MADISON - When asked about the steps he felt the offense was making through the first two weeks of fall camp, senior quarterback Joel Stave believed his unit was always moving forward, although the size of the steps were inconsistent. On Thursday, the step was a big one.
In move the ball drills during Wisconsin’s morning practice, Stave had Wisconsin’s first-team offense on point, scoring on its first four series with a combination of the run and the pass. The two throws were a thing of beauty in both design and execution.
The first came off a double reverse fake and Stave hitting Jordan Fredrick on a fade route for 20 yards in coverage. The second came off play action when Stave hit a wide-open Alex Erickson for a 40-yard touchdown on a crossing route.
While it’s not official yet, it’s evident that Erickson and Fredrick – a pair of fifth-year seniors – have emerged as the top two receivers on the roster.
“In our minds, Alex coming into fall camp has established himself,” said receivers coach Ted Gilmore. “Now the message to Alex is to keep the job and the message to other guys is take his job. Even including Jordan in that. We’re trying to identify roles and it’s ongoing … but Jordan has done some really good things.”
Not to be outdone, Wisconsin’s running game found its footing. Corey Clement bounced a run that appeared to be headed inside the left tackle to the outside, out running the defense on his way to a 40-yard touchdown. Dare Ogunbowale, who has all but wrapped up the No.2 spot, slip right through a watered-down first-team defense for a 17-yard score on third-and-long.
But the highlights of practice were with Stave and the passing game. With Erickson matched up with Darius Hillary on one-on-one coverage, Stave hit a 15-yard completion with a back shoulder throw on an out route, a play that was perfectly timed considered the ball was released before Erickson made his cut.
Stave also showed a little speed while on the move, selling the play-action and creating separation with a rollout to the left. It would have been a 20-yard completion had Tanner McEvoy – returning to receiver for the first time in two days – not dropped the ball, but McEvoy came back a few plays later with a catch on third down to move the chains.
“You see those things out of older guys,” said offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph, referring to McEvoy. “That’s important. He’s fun.”
The only success for the first-team defense was safety D’Cota Dixon registering a pass breakup on McEvoy that caused the ball to deflect to linebacker Ryan Connelly for the interception. Dixon and redshirt junior Leo Musso worked at safety with senior Michael Caputo being given some rest and Connelly paired with true freshman Chris Orr.
Part of the reason to the success could be attributed to the play of the offensive line. Although the group remains battered and bruised (three players with starting aspirations this season – Beau Benzschawel, Hayden Biegel and Jon Dietzen – remain out), Rudolph stuck with a starting five of Tyler Marz, Ray Ball, Dan Voltz, Michael Deiter and Walker Williams on the line.
With no timetable yet on the return of his injured players and the opener against No.3 Alabama just over two weeks away, Rudolph knows it’s getting close to crunch time to determine which five players will start and to build that chemistry.
“Obviously concerning not having everyone because there’s times here where they can get better and they are not here to get better,” said Rudolph. “The guys you are here with you are wearing them out to make sure who can be in that group (of contributors).”
BONDOC, SHAW IMPRESS
The coaching staff gave the third team work at the end of practice and both Evan Bondoc and Bradrick Shaw took advantage of the opportunity. Bondoc – a redshirt freshman from Madison Edgewood High School – delivered a big hit on Shaw in the red zone and registered a pass breakup in one-on-one coverage against Fredrick. Shaw shook off the hit and scored on a short touchdown a few plays later.
While Bondoc will likely be a special teams contributor, Shaw is trying to work his way in the mix for the third-string tailback spot, competing with redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal.
“I think he does (have some potential),” said Rudolph. “Some young guys (with) the volume of learning, it takes them a second to realize I better learn it; it’s not like I’m going to get the ball handed to me. The protections are challenging when the defense presents the challenges that they do. Rather than losing someone to the details, it’s fun to get him out here and let him go. He’s knows the tracks now and he can compete. He’s a big strong dude who can run, which is good.”
NEUVILLE CARVES OUT A ROLE
Spending the 2014 season redshirting, Wisconsin moved second year player Zander Neuville in its third down “peso” package to test him out. He’s turned out to be a move that could pay big dividends this season. One of only two down linemen in the package (usually working next to defensive end Alec James), Neuville has been a steady presence with the defense when his number is called.
“He’s been very effective in pass rushing and in run defense,” said defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. “I’m a big fan of his. He’s full speed all the way. You look at him in one-on-ones, he’s winning the majority of his one-on-ones. He’s a guy we all trust and count on right now.”
Neuville walked on to Wisconsin after leading his team with 99 tackles in nine games, earning him first-team all-state honors by Wisconsin Football Coaches Association and second-team all-state by Associated Press. Also a unanimous first-team all-conference selection in basketball his senior year, averaging 18.2 points per game and 8.7 rebounds, Neuville spent last season building his once-skinny frame to 255 pounds.
“He’s put on some weight; the weight room has been good to him,” said Aranda. “He’s a great story. I think we’ll be talking about him coming up. He’s got some improvement to do still, but so far so good.”
FROM THE INFIRMARY
The injury list added two more names to the mix with defensive end Alec James (left foot) and Rob Wheelwright (right knee) missing practice Thursday. While three main linemen remain out, Wisconsin did get redshirt freshman Jacob Maxwell back and he worked with the second-team line at right tackle.
Leon Jacobs was dressed in pads and did work with the training staff for roughly the first 45 minutes of practice, working on change of direction and explosiveness. Jacobs left the field and returned without pads.
Linebackers Jesse Hayes (left shoulder) and T.J. Edwards (left shoulder) wore no-contact jerseys. Vince Biegel nearly added his name to the list when he hobbled off the field early with a right foot injury but returned later. T.J. Watt and Jack Cichy contributed when Biegel was being attended to.