In a twist, Wisconsin practiced in Camp Randall Stadium Wednesday afternoon. The field temperature was relatively comfortable before the sun went down, but afterwards the chilly March winds reminded everyone at the stadium that it is indeed still winter in Wisconsin, even if football practice is underway. The snow that had not yet melted from the bleachers in the south end zone was a nice touch.
What follows is a quick glance at Wednesday's practice and a look at why may lie ahead, after the Badgers' coaching staff has an opportunity to analyze the first five practices of 2005.
Bryan Savage stole the show during Wednesday's scrimmage sessions. Playing with a mish-matched unit that could be best typified as third team (the Badgers spring depth on either side of the ball is such that it is impossible to go beyond the second team at a few positions), Savage made a pair of plays with his feet and heart that hyped up his teammates.
First, Savage, who had had an average practice to this point, rolled to his left as he was flushed out of the pocket. Not finding a receiver, Savage lowered his shoulder and barreled into the defense, despite being swarmed under by a quartet of UW defenders. He collided directly with defensive end Kurt Ware, delivering a blow on his way to the turf.
A few plays later Savage sprinted to his right to avoid the pass rush and took on linebacker Casey Hogan in the open field, getting the better of a one-on-one collision, much to the delight of his offensive teammates.
To this point in spring Stocco has been the most consistent of the quarterbacks as far as throwing the football. But his best past Wednesday, a rifled throw over the middle, was dropped by a receiver.
Donovan has improved significantly since the fall but he will have a hard time holding off Savage in the last 10 practices of the spring.
Calhoun makes good reads and he is exceptionally nimble into out of his cuts. He surprised just about everyone in Camp Randall, though, when he dropped a pass as he was troubled by the sun shining through levels of the stadium Wednesday. It was the first and only drop this reporter has seen Calhoun make this spring. He puts a lot of pressure on the defense as a receiver.
Stanley had a couple of nice runs off tackle Wednesday, and he made a very good play after catching a pass in the flats, shaking free and turning up field before the whistle blew.
Dywon Rowan has done an admirable job with his reps in spring this season, though he will likely spend his time in Madison as simply a practice player, with a chance at earning a spot as a short-yardage runner.
Chris Pressley continues to take some reps at tailback, with mixed results.
Matt Bernstein is about as good as it gets at fullback, displaying his regular combination of athleticism and brutal physicality as he clears a path for Calhoun or Stanley. Bernstein has also gotten in on the passing game this spring, showing once again that he is an adept receiver when called upon.
Josh Balts and Bill Rentmeester are engaged in a very tight battle for the backup fullback role. They bring similar characteristics — toughness, decent athletic ability, similar size, and lack of experience — to the table. This competition is too close to call and will likely play out through fall camp.
Sean Lewis has made a fairly quick transition to college tight end. He needs to get stronger at the point of attack with his blocking, but he does fine in that capacity for someone who was a quarterback not too long ago. Lewis is willing and competitive, and he is a natural athlete with good ball skills who can get down field and make plays. He caught a short touchdown pass in a scrimmage session Wednesday.
All is quiet on the depth chart front. Owen Daniels and Jason Pociask will share the first-team duties, each serving in just about every role imaginable for a tight end. Joel Nellis is the primary backup, followed by Lewis, Dave Peck and Matt Brown.
It was an up-and-down day for the receivers, who struggled at times to hang onto the ball in the cold weather.
Brandon White, though, made a very nice catch, hanging onto the ball despite taking a wicked hit from a safety.
Jarvis Minton displayed very good concentration when he got his feet tangled up with free safety Roderick Rogers. Tripped up, he stumbled forward but he regained his balance just in time to reach his hands up near his face and make the catch.
Of all the receivers, Minton and Holzbauer have done the most to help their cases thus far, solidifying themselves as the top non-seniors among the receiving corps.
How few linemen do the Badgers have in spring practice? Well, starting left guard Matt Lawrence doubled as a second-team left and right tackle at times Wednesday.
For the long run, Lawrence will stick at guard, and will likely remain the starter throughout the spring. But he was able to give the team some valuable reps at tackle as well Wednesday.
Which of the lineman has helped himself the most this spring? I would say it is Danny Kaye, who has played well at both left and right tackle, showing a good deal of athleticism for a player of his size. Kaye is in a tight competition with Kraig Urbik for the starting right tackle spot.
After five practices UW has to feel better about what it has at defensive end, while tackle is in a holding period.
Kurt Ware has played well enough with the second team at end to warrant an opportunity to challenge Joe Monty for reps with the No. 1 defense. Monty, by the way, has been solid at left end. He is not someone who is going to make a lot of plays, but he reads his keys well and plays well within the strictures of the defense.
Jamal Cooper is going to be a very productive player.
Mike Newkirk is coming along in reserve; he forced a fumble on sheer hustle Wednesday.
Tackles Justin Ostrowski and Nick Hayden are pluggers; workmanlike players who are not going to spend much time on the tackles chart but who have not made many glaring mistakes either. The question is in reserve, where Jason Chapman, who is converting to tackle from end and is still recovering from a muscle tear in his shoulder, looks like the most capable backup. Derek Yentz, who converted from end to tackle, is undersized for the inside but is willing.
The Badgers have juggled their second and third team units in the past couple practices, and walk-on mike linebacker Joshua Neal appears to be challenging Elliot Goode for the second-team spot behind Andy Crooks.
For the second time this spring, Jammar Crane made a good jump on the ball and nearly had an interception only to settle for a pass breakup.
Mark Zalewski had a practice sack during one scrimmage Wednesday.
The spring starters: Zalewski at sam, Crooks at mike, and LaMarr Watkins (in place of the injured Dontez Sanders) will be unchanged come March 30, but some second and third team slots may be juggled around.
Spring first-team corner Allen Langford (who is subbing in for the injured Brett Bell) had another good practice. He is physical near the line of scrimmage and he does a good job tracking receivers off of it.
Second-team corner Jack Ikegwuonu has a knack for big plays; he picked up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown Wednesday.
Jameson Davis had his best day of practice since being converted to free safety, breaking up a pair of passes with hits on receivers.
The depth remains unchanged at the top, though Zach Hampton and Joe Stellmacher look poised to compete for starting spots at the two safety spots, currently manned by Rogers and Johnny White. Hampton had an interception Wednesday.
The pre-spring depth is largely intact, though the return spots are still anyone's call, as is the place kicking battle between Taylor Mehlhaff and Adam Schober. Steven Johnson has a clear edge for the long snapper spot.