A regular concern regarding the Wisconsin football team revolves around the team's punting game, which was a constant problem last season. Incumbent punter R.J. Morse averaged 37.4 yards per punt last season and is being pushed this fall by freshman Kenneth DeBauche.
The Badgers coaching staff charts the results of punts and kicks throughout each practice. Typically, the punters and kickers spend most of practice working as a group, aside from the rest of the team. Tuesday, though, the team went live with its punting game to get a better look at Morse and DeBauche.
"Actually, going into today, R.J.'s and Kenny DeBauche's punts were exactly the same," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "Their numbers were exactly the same. We wanted to go live to see how they responded with live pressure today. R.J. hit all of them very good, but one was exceptional."
Alvarez was asked who had the edge if their charted punts remained even.
"If everything is equal then you go with the guy who has done it before," Alvarez said.
Thus far, Alvarez is happy with what he has seen.
"(The punters) have been OK. They are not ready for the Ray Guy nomination yet, but they have been adequate."
That is a significant improvement from last spring, when the thought of the punting game seemed to incite instantaneous consternation.
Mason getting the kicks, earning playing time
Freshman wide receiver Ernest Mason has drawn notice since camp began. He is an extremely athletic player and he appears poised to earn playing time this fall.
"Ernest really has natural soft hands," Alvarez said. "He catches punts and kickoffs well. He has tremendous speed. We are going to continue to work him. He will be one of the three punt return guys that we work and we want to see him live. He will be one of the two or three kickoff returners, the guys that we put in position to return the ball, not just one of the deep backs.
"We will work him into the offense some to use his speed. We definitely have some plans down the road for him in the kicking game."
Jim Leonhard remains the No. 1 punt returner, but the Badgers will likely take those duties away from the All-American if another player steps up at the position.
"Hey, Jimmy led the league in it," Alvarez said. "I think he was top 10 in the country. I would like to keep him healthy for the season. I'm sure we will start the season with him as the punt returner."
Along with Leonhard and receiver Brandon Williams, Mason receives the bulk of the reps at the position. Considering that Williams will receive ample playing time at receiver and will also serve as the team's kickoff returner, Mason seems the logical choice as the top punt returner. It may simply be a matter of time before this becomes reality.
Alvarez appeared amused with a stream of questions Tuesday afternoon that regarded, in some way or another, the Badgers current depth chart.
"All of us, and you guys (the media) in particular get anxious," Alvarez said. "We have only been in pads a couple of days and we are already talking about who is going to play and who is going to redshirt and who is going to start. You know, we have two full weeks yet at camp out here almost before we get going. A lot of things will happen between now and a week from Friday when we break camp."
More notes/thoughts on this afternoon's practice:
- Mason continues to look impressive throughout fall camp workouts. As Alvarez said, he is very fast and he shows the ability to get downfield in a hurry. He also is a good route runner and has exceptional hands. Like any freshman, he could use a little more size and strength, but that will come, and when it does, watch out.
- The freshman cornerbacks, Roderick Rogers and Tony Moss, a redshirt, have been extremely impressive. They did a very good job in man-to-man coverage drills, whether playing tight to the line or giving a cushion. Moss, who missed all of last season with an injury, has been particularly impressive, shadowing receivers well downfield and showing a good burst to close and make a play.
- Starting cornerbacks Scott Starks and Brett Bell appear more physical than they were last season. Each has knack this fall for stepping up and making a hit. Starks, who has always had a good jump on the ball, looks to have turned it up a notch this season. He is timing his breaks very well and making good plays on the ball.
- Freshman safety Johnny White made a very nice play this afternoon, stepping up and leaping for an interception.
- Linebacker Alex Lewis, not previously known for his coverage skills, has picked off a pass in two consecutive practices. He has flowed into his zones quite well this fall.