1, Offensive Line depth
Wisconsin has survived the last two seasons with minimal offensive line depth because the Badgers had a set group of veteran starters with good chemistry and continuity. That’s no longer the case. Already needing to replace three starters coming into the spring, the task has become more challenging for offensive line coach Joe Rudolph with injuries to key players starting to perk up.
The first setback came to junior center Dan Voltz, who was working his way back from an ankle injury suffered in the bowl game when he suffered another ankle injury April 12. He hasn’t practiced since. On Wednesday, senior Ray Ball – UW’s top interior reserve last season – left with an unspecified injury and will likely not play.
On Wednesday night, UW had senior left tackle Tyler Marz at his usual spot but had four other linemen playing next to him without a career start. Even more telling was that the group included one redshirt sophomore, one redshirt freshman and one true freshman.
How green is the group? Corey Clement said when asked about the line that “I have to make a lot of things happen.”
“Other than (Dan Voltz and Tyler Marz), there aren’t a lot of guys who have played a lot of football,” Rudolph said this spring. “It’s competitive and it’s got to remain that way. You’re looking for opportunities for guys to step up and take things over. You want to give them opportunities to do that and you want a young player, who feels like a young guy, to realize that this (chance) might be me.”
The starting line Saturday will likely be (from left to right) Marz, true freshman Jon Dietzen, redshirt freshman Michael Deiter, redshirt junior Walker Williams and redshirt sophomore Hayden Biegel. The second team has been five freshmen: tackles Beau Benzschawel and Jacob Maxwell, guard Mical Kapoi and Brett Connors and center George Panos.
The amount of youth explains why the defense has dominating a good portion of the 14 practices thus far, but there’s no question that the group has improved. How much they’ll improve between now and the Sept.5 opener remains to be seen.
“(Our defense does) a great job of stressing you right down to the last minute, but then (the linemen) got to make those decisions at the last minute and execute,” said Rudolph. “It was great for us. Every rep we get is ultra-valuable.”
2, The Battle for No.2
There’s no question that Clement is going to be the team’s top running back this season, something the junior has been preparing for since early January. In an injury-plagued sophomore season and getting limited work behind Heisman Trophy runner-up Melvin Gordon, Clement still finished with 949 yards on 147 carries (6.5 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns. Clement’s success played a part in Gordon’s success, so which tailback will help assist Clement?
According to running back coach John Settle, there’s a tremendous distance between Clement and the rest of the pack, which currently includes redshirt junior Dare Ogunbowale and redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal.
“There is a huge gap,” said running back coach John Settle. “The thing I do like is I’ve got two guys in Dare and Taiwan who are competing and trying to close that gap, but it pretty much is what it is…We’re just trying to develop guys.”
A year ago Ogunbowale was working on the defensive side of the ball but was switched over early in the season after injuries wiped out both Deal and fellow true freshman Caleb Kinlaw. Ogunbowale performed well in mop-up duty by finishing with 193 yards on 34 carries (5.7 ypc) and a touchdown, but he’s still raw to the position. With Clement expected to get minimum reps, Ogunbowale will get the bulk of the carries with the No.1 offense and have a chance to close that gap further.
Deal was expected to be the No.3 back last year until breaking bones in his right hand, causing him to be shelved until late October and then redshirted. Feeling a lot more prepared, confident and mentally strong compared to nine months ago, Deal said the things he’s learned from both Clement and Gordon have been invaluable.
“What I learned from them is how to work hard,” he said. “Coming from the summer to fall camp and then the fall football to winter conditioning, you just watch and work with these guys and you see how hard they’ve been working. You develop that same mindset. As a running back, you need to be in great condition. They teach you how to condition your body.”
Deal has had a steady camp but not a tremendous eye-popping one. He has a chance to change that Saturday.
3, What Will McEvoy Do?
After bombing out at quarterback, Tanner McEvoy could easily have become a cancer on Wisconsin’s roster. After all the Badgers were his third college in three years, he had no long-term ties to the players and was coming off one of the worst statistical seasons for a quarterback in UW history. Instead, the 6-6, 222-pound McEvoy has been a unique, multi-dimensional weapon that everyone on the new UW coaching staff wants to work with.
“Just the range and leadership he gives you, along with the savviness he has when playing in the middle of the field, those are things that are hard to teach,” said defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. “Those things come to him naturally and he is going to be a big help to us.”
“I think he’s a dynamic football player and it shows when he jumps on (the offense’s) side of the ball,” added Rudolph. “Boy I really like what a lot of the receivers are doing. I think that growth all has to happen together if we want to have it right.”
