MADISON - After being bottled up for more than three months, members of the University of Wisconsin were finally cut loose Sunday morning. In their first day in full pads, the hitting picked up for the Badgers as they started their second week of spring practices.
“It’s been over 12 weeks since we’ve gone live,” said junior linebacker Leon Jacobs. “Guys were all fired up.”
In addition to donning the full pads for the first time, Wisconsin spent the last 30 minutes of practice going through its first live scrimmage of the spring. Running 40 plays, quarterbacks Joel Stave (first-team offense) and Bart Houston and D.J Gillins (second-team offense) all got multiple series as the Badgers started to shake off the offseason rust.
The results of the six drives showed promise for the defense. Four drives ended without scores and two drives involved turnovers, including Leo Musso ending practice with an interception off Houston. Only tailback Dare Ogunbowale registered a tally for the offense with a short touchdown run.
“That’s the kind of defense we want to be going forward,” said safety Tanner McEvoy. “It’s still early for the offense. I’m sure there’s not too much stuff that has gone in yet, but it’s nice to come out and play like that.”
McEvoy was one of the bright spots on defense Sunday. He has a pass breakup on a downfield throw from Stave and also registered an interception off the senior quarterback in 7-on-7 drills. An imposing figure at 6-6 and 222 pounds, McEvoy is the tallest defensive back on the roster by four inches.
The safety position isn’t new to McEvoy. He played 10 games there in 2013 with three starts, finishing the season with 27 tackles, four pass breakups, one tackle for loss and one interception. After his role at quarterback faltered last season, McEvoy was put back in the secondary by interim head coach Barry Alvarez for the Outback Bowl and responded with five solo tackles.
With a combination of size and athleticism, McEvoy and head coach Paul Chryst determined that McEvoy’s best chance to contribute would be in the secondary and some work at wide receiver. After working at safety throughout practice, McEvoy stayed after to run routes with Stave.
“I’m just trying to get a feel for both positions,” said McEvoy. “Obviously I’ve been doing more safety the first few practices. I’m sure as spring ball goes along there will be more switching up. At least that’s what I think, so I’ve just got to learn as much as I can before it really counts.”
Chryst has labeled McEvoy has someone who has “pretty special ability” and “understands the game.” According to defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, McEvoy is going to be playing defense one series and offense the next, a sign of McEvoy’s raw athleticism.
“He’s going to make us a better team when he does that,” said Aranda. “The work ethic is there with Tanner, too, so I’m a big fan of his. For everything he went through last year, he’s just so excited to contribute and do whatever he can this year. He wants to do whatever is best for the team.”
Stave ran 19 of the 40 plays and did three series, Houston ran 20 plays on two series and Gillins also ran one series. After struggling with his accuracy during the 10 periods of practice outside, Houston threw the ball better once Wisconsin moved inside the McClain Center but was denied a touchdown pass when Krenwick Sanders dropped a pass in the corner of the end zone. Sanders redeemed himself somewhat when he pulled down a high Houston pass over the middle on the final series.
Sitting as the No.3 tailback on the depth chart, redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal didn’t appear to do himself many favors when he fumbled a handoff inside his own 15 that would have led to a defensive touchdown if not for a blown whistle. After getting an ear full from running back coach John Settle, Deal returned with a physical run between the tackles for a double-digit gain. When his shoulders are square, he’s tough to bring down.
Stave’s best pass was down the hash marks to receiver Jazz Peavy on the Badgers’ third drive, but the senior quarterback delivery was inconsistent all morning, as a number of his downfield passes had some wobble to it.
Unofficially, Stave went 2-for-4 with one sack, Houston went 3-for-5 and Gillins 1-for-2.
Wheelwright Stepping Up
After saying his one catch for a 17-yard touchdown against Minnesota last fall gave him some confidence, Wheelwright had a number of high-degree-of-difficulty catches that he was able to haul in, including a diving 17-yard catch on a low Stave throw, a 35-yard leaping catch on a Gillins pass along the sidelines and a deep touchdown pass down the hash marks after beating his defender in one-on-one coverage.
With Jordan Fredrick not practicing, Wheelwright has emerged as the No.2 receiving threat.
Stave went 9-for-12, but his numbers were based on a number of checkdown routes that were 10 yards or less. In addition to McEvoy’s interception, inside linebacker T.J. Edwards nearly snagged an interception rolling to his right. Stave was also the victim of a drop by Austin Traylor – a growing trend for the tight end dating back to last season – that broke a string of four straight completions.
Houston went 5-for-8, including hitting Peavy down the middle of the field on what was a nice pass and catch. Gillins was also 5-for-8, taking advantage of Wheelwright’s hot hands.
Extra Points: Two days after leaving practice with an injury, tight end T.J. Watt had his left knee in a brace and with a protective sleeve, as his injury problems continue … Sophomore Connor Senger, who moved from quarterback to receiver, injured his right leg and sat out the rest of practice … Redshirt junior Walker Williams continues to bounce around on the line, getting some reps at left guard. True freshman Jon Dietzen also got some reps at right guard … After being moved from wide receiving to the secondary, sophomore Natrell Jamerson is working as a nickel cornerback currently … Wisconsin returns to the practice field Wednesday evening.