Wisconsin has three capable inside linebacker and only two starting spots, meaning the competition between junior Jack Cichy and sophomores T.J. Edwards and Chris Orr will be fierce for the next four months. Edwards delivered 84 tackles during his redshirt freshman campaign and has had a steady spring. Cichy earned defensive MVP honors in the bowl game and has worked primarily at inside throughout camp, although defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said Cichy could do some work as an outside backer depending on the scheme. Orr has played the least of the group but made a huge impression as a true freshman.
Edwards appears to be the one closest locked into his spot but the talent of the other two means nothing is guaranteed.
“We’re pushing each other extremely hard every single day,” Orr said. “Rotation wise, it’ll be like me and T.J. would be starting and another day it’d be T.J. and Jack, just rotating through. Everybody is just getting reps … Of course it’s competing for a starting spot. Everybody wants to be on the field first and have that title as the starting middle linebacker. Of course we’re all going to play a ton of football, so it’s good to have all these tools to help us win games.”
Wisconsin feels its offensive line is pretty well set heading into fall camp, as junior Ryan Ramczyk (left tackle), sophomore Beau Benzschawel (right guard) and Jacob Maxwell (right tackle) have taken nearly every rep in spring (Ramczyk and Benzschawel haven’t missed a practice while Maxwell missed Thursday). Sophomore Michael Deiter has also taken every rep at center and will likely move back to left guard when Dan Voltz returns off injury … or will he?
Voltz has played in 32 games for Wisconsin with 27 starts but said last week that he’s willing to move to left guard due to Deiter’s sudden mastery at the position. That will create an interesting alignment for offensive coordinator/line coach Joe Rudolph to ponder in the offseason.
In the meantime, Wisconsin needs to start building depth on the line, something that was an issue last year and is still an issue now. Redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen has worked almost exclusively with the first-team offense since late March, a move designed to give him more opportunities to learn the craft and get ahead of the curve. The results have been mixed, both in team and one-on-one drills, so a good performance Saturday will be critical for him heading into the offseason.
No.3 Wide Receiver
Wisconsin appears to have its top two options at receiver determined in senior Rob Wheelwright and junior Jazz Peavy, but the Badgers need more players to build depth. Both in the shadows for most of their careers, senior Reggie Love and junior George Rushing have both had a solid spring camp.
Love has bounced between different positions but has emerged as a solid possession receiver and red-zone threat, having caught a number of touchdown passes in camp in one-on-one coverage or in traffic.
“Reggie has taken on his role,” senior quarterback Bart Houston said. “It’s weird; every year he has a different role on this team. Last year he was trying to be a tight end. This year he is trying to be a wide receiver. He’s definitely taken his role, his new niche, and is playing very well … He’s taken it on with a full head of steam.”
Rushing put up huge numbers in a spring scrimmage (eight catches for 134 yards and a touchdown) and has been one of Wisconsin’s best down-field weapons throughout camp, showcasing some acceleration and speed that could make him an asset in both the passing and running game.
“I feel like each day, whether it’s pass game or run game, I’ve progressed in a way,” Rushing said. “I feel like I have got better mentally and just go out there and playing the way I know how to play. It’s about staying consistent.”
It’s just one of 15 spring practices, but a good performance Saturday is important for both players.
Wisconsin’s front seven will be stacked with talent this season and be the pulse of the team, but the Badgers won’t be able to survive a daunting 2016 season if two safeties don’t emerge from the pack, something new secondary coach Jim Leonhard has been working on with various combination through during spring practices.
Leo Musso is the senior of the group but has missed a lot of practice time due to class conflicts during the week. Junior D'Cota Dixon had worked quite a bit in the starting rotation but hasn’t practice since early April because of a left groin injury. That’s allowed players like junior Joe Ferguson and sophomore Arrington Farrar to get a lot of work. Ferguson has experience in the defense but Farrar played sparingly last year and has really taken a jump forward, developing into an athlete who has a nose for the interception.
“You get your reps and learn the defense, so I think that helped me ahead of the learning curve and was better than redshirting,” Farrar said. “I think I’m more prepared this year to play more since I had that apprenticeship.”
With safeties Eric Burrell and Patrick Johnson coming in this summer and having the mindset to be early contributors, Farrar, Ferguson and Musso will have a chance to leave a solid impression.
You didn’t think I was going to leave out the obvious one, did you? This has been an interesting spring for head coach Paul Chryst considering he had only three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, not to mention only two healthy ones. Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook have taken all the reps in team drills and have taken strides forward, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Being the fifth-year senior, Houston clearly has the most experience of the two, not to mention a more polished delivery and overall knowledge of the playbook. Houston has been prone to high interception totals this spring but said he’s been encouraged by the coaching staff to go outside his comfort zone and challenge himself to make tougher throws.
After having up-and-down practices to being spring, including high turnover totals, Hornibrook has become more consistent over the last few weeks with his throws and limiting interceptions. He still struggles with his delivery and mechanics, but his connections with the receivers are improving and so is his accuracy on deep throws.
“These are all learning opportunities,” Chryst said. “Quarterback is easy to evaluate because everyone sees it and you can sit on the side and keep track easier. There’s a lot of things that go into it. If you make a mistake and it stings … if you internalize it and don’t feel good about it, you’re going to learn from it.
“In spring you’ve got to figure out how small a window you can throw in. You don’t know until you try. You don’t grow until you’ve pushed yourself out of your comfort zone. You can put that in every position.”
Both quarterbacks have downplayed the impending quarterback battle, saying spring is more about individual improvement, but there’s no denying that the pressure is only going to increase the closer it gets to September.