MADISON – With Wisconsin’s fall camp having come to a close, the Badgers transition into game preparations for their season opener against No.5 LSU at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field September 3.
As head coach Paul Chryst kicked the media out of practice for the final time, I give my thoughts on what I’ve seen through 12 open practices.
Quarterback still too close to call
We’ll get the obvious one out of the way first, as there’s no clear edge in the media practices between fifth-year senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. Hornibrook won the first week, Houston won the second week and this week was a combination of the two. Regardless, both quarterbacks made a fair share of miscues, meaning the position is likely going to be a work in progress.
“I’ve liked the way how Bart and Alex, one, have handled the situation and, two, performed,” Chryst said. “Can they both get better? Absolutely. I think how they approached it in spring, how they approached it in summer and built on that in fall (shows) that they’re workers. The team matters to them and players see that. I think both have put themselves in position to play this season.”
Mirroring the team, both quarterbacks have progressed but there is still a long way to go. If I had to pick, I’d pick Houston based on his experience and arm strength.
Cichy and Orr will anchor a talented front seven
New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s main goal in the spring was to get the terminology down between the 3-4 scheme he had run in the past and the 3-4 defense the returning players were familiar with. Citing the team’s work ethic over the summer to correct any imperfections, Wilcox was able to hit the ground running with his group on August 8, even without the services of an All-American.
The pre-camp injury of T.J. Edwards was the most serious injury on the defensive side of the ball, but the Badgers were fortunate to have significant depth at the inside linebacker position with both Jack Cichy and Chris Orr starting multiple games last year. The only caveat was they rarely had played on the field at the same time. That doesn’t appear to be a problem anymore.
“Their approach to the game, meetings, drill work, really everything it entails, you couldn’t ask for anything better,” Wilcox said. “They’re both internally motivated guys and want to be at their best. Whether we’re doing a walk through, something in a meeting room, taking care of their bodies, they’ve done a fantastic job. We need them to continue to do that, and they will because of their mental makeup.”
Edwards should know by this weekend whether playing against LSU is realistic or not. Even so, he’s expected to be back and healthy by the beginning of Big Ten play. When he does return, he’ll have to try to try to add to the unit by adding depth.
“Their communication builds every day,” Edwards said of the starting tandem. “Their chemistry is so strong. That’s kind of how all of us inside linebackers are together. Just seeing them out the run the defense, getting with Vince (Biegel) and T.J. (Watt) is good to see.”
Offensive line depth is huge concern once again
The Badgers appear to be in better shape than they were a year ago, but injuries in camp have become the theme for the group. Part of last year’s downfall was the five projected offensive line starters were never healthy at the same time to get quality practice with each other. That’s been the same this year with multiple projected starters sitting out and watching.
Offensive coordinator/line coach Joe Rudolph wants to enter the season with at least three backups who can play multiple roles. Realistically Wisconsin had one in redshirt sophomore Micah Kapoi. With the decision by Dan Voltz to retire due to injuries, the Badgers lost their safety net and are now one injury away from having to go to an inexperienced underclassmen.
Jon Dietzen is behind after missing time with a head injury and the walk-ons on the roster haven’t flashed enough to show they could hold down a starting spot for more than a couple plays. David Edwards’ move to right tackle couldn’t have come at a better time, as he most likely is the prime backup now at the spot. And considering Jacob Maxwell’s foot has limited him throughout camp, who knows when Edwards will be called upon. Guys like David Moorman and Brett Connors will need to get ready in a hurry should something happen.
Clement involved in multiple areas?
The media hasn’t seen a ton of Corey Clement during camp, in part because the Badgers were going to be cautious with him and because he had a nagging leg injury. When he has scrimmaged or done team drills, Clement’s burst appears to have returned to his game. Of course that speed was there last fall camp until the sports hernia problems surface, but it feels like Clement could have a big year at tailback, especially since UW has more depth at the position and can keep guys fresher.
If that’s not enough, however, UW is throwing around the idea of using him as a punt returner.
“He’s going to have a role,” special teams coach Chris Haering said. “He’s going to be vital to us in both punt return and kick return …The head man wants to put the best guys out there.”
Wisconsin is also tossing around the idea of using senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton and junior receiver Jazz Peavy. When asked about it, Clement was for the idea of expanding his role but not at the expense of his duties in the backfield.
“You’ve got to look at yourself and say, ‘you’ve got a lot more work to do’ and ‘why can’t you do it as well?” Clement said. “I want to do as much as I can, but I learned that putting too much stress on yourself can only create some downfall. I just hope to play the games in all honesty. When I say I want to be a punt returner, it’s basically saying I want to do anything I can to help this team win.”
Taylor will play
A.J. Taylor, the multi-tooled freshman athlete from Kansas City, will see the field this year in some capacity, evidenced by the work he’s done in camp. Not only has he slowly worked his way up the depth chart at the receiver spot, becoming a repeated target for both quarterbacks, Taylor has worked with the first-team kickoff unit. Considering Chryst wants the team’s best players on special teams, Taylor’s speed is certainly a weapon the Badgers want to use.
He still needs to work on consistency catching the football (drops have played a big part of his camp) and running his routes, but there’s no doubt he brings something to the table. As it stands today, he’s likely UW’s fourth receiver behind Rob Wheelwright, Jazz Peavy and George Rushing.
Quinez Cephus might be in this conversation, too, but he has missed a lot of time – and some key scrimmages – because of an injury.
Burrell deserves to play in some form or fashion
Defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard relied a lot on senior Leo Musso and sophomore D’Cota Dixon at the safety positions but one of main tasks during camp has been to develop depth for when an injury happens. With UW limiting Dixon’s reps for health reasons, Leonhard has paired sophomore Arrington Farrar with Musso and elevated some younger players up to the second team.
Throughout the second week of camp, the one guy that kept popping up was true freshman Eric Burrell. Although his strength coming out of high school was playing close to the line in run support, Burrell has been active in the passing game, interception a pass in the red zone during 7-on-7 work and constantly being around the ball when given opportunities. Saying things have slowed down for him, Burrell has started to trust his technique and is on the verge of carving out a niche for himself.
“I can see myself competing,” Burrell said. “Whatever happens, they (the coaches) are doing it for a reason. I am just being humbled and motivated to continue to work my craft.”
* Rafael Gaglianone looks to be poised for a bounce-back season, as he has consistently struck the ball well throughout camp. I can’t recall seeing him miss a field goal attempt.
* Tight end Troy Fumagalli could be a red zone weapon for UW this season. In a practice this week, he caught two different 6-yard touchdowns on the same fade route during team drills.
*Freshman cornerback Caesar Williams and junior cornerback Nick Nelson will be very good for Wisconsin in the coming years.
*The fullback trio of Alec Ingold, Leon Jacobs and Austin Ramesh are capable of being more than just blockers
* Defensive lineman Garrett Rand and punter Anthony Lotti should be involved in the conversation to play as a true freshman.