With nine spring practices in the books and six remaining, Wisconsin's most convoluted position remains linebacker. Injuries to potential starters and the juggling of young players among new positions has complicated the search for replacements for inside linebacker Jeff Mack and weakside linebacker Alex Lewis.
New defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Bret Bielema has tweaked the Badgers' scheme and the emphasis of the three linebacker positions. When spring practice began, sophomore Mark Zalewski, who had been Mack's understudy, shifted to strongside linebacker, junior Elliot Goode went from weakside to inside and LaMarr Watkins, who started eight games the past two seasons on the strongside moved to weakside.
Goode, though, suffered a knee injury early in spring practice and is not expected to return until the fall and Zalewski has been out since injuring his arm March 24. The particulars regarding either injury have not been released, but according to Bielema Zalewski may return this spring. Senior Kareem Timbers, meanwhile, has been out all spring after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. He has started 13 careers games at strongside but will follow Watkins to the weakside in the fall.
As a result, five players who spent last season on the scout team are in the two-deep this spring. Sophomore Reggie Cribbs and redshirt freshman Brandon Kelly have battled back and forth at inside, or mike, linebacker. Sophomore Paul Joran has assumed first-team duties at the strongside sam position, ahead of junior John Gillen. Junior Dontez Sanders, who has played often on special teams, is backing up Watkins at the weakside will spot. In addition, redshirt freshman walk-on Adam Purcell is pushing Gillen for the second-team sam job after joining the team in January.
"We've got a long way to go there because that is the greenest position, but I feel confident Bret will bring some guys along," head coach Barry Alvarez said.
The myriad shuffling has also mildly affected outside linebackers coach Brian Murphy's job description. Murphy continues to work primarily with the strongside linebackers, but with all three positions in the air has spent more time working side-by-side with Bielema.
"Bret and I have been working altogether trying to find the mix of the three guys," Murphy said. "We have kind of combined all three of them into one force where we're coaching linebackers."
"There's obviously times when my focus as a coordinator also goes in other directions," Bielema said. "It really allows you a lot of dexterity with the linebacker group so you can give them individual time as well as…have some continuity and have all three guys working together."
More experimenting is likely. Kelly is expected to exchange positions with Gillen for the final half-dozen practices, which begin Friday and end with the spring game April 10.
"With the way its going right now there may be a bunch of guys that we are going to start to mix-and-match," Murphy said.
All in the pursuit of the right blend of three.
"You'd like to come out (of spring) with a guy that's clearly better but the whole thing starts over again when you get to August camp," Murphy said. "You have some opinions develop through spring and then you have to come back in August and continue on and see if that maintains."
Spring notes at the stretch
Sophomore John Stocco has solidified his position as the No. 1 quarterback heading into the fall. The open battle right now is for No. 2, with redshirt freshman Tyler Donovan battling senior Matt Schabert. Freshman Sean Lewis will likely leave spring workouts as the No. 4 option.
"Like I told Matt, I know where he is at after four years," quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton said. "I've got to see where these other two guys are at. He's done a good job helping, like a player-coach right now. He's done a great job with that."
Thomas looking good at left tackle
Sophomore Joe Thomas spent the last three practices as the No. 1 left tackle with incumbent senior Morgan Davis shifting to the right side. Senior Mike Lorenz, the starter last year at right tackle, rotated in with Davis at that position.
Thomas, though, is in Austin, Texas through Saturday to compete in the shot put and discus for Wisconsin's outdoor track team at the Texas Relays. The competition is expected to play out into the fall, but the offensive line has been at its best with Thomas at left tackle and Lorenz subbing in as a short-yardage tight end, a role he served two seasons ago and Thomas played last year.
On the mend
In addition to Timbers, five potential starters have been out all spring due to injuries: senior defensive ends Erasmus James (hip) and Darius Jones (knee), sophomore strong safety Joe Stellmacher (leg), junior wide receiver Brandon Williams (shin) and senior wide receiver Darrin Charles (back). Senior punter R.J. Morse (undisclosed) has missed the bulk of spring practice. Junior Jake Wood was competing with senior Jonathan Clinkscale at right guard but has missed the last two practices with a shoulder injury.