When discussing Wisconsin's offensive line, much has been made of the team's three new starters. Perhaps not enough has been said for the returning starter that is a whole new player, left guard Dan Buenning.
Buenning battled mono during fall camp last season and suffered a shoulder injury early in the 2002 campaign. The illness and injury combined to put Buenning behind the curve throughout the season. This fall has been an entirely different story.
"I don't think he played as well during the season as he did that spring," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "He had mono—he was weak and he tried to play. Sometimes that is hard. Number one he physically looks like a different person, just like a lot of our guys do. He is one of the guys that physically looks the part. He is mature. He is a much more confident player than he was a year ago."
Buenning has emerged as the best player on Wisconsin's offensive line, someone who could become the dominant anchor for a young group.
"Speed Nickel" clarified
Alex Lewis isn't playing defensive end on the nickel after all, though he may line up as one from time-to-time in nickel sets.
In the set Wisconsin sometimes uses three defensive lineman—ends Erasmus James and Jonathan Welsh and tackle/end Darius Jones—joined by linebackers Lewis, Jeff Mack and reserve outside linebacker LaMarr Watkins to go with five defensive backs. Lewis dropped to a three-point stance as if he were a rush end, but Alvarez stated that Lewis is really playing more of an outside linebacker role in that formation.
"That is just an alignment. We bump him and play with a one linebacker defense that is all," Alvarez said. "He goes from inside to outside and it is a coverage that we are going to play depending on the formation that they give us."
Strong safety Joe Stellmacher, a redshirt freshman after being a priority walk-on a year ago, is playing well enough to earn playing time this season. Stellmacher worked out at nickel back yesterday and has rotated in on the second-team defense.
Stellmacher has impressed coaches since his high school days, a feeling that has steadily risen since he joined the team.
"I thought athletically he was exceptional," Alvarez said. "If I'm not mistaken he was a quarterback and a safety in high school. Every place I went in that part of the country people just raved about him as a person and as a player.
"He is a kid who, and I'm not going to try to put him in Jimmy Leonhard's or Jason Doering's shoes, or put him in the same sentence with them, other then the fact that he started showing up like they did. He intercepts four balls in two days and not balls thrown right to him. He is making breaks and making plays. That is what you look for. You look for playmakers. We just felt like he deserved a shot, he deserved a chance for us to take a look at him in our nickel package."
The team only recently introduced its nickel defense to fall camp. As a result, Alvarez felt it was far too early to assess Stellmacher's standing further other than to say that Stellmacher is certainly competing for the nickel spot.
The most memorable plays Thursday were both big time hits.
The play of the day was a crushing block from reserve right tackle Jake Wood. As defensive end Joe Monty turned upfield in an attempt to make a play against a reverse, Wood drilled him, decleating Monty.