McEvoy was working strictly at safety through the first half of camp and developed from a player who simply backpedaled and attacked the football to a defender now playing with some knowledge and technique.
“I like that he’s taking more of a role to be a quarterback back there and not just being a true middle of the field player,” said secondary coach Daronte Jones. “He’s finally getting involved in the run game, reading his keys, communicating. I like that he’s trying to complete a complete safety more than just a package safety, which he has been in the past.”
Even after the practices where he was focused on defense, McEvoy would stay late after the day’s on-the-field work was done and run routes with the quarterbacks to get in some extra practice. A week ago, McEvoy made his first appearance during practice with the offense and immediately made his presence felt, catching a pair of touchdown passes in the red zone by showing a good deal of skill in his route.
It’s become evident that the senior is going to be used on both sides of the ball, but how many reps he’ll receive on offense will remain a question. No matter where he is on the field, McEvoy is a clear matchup nightmare for the opposition, and the extra work he’s putting in by watching film and going to meetings shows that he wants to contribute in multiple aspects.
“The biggest thing with Tanner that I’ve been impressed with is just been his ability to embrace to so much crossover with the offense and defense,” said Jones. “It’s not like he’s saying I’m on offense so defense is on the backburner or vice versa. He’s taking both sides equally seriously and you can appreciate that.”
4, Multiple Receivers Finally Stepping Up?
Last season Alex Erickson had 55 catches and the next closest receiver had 17. Two years ago Jared Abbrederis had 78 catches and the next closest was at 12. That was the same story three years ago with Abbrederis having 49 catches and second place having 17. See a pattern?
The last time Wisconsin had multiple options in the passing game was the 2011-12 season with Russell Wilson under center. That year Nick Toon caught 64 passes and Abbrederis had 55. What else was significant about that year? It was the last year Paul Chryst was the offensive coordinator.
Chryst and new receivers coach Ted Gilmore acknowledged that the challenge is to get at least three players to step up within the offense. Certainly a lofty goal considering the past history, but the spring has shown promise that balance could be returning to the offense.
Alex Erickson has put together a solid spring (which is expected for the senior) and multiple other weapons have flashed. When healthy, junior Rob Wheelwright has the look of a dependable receiver, especially since he admits that he’s practicing with more confidence than he had a year ago.
“I like one-on-one battles, me versus a corner,” Wheelwright said. “Going against a smaller corner, I can usually win that matchup. That’s one thing I like to show in this spring and this fall camp coming up.”
After disappearing during conference play last season, Reggie Love has made some nice catches and looks to be trending upward, while sophomore Krenwick Sanders – one of three receivers UW signed a year ago – had five catches for 79 yards in UW’s scrimmage last Sunday. The Badgers are also getting some mileage out of redshirt sophomore Jazz Peavy, who has been limited because of injuries in the past but it now putting together consistent practices.
"He's done a heck of a job," Rudolph said of Peavy. “I've liked what he's done this spring."
There’s still a long way to go for this group, but fans should be cautiously optimistic.
5, Defensive Front
Much like their counterparts on the offensive side of the ball, Wisconsin’s defensive line is looking to adjust after suffering significant personnel lost. But while both Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski have graduated, each player suffered an injury last season to allow others to step in and contribute on UW’s defensive line rotation.
That’s made this spring very competitive in the trenches for first year assistant coach Inoke Breckterfield.
“Right now I’m not really worried about them making mistakes,” said Breckterfield. “We don’t play until September, so I tell them to cut it loose. That’s been the message since day one.”
Outside the outside linebackers, the front seven will be massively retooled this season. Through the first part of spring, the Badgers have been using senior Jake Keefer and sophomore Conor Sheehy at defensive end and junior Arthur Goldberg, while sophomores Alec James and Chikwe Obasih were the two down linemen in nickel packages.
After Goldberg injured his left foot during practice last week, Breckterfield has again juggled the lines by using Sheehy – who said he hopes to follow Herring’s lead by playing at both end and tackle this season – at nose tackle, James and Obasih at defensive end and redshirt freshman Zander Neuville in some situations with the first team in the nickel.
“It’s been a surprise to see Zander do some good stuff out there,” Breckterfield said. “It’s a good group because they care for each other and push each other.”
Aranda has seen his group playing faster and more efficient as spring has gone up, but admits there have been peaks and valleys as the group looks for young guys to step up into leadership roles.
“Whether it’s a Conor Sheehy or a (Billy) Hirschfeld or a (Jeremy) Patterson, they have to be able to take more of a leadership role when needed,” said Aranda. “When their time is called, they’re going to have to be able to show up and play. It’s there time because no veteran is going to take those reps.”