MADISON - The doors to the University of Wisconsin’s preseason camp are officially closed to the media, so all we are left with are our thoughts with the highly-anticipated season opener 11 days away.
Despite a lot of nagging injuries plaguing the roster, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen has said multiple times that the Badgers – ranked No.14 in both preseason polls - are having a solid camp, but it was evident following Monday’s scrimmage that there is a lot of work to be done to fortified roles and positions.
Having covered practices for the past two weeks, BadgerNation takes a look at every position.
Andersen is hoping to name a starter between juniors Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy sometime this week. And while he has no intentions of announcing the decision to the media, Andersen told those media in attendance that we could probably figure it out if we’ve been at practice watching.
If that’s the case, Stave is the answer for the Badgers this season. Although he missed most of spring with a shoulder injury, allowing McEvoy to get considerable reps to build his confidence, Stave has mostly looked sharp when the media has been allowed inside. Starting 19 games in the past two seasons, Stave has a good grasp of the offense, has limited the mistakes in camp and looks like a more improved quarterback than what we saw last season. Time will tell.
Although McEvoy was switched over to the defense after missing out on the starting quarterback job last season, don’t expect an encore with him in the secondary this season. While he appeared to be pressing in the first week and struggled working with the second-string offense, McEvoy made some strides in week two and will likely have a package designed for him to take advantage of his maneuverability.
Andersen kept the door open for true freshman D.J. Gillins to have a role in the offense. While UW would benefit from keeping Gillins on the sideline this year and keeping his redshirt, Gillins looked impressive in his brief appearance in Monday’s scrimmage and can move really well behind the scrimmage, just like McEvoy.
No surprises here: Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement have looked solid and will be the focal point of the offense. Both have remained healthy (basically because they were never tackled) and look sharp in individual drills. Most importantly, they have looked confident catching passes out of the backfield, something they both put a huge emphasis on after last season.
Derek Watt appears to have the starting fullback role locked down and will likely see some time at tight end this season as well. UW doesn’t have an experienced number two fullback currently (Derek Straus is out with a collarbone injury), meaning UW will have to be cautious with Watt.
Taiwan Deal was the defacto number three tailback despite looking overwhelmed at times, but Caleb Kinlaw was cleared for live drills Monday and ran with a purpose with the third-string offense. Deal will likely start the season as the No.3 option, but Kinlaw shouldn’t be fully discounted.
Once a position of concern entering camp, Wisconsin’s coaches likely feel a lot better about where the group is headed. Despite Kenzel Doe and Jordan Fredrick missing time because of injuries, sophomores Alex Erickson and Reggie Love have emerged as reliable players and the group’s three true freshmen - Natrell Jamerson, George Rushing and Krenwick Sanders – all could provide depth.
Love, who redshirted last season, looks more mature than he did in any of the past seasons, and Erickson – now on scholarship – has worked at all three receiver positions (X, R and Z) in camp. Rushing has looked solid with his route running and catching passes while Jamerson has blazing speed. The jury is still out on Sanders for me, but Andersen said he will make the trip to Houston.
“They’re going to play, and the next two weeks will define how much they play,” said wide receivers coach Chris Beatty. “I feel good about Reggie. He needs to continue to make stride…He’s done a lot of good things. A lot of those guys have shown flashes. It’s why we recruited them, but the older guys aren’t going to let them have those spots. There’s competition at every spot, which is something we didn’t have last year.”
Rob Wheelwright has been another camp disappointment, unable to take advantage of practice reps because of a hamstring injury. Jazz Peavy also has missed an opportunity for reps for the second straight fall because of injury.
Andersen said the group took a step backward during Monday’s scrimmage and that the group has started to cool following a fast start. Wide receivers coach Chris Beatty said seven or eight receivers will make the trip for the opener, so the Badgers have time to rebuild some confidence.
“You’re never satisfied where you at, you want to be sure you’re making strides, but we had a good week and half (before) a pretty average few days,” said Beatty. “We need to try to get over that hump, but we’re seeing progress. The young guys are coming along. The old guys are getting sharper.”
