Yet at the forefront of most minds was whether incumbent quarterback John Stocco could hold off his challengers this March and April. While many questions swirling around the 2005 Badgers remain unanswered, Stocco, a junior-to-be, has maintained a significant advantage over sophomore Tyler Donovan and redshirt freshman Bryan Savage.
Last season the Badgers' offense was its least productive since 1992 and UW's 9-0 start turned to an 0-3 end. Criticism, whether fair or not, was heaped on Stocco, who completed 53 percent of his passes while throwing for 1,999 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.
"People want you to play like you're a senior before you ever get the chance," quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton said. "He's got his best football still in front of him. That's just like anything else, the natural progression is he is going to get better."
Stocco was diligent through offseason workouts in January and February and he spent considerable time in the video room studying what he could have done better last season, primarily not overthrowing deep passes and converting third-and-short opportunities. In re-securing the top quarterback job this spring, Stocco improved in those areas and across the board.
"I think consistency was the biggest thing," he said. "There were times when I played well, and then at times I didn't play well. Say we've got a five-yard out route. It should be automatic. Sometimes I'll miss that. We've got to have throws like that."
It was painfully obvious that UW's offense struggled to stretch the field vertically last season. Part of that was due to a turnover-averse style that allowed UW to rely on a then-veteran-laden defense. This spring, however, the emphasis has been on trust. The quarterback puts the ball in a position where the receiver can make a play on it, and the receiver either gets it or makes sure the defender cannot.
For example, Stocco used to try to throw a too-perfect pass on deep routes down the sideline. Now, with some success, he is focusing on placing the ball over the outside shoulder of the receiver and putting enough air under it so that the receiver can adjust his route as necessary.
"You can't catch an out of bounds ball or overthrown ball, so we've got to give them a chance to catch that," Horton said. "It's not earth-shattering news or something new but we need to do a better job of that."
As the No. 2 quarterback last season, Donovan played in five games, rushing for 117 yards and completing 2 of 3 passes for seven yards. His athleticism is still his greatest asset, but Donovan was much more secure in the pocket this spring.
"I feel more comfortable sitting in the pocket and going through my progressions and not getting flushed out and having crazy legs," Donovan said.
"He's another guy in the offseason who spent a lot of time studying, understanding things more, understanding what we're trying to do," Horton said. "We've seen a big jump in Tyler… I have no qualms putting him in there."
Spring wrap: questions remain
The early indications are that the 2005 Badgers will boast high-caliber talent at several key positions, including left tackle Joe Thomas, tailback Brian Calhoun, center Donovan Raiola, fullback Matt Bernstein, tight end Owen Daniels, linebacker Mark Zalewski, defensive end Jamal Cooper and cornerback Brett Bell, if he can recover completely from the torn ACL that kept him out of practice this spring.
Not surprisingly for a team that lost so much, though, UW lacks sufficient depth at every position except tight end, wide receiver and perhaps fullback and has some important questions to answer in the starting lineup as well:
Right tackle: Sophomore Danny Kaye and redshirt freshman Kraig Urbik, who missed five practices with an ankle injury, shared right tackle duties throughout spring. Kaye and Urbik each had a decent spring, but whoever emerges in the fall will need to be more consistent.
Safeties: A quartet of juniors—strong safeties Johnny White and Joe Stellmacher, free safeties Roderick Rogers and Zach Hampton—are all competent but had some lapses in coverage that will need to be fixed. Expect all four to have a regular role in the fall.
Left defensive end: Of all the areas that were glaring question marks coming into spring, the defensive line asserted itself the best. Cooper and sophomore tackles Nick Hayden and Justin Ostrowski will start, but the left defensive end spot is a toss-up between redshirt freshman Jason Chapman, sophomore Kurt Ware and junior Joe Monty. Those six players, along with end Mike Newkirk, however, established themselves as a competent core.
Specialists: Place kickers sophomore Taylor Mehlhaff and redshirt freshman Adam Schober each have good leg strength but need more consistent accuracy. That competition will likely continue through the fall, as will the ones for the punt and kick returner roles, where Jarvis Minton, Brian Calhoun, Brandon Williams, Marcus Randle El and Levonne Rowan are in the mix.
Many players made substantial strides and/or improved their spot on the depth chart. The highlights:
- Fifth-year senior offensive guards Jason Palermo and Matt Lawrence stepped in for four-year starters Dan Buenning and Jonathan Clinkscale and have played well. Despite losing four of its top six, UW's offensive line should be in good hands next year. True freshman Andy Kemp, who joined the Badgers a semester early, had a strong spring and could also end up in the mix at left guard.
- Walk-on Casey Hogan went from fourth-string free safety last season to second-team sam linebacker and first-team nickel linebacker with an excellent spring. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, Hogan was surprisingly competent against the run, and played very well in pass coverage and while blitzing.
- Cooper established himself as a playmaker at defensive end, while Ware and Chapman developed in a hurry to secure spots in the defensive line rotation.
- Receivers sophomore Jarvis Minton and junior Jeff Holzbauer each did very well and are neck-and-neck for the No. 4 spot behind seniors Brandon Williams, Jonathan Orr and Brandon White.
- Booker Stanley looked rejuvenated at tailback after a disappointing sophomore season. He and transfer Brian Calhoun rotated with the first team and displayed quite a bit of versatility as runners and pass catchers.