MADISON – For the first time in recent memory, Wisconsin will hold its annual spring game on a Friday, the final practice of the second phase of its season preparations.
Wisconsin will be relying on a number of returning veterans - like quarterback Alex Hornibrook, receiver Jazz Peavy, an offensive and defensive line that lost only one contributor, its depth at inside linebacker and so forth – to win a second straight Big Ten West Division championship. However, there are a number of players fans aren’t as familiar with who could be making their mark this season.
Before making the journey to Camp Randall Stadium or tuning in on the Big Ten Network, here are five players to watch tonight who may be off your radar.
Wide Receiver Quintez Cephus
Cephus wasn’t expected to be on the field as a true freshman last season, especially considering how new he was to the game of football, but the 6-1 athlete’s rare talent was too much to redshirt him. He was used more for his running ability (five carries for 41 yards) than his pass catching (four catches, 97 yards) a year ago, but his ability as a downfield blocker earned him opportunities in games.
More mature and familiar with the offense, Cephus began the spring flashing his potential with a skill set high on athleticism, length and speed that give him the ability to be a deep-ball threat and elusive after the catch.
“Last year he got some playing time, but really what you see in him is because of the playing time,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “You see different eyes that he’s looking at the game with right now in the spring. That’s the growth you want to see. That’s the advantage of having played … They are in the huddle with different eyes than they would have if they haven’t played to this point.”
Unfortunately Cephus’ off-the-field situation has been the main story line of camp, as his father was suddenly gunned down in their home town of Macon, GA, on April 3. He died the next day. Cephus missed three practices between two trips home but has continued to practice well.
Cephus stated on social media in mid-February that “This is My Year” and posted on Instagram that he’s going to play for his father this season after his death.
“When I come out here I try to get every single rep and take advantage,” Cephus said at the beginning of spring. “I love coming out here and getting to go with these guys. My biggest thing is competing. I just love competing and seeing my development, and having fun doing it.”
Considering his ability in the run, pass and blocking game, Cephus looks like the right match to start opposite Peavy against Utah State Sept.1.
Cornerback Nick Nelson
Wisconsin added two transfer prospects with experience last April and both appeared to be huge additions to the roster. Trying to replace a four-year cornerback starter in Sojourn Shelton would have been difficult this season considering the other five corners on the roster have yet to play in a game. That’s where Nelson comes in.
In two seasons at Hawaii, Nelson played in 23 games (21 starts) and responded with 89 tackles. In 2015 Nelson had 15 pass breakups and a forced fumble. In three games against Power Five schools that season, Nelson had a career-high 11 tackles (10 solo stops) against Colorado, broke up three passes against Ohio State and made nine tackles, including 0.5 TFL, at Wisconsin.
Able to use his redshirt last season, Nelson can play a variety of coverages against different sized receivers to benefit UW’s defense.
“With his transfer year and sitting out, he didn’t play in games, but we saw him play a lot of football,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I think he makes us better in the back end … I think he’s a really skilled cornerback.”
Running Back Chris James
Despite losing two senior tailbacks, Wisconsin doesn’t appear like it’s going to experience a drop off with the emergence of James throughout camp. A mixture of brutality, strength and speed, James has been impressive during spring practices with his ability to make the special-type plays happen, even during mundane spring drills.
With the directive from the coaching staff to stay consistent and calm, as well as not trying to prove himself in one day, James has made defensive ends, linebackers and cornerbacks miss with his shiftiness and shown good hands to catch passes out of the backfield, making Wisconsin’s offense more versatile.
“I think Chris has got a lot of physical skills that you like to have in a back,” Chryst said. “He’s got toughness and his ability to be a good inside runner, and he’s also got really good feet. This year, he’s progressed in some of the pass protection stuff, so the bowl prep, especially that early time, was really good for him — that group, he’s one of the group. I’m glad that he’s here.”
James has bulked up to around 220 pounds and has maintained the ability to be a bruiser and a speedster. With another capable back in redshirt sophomore Bradrick Shaw, Wisconsin’s coaching staff will be able to rotate in two players who can make a sizeable impact running between the tackles, outside the protection and in the passing game.
Right Tackle Patrick Kasl
Wisconsin’s offensive line returns a wealth of experience this season, but the big question mark looming in the offseason was who was going to replace likely first-round N.F.L. draft pick Ryan Ramczyk at left tackle. Rudolph answered that question by moving right tackle David Edwards to left. And with right tackle Jacob Maxwell out recovering from injuries, the same injuries that ended his season after starting the first seven games at right tackle, Rudolph has given the redshirt freshman the opportunity to make his mark.
Kasl was recruited to Wisconsin because of his athletic ability and work ethic, so the redshirt freshman’s ability to step in and compete this spring with the ones shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Kasl’s development will give Wisconsin flexibility come the fall at both tackle positions, which we found out this week may include junior Michael Deiter.
Defensive Lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk
Wisconsin’s defensive line is stacked with talent and experience at all three spots, but Loudermilk’s performance as a redshirt freshman has allowed him to climb past some older players on the depth chart.
A former eight-man football standout, Loudermilk’s ability to move his 6-7, 300-pound frame effortlessly has caused problems consistently for the second-team offense in drills and scrimmages with his ability to get around the edge, find the right gaps on stunts to rush the pocket and block passing lanes for the quarterbacks.
In UW’s most recent scrimmage, Loudermilk worked on the first-team defense while senior Conor Sheehy rested, getting the nod over sophomores Kraig Howe, David Pfaff and Garrett Rand. On Thursday he continuously pressured quarterback Jack Coan from the right tackle spot. Loudermilk still needs to work on his spacing and technique, but there’s no question he’s taken a big leap forward from the fall to now.
“There’s a ton to learn, but Isaiahh comes and he works, and he’s certainly talented,” Chryst said. “He’s getting a lot of reps, so this has been a good spring for him.”