MADISON - Knowing full well that Melvin Gordon is about to get rich in the NFL and Corey Clement is the only scholarship player on the roster with a collegiate carry, redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal knows that this spring football is his chance to make an impression.
“Coming into this year off of injury, my main focus is to keep my confidence and work hard every day,” said Deal. “That’s all I can do.”
Slated to be the third tailback last season, Deal had a solid start to fall camp but quickly faded. To compound the issue, Deal suffered a right hand injury at the end of fall camp that had him sidelined until the middle of the conference season. By the time he was ready to play, it didn’t make sense to remove his redshirt.
UW was so thin last year that Wisconsin moved Dare Ogunbowale from cornerback to tailback. The Milwaukee Marquette walk-on ended up rushing for 193 yards on 34 carries and one touchdown, including 94 yards on 14 carries in his collegiate debut against Bowling Green.
Deal proclaims himself 100 percent healthy now and starting to get confident in the Badgers’ playbook. After Clement fumbled on the first carry of team drills during Friday’s third spring practice, Deal was given the opportunity to come in and have meaningful carries and reps as practice ended.
“You come in and confidence and the confidence can easily be taken, just like with an injury,” said Deal. “I’ve kept my confidence and remained calm, cool and collected.”
At 6-0 and 216 pounds, Deal is the pounding back the Badgers are hoping will emerge in the rotation. After being recruited by Thomas Hammock out of Capitol Heights (MD) DeMatha Catholic, where he was a first-team all-state selection after finishing his senior year rushing for 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns, Deal played one season for Thomas Brown and is now being mentored by running back John Settle.
“There’s a lot of personalities I have interacted with, but John Settle is a great coach,” said Deal. “He wants to teach us, which is what I love about him.”
With Clement being the No.1 tailback and Ogunbowale the No.2, Deal is battling with roommate, redshirt freshman Caleb Kinlaw, for the No.3 spot.
In his first week working with the Wisconsin offensive line, Joe Rudolph appears anxious to move all his unestablished starters through various positions to build some depth and chemistry. While seniors Tyler Marz and Ray Ball remained at left tackle and left guard, respectively, Rudolph had redshirt freshman Michael Deiter at center and right guard, moved Walker Williams from his traditional right tackle to spot to right guard and elevated redshirt sophomore Hayden Biegel to first-team right tackle.
On the second team, Rudolph has redshirt freshman Jacob Maxwell at left tackle, redshirt sophomore Ben Hemer at left guard, redshirt freshmen Ben Connors and George Panos splitting time at center, redshirt freshman Beau Benzschawel at right guard and right tackle and true freshman Jon Dietzen at right tackle. Panos also took some reps with the first-team center.“That’s the goal this spring,” said Panos. “Coach (Rudolph) wants to build some depth and get a lot of us familiar with other positions.”
Junior center Dan Voltz continues to work on individual drills as he recovers from a severely sprained ankle suffered in the Outback Bowl, an injury that was originally diagnosed as a broken leg by interim head coach Barry Alvarez. Getting the whole offseason to rest, Voltz hopes to be full go when the team returns from spring break April 8, giving him nine practices with the team.
“I’m hoping to progress a little bit more each practice, maybe do a couple plays in team drills, but just take it easy,” said Voltz.
First-Team Defense Depth ChartDefensive Line: DEs Jake Keefer and Chikwe Obasih. NT Arthur Goldberg
Inside Linebackers: T.J. Edwards and Leon Jacobs
Outside Linebackers: Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert
Cornerbacks: Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton
Safeties: Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy
After two days of strictly hammering home fundamentals and avoiding team activities, Wisconsin finally ran some skele work, which went as expected with some chemistry needing to be rebuilt in the offense. Senior quarterback Joel Stave, who head coach Paul Chryst says is the starter, finished 7-for-16 on the drills.
Break it down farther, four of Stave’s completions were short checkdown routes, although his best throws came to his veteran receivers. Senior Alex Erickson caught a couple passes in coverage off of crossing routes and connected with Rob Wheelwright on a 65-yard touchdown after the junior beat newly-converted cornerback Natrell Jamerson in coverage.
“I like the one-on-one battles,” said Wheelwright. “Me vs. a corner, a smaller corner at that, I can usually win that matchup. That’s one thing I would like to show this spring and this fall camp.”
Shelton had two pass breakups in the drill, although both should have been intercepted after bouncing off his chest. George Rushing and Reggie Love also had completions bounce off their hands. Love also had a drop in team drills and left at the end of practice with what appeared to be a cramp.
Redshirt junior Bart Houston finished 3-for-6 in 7-on-7 with two overthrows, a completion to Love in coverage and a handful of checkdowns. Redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins went 2-for-6 and struggled with his accuracy and timing.
With a roster full of quarterbacks for spring practice, graduate assistant, and former UW quarterback, Jon Budmayr joked that he might try to put on the pads to see if he could sneak in a few throws.
With Tanner McEvoy being moved to the defensive backfield (and appearing a clear foot taller than the other DBs) and Connor Senger being moved to wide receiver, Wisconsin has six quarterbacks competing for reps in the spring, including a pair of early enrollee true freshmen in Alex Hornibrook and Austin Kafentzis.
Kafentzis has looked as advertised in three practices of non-competitive drills, delivering solid passes with good rhythm and a comfort level in the pocket. Hornibrook also throws a nice pass, although his delivery is a little long and will likely need to be shortened. Both players look like they can be solid contributors down the road.
Extra Points: Wisconsin went run heavy in 11-on-11 situations, keeping passes at minimum. Stave went 3-for-5, Houston 2-for-3 and Gillins 1-for-2 … T.J. Went down in in team drills, but walked off under his own power. Watt missed most of last season with leg injuries … Melvin Gordon, Rob Havenstein, Kenzel Doe and Peniel Jean all stopped by practice … Three-star St. Louis running back Tre Bryant attended practice. Wisconsin returns to the practice field Sunday morning at 10 a.m.