MADISON - There were a number of questions that could have been at the forefront of Gary Andersen’s mind in the days leading up to fall camp.
Wisconsin has major personnel issues at wide receiver, a vital quarterback battle and needed to shore up a front seven hit hard by graduation. But while all those issues merited concern, Andersen didn’t hesitate when he said his biggest question would be how his team’s youth would handle the situation of Big Ten/Wisconsin football.
“That’s going to be the identity,” said Andersen. “When we sit down at the end of the year and we look at it, how well did the youth mix with the veterans. The older kids in our program have done everything they can to welcome the youth, yet hold them accountable, have high expectation levels for them.”
Those answers will come this weekend when Wisconsin opens the 2014 season with a highly-anticipated matchup against No.13 LSU at NRG Stadium in Houston.
Even after losing 13 starters — including 10 that made NFL rosters — from last year’s team that finished 9-4 overall, Wisconsin still finds itself ranked No.14 in the preseason Associated Press poll, adding a little more gusto and intrigue to a season that will see a lot of new faces in new places.
Of the 108 players on the initial fall camp roster, 67 were redshirt sophomores or younger, including a staggering 30 true freshmen, a sign that Andersen is bringing in players who fit the system he’s trying to put in place. On offense, Wisconsin wants to become more balanced; relying on the run game to set the tone but keeping defense’s guessing by having quick wide receivers, multidimensional tight ends and a quarterback who can beat teams with his legs.
On defense, coordinator Dave Aranda is also looking for speed, trying to find smaller players who hit hard, have good instincts and can become playmakers.
After three weeks of fall camp finished, Andersen can see some pieces start to fall into place.
“I believe we're athletic,” said Andersen. “We're tough minded...We'll be more multiple. And that will allow us to be what will look like we're being more aggressive and with some more athletes on the field in certain situations.”
While Wisconsin will rely on plenty of seniors and upperclassmen, the Badgers have tabbed some raw prospects for big roles.
Defensively, redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih will likely start in his first career game with classmate, and good friend, Alec James backing him up. Sophomore Arthur Goldberg and true freshman Conor Sheehy will see snaps at the nose tackle position, a crucial position to allow flexibility with Warren Herring on the line and take on as many blockers out of the way as possible in the 3-4 defense.
True freshman Lubern Figaro has run with the starters for most of the camp at safety and many other true freshmen – defensive back Derrick Tindal, inside linebacker D’Cota Dixon and safety Austin Hudson – will be trotted out in different scenarios.
When Wisconsin released its first depth chart on Monday, six true freshmen were listed and Andersen added 14 freshmen will make the trip, 11 of which have a good chance to play.
“You'll see us play with more packages than last year,” Andersen said. “Last year we would carry sometimes three different defensive packages into a game. This year (we have) some special pass rushers.”
On offense, Wisconsin will bring all three true freshmen receivers – Natrell Jamerson, George Rushing and Krenwick Sanders – on the trip, Taiwan Deal is slated to be the important third running back and offensive lineman Michael Deiter will provide backup at the interior line positions.
After starting 10 games at safety, with three starts, last year in his first year with the program, the 6-6, 222-pound McEvoy closed the spring with the No. 1 offense and brings that added dimension to the position that Andersen is looking for.
While he struggled throwing the ball in the portions of practice open to the media, McEvoy passed for 1,943 yards and 25 touchdowns and rushed for 414 yards and six touchdowns in his lone season as the starter at Arizona Western. Before the season at Arizona Western, he redshirted in 2011 at South Carolina.
“We missed too many layups last year,” Andersen said. “When it is there and it's given to you on a platter, you've got to take advantage of it. If you don't, it will cost you. It will cost you big.”
Youth can be a hindrance in some matchups, but the Badgers’ week one opponent has been coping with the same conundrum. Needing to find answers at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, LSU is relying on a number of players from Scout.com’s No.2 recruiting class to fill the void.
Wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn add some options to the Tigers’ inexperienced receiving corps, former five-star safety Jamal Adams will be on the field in certain packages and dual-threat quarterback Brandon Harris has been on campus since the spring balancing for the starting spot.
But the headliner of the class, and one of the most talked about players on the team, is Leonard Fournette. Registering 7,619 rushing yards and scored 88 touchdowns in four years, the 230-pound Fournette – from New Orleans - is dubbed one of the fastest players on the team by Coach Les Miles and has goals of a 1,000-yard rushing season, All-SEC and All-American honors and to be a possible Heisman Trophy candidate.
“I've been dealing with it since my 9th-grade year, so it's nothing really big to me right now,” Fournette told reporters at Media Day, one of the few times he’s been available for interviews. “I'm still learning. It's the same thing as high school, but there's a lot more attention and publicity right now.”
For both schools with high aspirations, the attention the newbie will receive this weekend will be the greatest yet.