Sam Arneson has expanded his game from a pure red zone receiver to someone who can catch a variety of passes. Arneson may be Wisconsin’s most reliable receiver. While the experience of the position drops off after Arneson, the Badgers could be sneaky good with a lot of raw talent. Austin Traylor has shown to be a good blocker and has made some big catches in camp, Troy Fumagalli is a big target at 6-5 and T.J. Watt is a wildcard because the talent is there but he’s missed time with injury.
Although the Badgers didn’t take a scholarship tight end in 2014, tight end coach Jeff Genyk must feel like he got a stud recruit with Derek Watt moving to H-back in some situations, giving the group a lot more diversity and depth.
“We have a lot of depth from a playmaking standpoint, whether it’s in the run game, blocking or receiving game,” said Genyk.
Wisconsin entered fall camp with a solid offensive line in place, and the Badgers enter week three the exact same way, as junior Tyler Marz at left tackle, senior Dallas Lewallen at left guard, sophomore Dan Voltz at center, senior Kyle Costigan at right guard and senior Rob Havenstein at right tackle have all cemented their positions.
Wisconsin has held out Costigan and Lewallen (flu) also missed time, allowing junior Ray Ball, sophomore Trent Denlinger and true freshman Michael Deiter to get valuable reps at the interior positions. The Badgers appear set at guard in case something happens, but tackle is still a work in progress with sophomore Walker Williams and redshirt freshman Hayden Biegel at right tackle.
One thing is for certain; the Badgers are in a much better spot with their depth than they were a year ago.
There really hasn’t been much movement amongst the defensive line since fall camp has started. As of right now the projected starting defensive line is Konrad Zagzebski and Chikwe Obasih at defensive end and Warren Herring at nose guard. All three have had solid fall camps so far and have been able to show consistency.
The biggest concern after two weeks of fall camp has been the depth at nose guard. Andersen made it publicly known in the first week with how upset he was with the play behind Herring, but redshirt sophomore Arthur Goldberg and true freshmen Conor Sheehy and Jeremy Patterson have become more consistent in their play, which has alleviated some concern. The hope is to be able to give Herring a breather so he doesn’t have to play the entire game on defense.
If Goldberg, Sheehy or Patterson can come in and let Herring catch his breath from time to time it will allow Herring to be more effective. It also may allow Herring to play defensive end as well in certain packages and allow him to get after the quarterback more instead of taking on blockers.
“Arthur Goldberg has come along and we’re pleased with his progress,” said defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a. “We consider himself a solid backup who will play a lot this year for us. I feel good about the nose guard spot with Warren and Goldberg there, but we have to align that third guy.”
Looking for a third nose guard, Kauha’aha’a said that Sheehy is ahead of Patterson. Patterson definitely fits better at nose guard thanks to his 6-3, 326-pound frame than Sheehy, but Patterson needs to continue to work on his conditioning and continue to get stronger. Patterson seems comfortable playing in Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense and as he continues to get reps and experience he could eventually pass Sheehy on the depth chart.
Redshirt junior Jake Keefer and redshirt freshman Alec James are currently behind Zagzebski and Obasih, respectively, at defensive end. Although the defensive line won’t be the biggest compared to last year, the group should be more explosive and be able to pressure the teams opposing quarterbacks, something the line has been able to show at times during fall camp.
“Right now we’re taking the steps that needs to be taken in camp,” said Kauha’aha’a. ‘We’re a young group. We’re a very inexperienced group, so every day is an important day. So far, so good. We’ve been taking steps forward, not backwards, which is a huge positive with the young group, but we’re still so far away from where we need to be.”
There wasn’t much concern regarding the linebackers until the injuries started to pile up. Derek Landisch has been dealing with a hamstring injury, Vince Biegel with a head injury and Michael Trotter is nursing an injury.
Andersen believes Biegel and Trotter will be back sometime in the middle of this week. Prior to the injuries Landisch and Biegel were practicing well at their respective positions. Biegel was displaying off his pass rushing skills and Landisch was making plays consistently for Wisconsin’s defense.
