You expect a Melvin Gordon or a Michael Caputo to perform well for Wisconsin during the Outback Bowl against Auburn. But when you have a month to prepare and practice, it allows some of the role players on the team to make a bigger impact than they may have during the regular season.
The first portion of bowl practices are meant to give the younger players a chance to show what they can do for the following season or how they could possibly help the team in the bowl. The following five players could pay dividends as Wisconsin continues to prepare for Auburn on New Year’s Day.
Ray Ball guard: Dan Voltz plans to start at center Thursday after his injured ankle has held up in bowl practices; an injury that was re-aggravated after only four plays against Ohio State Dec.6. Should Voltz incur a setback, Ball should be better prepared. Having a month to practice with the rest of the starting line should help Ball get the timing down and help with the chemistry of the offensive line. The lack of prep time showed against the Buckeyes, as Ball and the rest of the line struggled to provide adequate protection for quarterback Joel Stave and failed to consistently sustain blocks.
Ball needs to be able to consistently win the point of the attack to allow Stave a chance to get a pass off or to help open up the running game. Failure to do so will prevent the offense from generating any sort of rhythm. If he’s in the game, Ball will have to be strong in the run game because Wisconsin will need to establish Melvin Gordon early and often in hopes that he can bust a big play, understandable considering the Tigers have struggled this year against the run. If he can’t help open up the rush it could spell trouble for the Badgers on offense.
Leon Jacobs MLB: Battling an ankle injury suffered Saturday during practice that has his status up in the air for Thursday, Jacobs has seen the majority of his snaps come on special teams this year but had a career day when he was called into action against Illinois, recording a career-highs 12 tackles, two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. No one is questioning Jacobs’ athletic ability, which was on full display in 2013 fall camp when Jacobs chased down Gordon down from behind at the end of a 70-yard run during an open scrimmage. On that play Jacobs showed speed and the ability to take the proper angle to catch the future Heisman Trophy finalist. Those two areas could be important against Auburn.
Although the UW linebackers have been very good all season, they may not be able to match up with the speed of Auburn and the Tigers’ rushing attack. If defensive coordinator Dave Aranda wants to get more speed on the field, he will likely turn to Jacobs to help Wisconsin limit the big runs that hurt UW against Ohio State.
Alec James DE: With redshirt senior Konrad Zagzebski (ACL) out against Auburn, James’ role on the defensive line should expand and give him a chance to make his mark on the game. James has appeared in every game this year but has only registered eight tackles. James came to Wisconsin having the ability to rush the passer and make plays in the opposing backfields. This month of bowl practices has been important for James with the amount of reps he received working with the starting defensive line for the majority of bowl preparations. If James can capitalize on the reps that he received, it could pay dividends as Wisconsin has lacked a pass rush from the defensive line this year. If James can find a way to consistently put some pressure on quarterback Nick Marshall, it will help the starting linebackers and the secondary.
Tanner McEvoy OLB/S: McEvoy will get some snaps at quarterback but will most likely see more snaps on defense. It should be an easy transition for him considering he played defense last year and the calls should remain the same. McEvoy was solid on defense a season ago and his ability to run could come in handy with Marshall having the ability to run (780 yards). McEvoy showed last year that he has the ability to lay a hit and is a solid tackler, as he finished last season with 27 tackles. McEvoy likely will have more responsibilities in pass coverage than blitzing, as UW needs toms athleticism to defend the three Auburn receivers with 30 or more receptions this year. If McEvoy can fill his position well and help be the blanket over the top, he should be able to help take away one side of the passing game for Marshall.
Rob Wheelwright WR: Wheelwright arguably made the biggest catch of the season against Minnesota when he hauled in his first career touchdown reception to put Wisconsin up for good over the Gophers. Like James, the month of practices for Wheelwright will be able to help him. If Wisconsin can successfully run the football against Auburn’s run defense, there may not be plenty of passes thrown. But if Wheelwright put together a good month of practices and can continue to develop chemistry with Joel Stave, he could see opportunities to have a pass thrown his way when he’s in the game on three receiver sets. Wheelwright has the frame to catch the football over the Auburn defensive backs, as the starters for the Tigers are both listed at 5-10. At times this year Wheelwright hasn’t run the correct route or finish his route, which resulted in him being benched. Wheelwright got plenty of reps in bowl practices. It is up to him how he uses the reps.