallas Lewallen (rest) for spring, and more could be joining them. Kyle Costigan battled through knee injuries last season and limited his reps, so more rest certainly wouldn't hurt. UW also knows what they are getting in right tackle Rob Havenstein, who has started every game over his last two seasons. "They're proven players," Andersen said of Costigan and Havenstein. "They've got things they need to work on, but we want to have these young guys get a lot of reps in spring football to develop the depth of that offensive line."

The absences of the upperclassmen will likely help two of the youngest players on the roster make an early impact, as true freshmen Michael Deiter and Jaden Gault figure to get plenty of reps with the first-team offense. While Gault will likely work at either tackle spot, Andersen said Deiter will likely be the starting center throughout camp.

"That is a tremendous opportunity for a young freshman at the center spot," said Andersen. "Very challenging, but a great opportunity."

Losing only left guard Ryan Groy among the starters, the Badgers can move Lewallen back to left guard after the way Voltz handled the role down the stretch of the season, which means this spring is big for Ray Ball. Playing in 12 games his first two seasons, Ball always seems right on the cusp of breaking through.

Although Andersen didn't address him specifically, left tackle Tyler Marz is another candidate for some rest this spring after grinding through last season and having a history of knee injuries. That would open the door for Hayden Biegel and Walker Williams to get some needed reps in their development, as both figure to be in the mix in 2015.

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