While Landisch is expected to be back in time for the season opener against LSU, Andersen decided to have Leon Jacobs switch from outside to inside linebacker. Jacobs should be able to use his athleticism to be able to get through the gaps to make plays in the backfield.
Part of the reason the coaches made the switch with Jacobs to inside opposed to Joe Schobert was so Schobert could continue to tutor true freshman linebacker T.J. Edwards. It is still not known whether or not Edwards will redshirt or play but Edwards has flashed at times but he needs to do a better job of being consistent.
If any true freshman plays this year it will most likely be D’Cota Dixon, who has been one of the surprises on defense through fall camp. Dixon is built very well for a freshman listed at 5-10, 206-pounds. If Dixon does play this year it will be in sub packages on defense in passing situations where he can use his speed to help cover running backs out of the backfield. Dixon was projected to play safety at Wisconsin but with the depth at the safety position Dixon’s best chance to help the Badger defense is at linebacker.
The returning linebackers know that they won’t be able to replace what Chris Borland meant to last year’s defense, but they have shown when healthy they are capable of being a productive unit.
The one pressing question was who’s going to start opposite of Michael Caputo at free safety with the options being Leo Musso, A.J. Jordan, Austin Hudson or Lubern Figaro. The safe money at the time seemed to be on either Musso or Hudson but both suffered injuries during fall camp (Musso with an unspecified injury and Hudson has worn a club over his hand for the past week).
The injuries have allowed Figaro to step in and play with the starters. Although Figaro has made mistakes, he learns from them quickly, has been able to do a good job of being aware of what is going around him and being able to make plays.
“I’ve liked our progression, we’ve been a little banged up, which has been an issue for us, but I’ve been real excited about where Lubern is coming from,” safeties coach Bill Busch said. “We’re giving guys a bunch of reps with different people so sometimes it can be a little misleading. But I do know going into the season we do plan on playing Figaro as a true freshman so he’ll be in the mix for something’s that are going on and I’ve been very happy with him.”
It is still not known when Musso will make his return, but he’ll have some catching up to do. Musso should find himself in certain packages where he can help the Wisconsin secondary. Caputo, not surprising, has looked good at strong safety and should be able to take the next step in his development this coming year. Senior Peniel Jean - making the switch from corner to safety - has also had an impressive camp, according to Busch.
“He's physical, he’ll tackle, he’ll get up there and tackle, he’s a very good blitzer for us, he’s a very good cover man on tight ends so he has a lot of skill set for us right now,” said Busch. “He’ll be used in a lot of different areas as we go into it.”
The starting corners from last years team Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary will once again be the starters in the season opener against LSU. Devin Gaulden looks like he’ll win the nickel job, but he has been pressed over the last week by true freshman cornerback Derrick Tindal. Even if Gaulden hangs on to play in nickel situations, Tindal should see the field in four wide receiver sets.
Outside of Figaro and Tindal playing as true freshman in the secondary it is also expected that Hudson will see time. With so much youth movement in the secondary, Busch gives a lot of credit to Andersen for being able to identify and recruit the right player.
“Obviously the first thing is it’s a great compliment to coach Andersen and what he has done in recruiting,” Busch said. “Obviously if guys come in who are ready to play that stands out for you and their maturity level is very impressive that they can handle it, and be able to play in those situations.
Kenzel Doe and Alex Erickson have routinely fielded punts and kicks during practice, with a few others mixed in, and have looked confident in doing so. Doe has talked at length about the confidence his return against South Carolina gave him, which hopefully will carry over. Those positions, along with junior punter Drew Meyer, should be set.
One of the more entertaining position battles in camp outside of quarterback has been the kicker, mainly because of the performance of true freshman Rafael Gaglianone. In a battle with junior Jack Russell and sophomore Andrew Endicott, Gaglianone showcased the strongest leg of the group and consistent accuracy through the open portions of practice (special teams coach Jeff Genyk said over 75 percent makes).
Genyk said he would like to have one kicker handle the kickoffs and one handles all the conversions. At this point, it appears Endicott will handle kickoffs and Gaglianone will be thrown right into the fire. He has the potential to be a multi-year starter for the Badgers.
Brian Becker contributed to this report