In small ways, football has stayed the same this spring for linebackers Reggie Cribbs and Brandon Kelly. They are still working together, striving for a common goal and, just like last fall, they are frequently working against Wisconsin's first-team defense.
In much larger ways, though, everything has changed. Cribbs and Kelly are adapting to a new position and a quantum leap in prospective playing time.
The pair spent last season on the scout team, Kelly as a strongside linebacker, Cribbs on the weakside. Kelly, redshirting as a true freshman, was learning the ropes. Cribbs, a redshirt freshman at that time, was trying to find his way after a debilitating leg injury took away his entire freshman year.
But with last season's best linebackers prepping for NFL auditions, Cribbs and Kelly were thrown into the mix when spring practices began. Kelly started spring as the No. 2 mike linebacker, Cribbs No. 3. Since prospective No. 1 Elliot Goode went down with a knee injury early in spring workouts, Cribbs and Kelly have jostled the depth chart, with Cribbs recently taking command of the position.
"It is pretty interesting to see," Cribbs said. "Last year…on our scout team we were out there together. Now, we both play mike so it is like we are going back-and-forth, trying to compete for the spot. It is all in good fun."
Kelly and Cribbs share jovial personalities both on and off the field, characteristics that helped them lighten the mood before their opportunities arose and have helped them maintain a good-natured competition.
For Cribbs, last season was the beginning of a rebirth, the time when he learned he could still play football after a stress fracture in his shin and subsequent surgery stole his initial campaign away from him.
"I was just trying to get my body back from having those years off," he said. "Get back in the groove of football."
"It was just one injury but the one injury messed my body up because I wasn't working out," Cribbs said. "So imagine me not working out for a year and then trying to go out there and playing D-I football. You kind of behind."
In addition to rehab, Cribbs focused on other hobbies, such as singing in the UW Gospel Choir.
"I just tried to do little things to keep my mind off me not playing football," he said.
But attention was always paid to football, with the future in mind.
"I always used all means to make sure that when I did get the chance then I'd be ready," Cribbs said. "I didn't want to go out there with my head spinning around."
Meanwhile, Kelly joined all but four 2003 recruits in scout team duties last fall.
"It gets kind of hard every now and then," Kelly said. "You just have to push yourself, get the other guys to push each other and make it through it together."
As a scout-team linebacker, his job was not to learn the defense and work on his progressions. It was to play hard day-after-day, following what was presented on the play cards. So Kelly created small goals for himself to help pass the time effectively. He worked on his game speed and anticipation and made a game of trying to track down Anthony Davis as often as possible.
"I know if I get him once that shows I'm getting better," Kelly said. "If I get him twice I get better and better for it. I just try to gauge myself off the other great people we have here."
"That is how you have to do it on the scout team because, like, you are getting yelled at by the coaches, first team is beating you a lot of time, so you just have to motivate yourself, keep yourself motivated and play mind games like that to make it easier," he added.
Kelly is once again chasing Anthony Davis and company this spring, but rather than executing a play on a card, he has been working to learn his new position and has been fighting for future playing time as part of Wisconsin's first and second defenses.
"You have a lot of bad habits being on (scout team)," Kelly said. "You weren't getting coached every day one-on-one. But it's working now."
Cribbs is currently winning the battle at mike linebacker, enjoying one of the most impressive springs of any Badger on the field.
"Scout team actually did help me a lot because I was able to come to the speed of the game going against our No. 1 offense all the time," Cribbs said. "The way I'm playing now, it's not that hard for me."
At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, Cribbs does not spur images of the player he is working to replace on the inside, the far more physically imposing Jeff Mack. Neither, for that matter, does Kelly, an agile player listed at 6-4, 233 who had never played inside linebacker at any level of football prior to this spring.
But the duo is reminiscent of the type of the linebacker new coach Bret Bielema desires: the type that can patrol sideline to sideline as he purveys the field.
"He told me he thought about the ideal linebacker over spring break, somebody who is 6-2, 230, who can run and said he saw that in me," Kelly said.
Cribbs was considered an ideal linebacker coming out of high school, an All-American in some minds. But as other players developed, he persevered.
"It was horrible the past the two years because I had to sit back and watch my guys play," Cribbs said.
Now, everything has changed.
"It feels great," he said. "It feels like I've got part of my soul back.
"I've been hearing from everybody: ‘hey, how are you feeling?' I feel great. I'm actually playing now. I make little mistakes here and there but I'm getting better and better each day. That's what matters."
It took a while, Cribbs said, to get back to the level he played at before the injury.
"I'm there and getting better," he said. "I feel like I'm getting better now, because I'm playing with bigger people, faster people, so I'm actually getting better than I was before I came."