Cornerback Titus Booker
Wisconsin's coaching staff was excited to bring Booker’s athleticism to campus in 2015 but figured it would take him some time to adjust to the position after being a high school running back. But with few cornerbacks on the spring roster, Booker’s development has benefited from the increased amount of reps.
Drawing praise from secondary coach Jim Leonhard for his ability to compete, Booker’s abilities in the secondary has certainly shined with his ability to cover ground quickly, break up passes and hold his own in one-on-one coverages against experienced receivers.
“I think my athleticism helps a lot,” Booker said. “I used to run track, so using my speed, using my length and just working technique first. That’s the most important part. Without technique I can’t use anything.”
While senior Sojourn Shelton and junior Derrick Tindal have emerged as the starting duo, Booker and junior Natrell Jamerson have been closing the gap working with the second-team defense. After rushing for 214.6 yards per game his senior season, earning first-team all-state honors, Booker is in position to earn playing time as UW’s nickel corner.
“The coaches tell me to keep on competing and go after it every day,” he added. “They are saying they like a lot of stuff that I’m doing, but I am just trying to work my technique and stay consistent.”
Tailback Taiwan Deal
With seniors Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale likely to be limited Saturday, the redshirt sophomore tailback should see a heavy workload, another opportunity for him to earn more chances in the fall.
“He’s put himself in the conversation,” running back coach John Settle said. “He’s a totally different player than he was at any time last year. He’s played for a season, he knows it and now he can just cut it loose and play. I think (that) gives him an edge. He’s attacking it. He’s excited, and he’s not making those little mistakes he made last year.”
In Wisconsin’s first scrimmage of the spring, Deal had 22 carries for 117 yards and a touchdown. On a 14-play scoring drive against the first-team defense, Deal had seven of the carries, resulting in 34 yards and a 3-yard touchdown. Mostly a grinding tailback a year ago (his longest carry was only 17 yards), Deal has shown a speed element in camp that has allowed him to break longer runs.
After rushing 117 times for 503 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and 50.3 yards per game, Deal said he’s more comfortable with the playbook and the concepts, not to mention more versatile than a year ago.
“I’m just continuing to look forward to learn the offense, get comfortable and get out in the open field and show what I can do,” Deal said. “I want to be more of a forceful runner.”
Offensive Lineman Ryan Ramczyk
Taking all the reps as the first-team left tackle since the start of camp, the junior transfer from UW-Stevens Point has been a pleasant surprise and appears to be a near lock to replace three-year starter Tyler Marz.
“Ryan is a talented football player, and that’s a good starting point,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I think it’s important to him. He’s like the whole group. There’s good in him … We think he’s a talented player. He’s not season ready, but we don’t need to be.”
Described as a freak athlete by his teammates, Ramczyk is a two-team All-WIAC selection, including a first-team pick in 2014. In his final year he helped the Pointers rank third in the league in both scoring and total offense. During practices, Ramczyk has shown his ability to handle one-on-one pass rushes and seal the edge to create big runs to the outside.
After a year in which Wisconsin’s offensive line rarely had the same starting five from week to week, the Badgers’ first-team unit has been locked in since day one.
“Team chemistry on the offensive line has improved a lot,” Ramczyk said. “Guys are getting closer together, on and off the field. It’s been big. I think we’ve seen a big improvement since spring ball started.”
Wide Receiver Jazz Peavy
With Rob Wheelwright being limited this week with a right leg injury, Peavy will likely get a lot of opportunities within the offense. Working with the number one unit throughout spring, Peavy has taken the next step in his development. He’s not a burner but has run good routes, shown mostly reliable hands and has been the team’s best downfield threat with his ability to understand coverages and find weaknesses.
Peavy caught 20 passes a season ago, including a breakout game against Northwestern where he finished with 88 yards on five catches, but has gone to great lengths to try and establish himself this spring as an every-down player. He’s done that by trying to improve his conditioning, become more physical at the top of his routes and get in and out of his breaks cleaner.
“This spring we want to make sure we have all the details and all of those little wrinkles cleaned up and make sure we understand everything,” said Peavy, “so when we come into the fall, we can just get rolling right away.”
Outside linebacker T.J. Watt
With Vince Biegel moving to the field linebacker spot, a role Joe Schobert earned Big Ten linebacker of the year at last year, Watt has been given the prime opportunity to work as the starting boundary linebacker. Through 14 practices, it appears to be his job to lose.
Using a combination of his 6-5 frame and his natural athleticism, Watt has taken major strides in becoming a more complete player and more comfortable at the position after he developed into a package player late last fall.
“To see him continue to grow this offseason, not only with the winter workouts, drill work and the extra work he did on his own with his footwork and hand placement, he’s a highly-disciplined guy and going out every day to do something that’s going to make him a better player,” outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar said. “In spring practice it’s been great because he’s had an opportunity to go with the ones since day one. He look like he belongs out there.”
During a recent spring practice, Watt was a large asset to the defense in the red zone. After delivering a pass break-up in one-on-one coverage near the goal line on third down, he engaged with an offensive linemen, read the play and leapt to register a pass breakup on fourth down.
This is only Watt’s second season playing outside linebacker (he switched from tight end last year in fall camp), so his ceiling at the position is very high. With the strides he’s made since the season ended, there’s no telling where he could be at the beginning of August.