Questions and concerns

Alvarez: do not expect big changes to UW offense; linebacker main question mark on defense

Ever since Paul Chryst was hired as the University of Wisconsin's co-offensive coordinator and tight ends coach in February, Badger fans have been buzzing about the possibility substantial change for an offense that struggled in 2004.

But during spring practices Badger coaches and players talked about small changes here and there, mostly regarding what is emphasized in the passing game.

According to UW head coach Barry Alvarez, the changes will be almost imperceptible to the untrained eye. The Badgers under Alvarez are famous for being a physical running team first-and-foremost, though they have done a good job over the years of adapting to personnel.

"I don't think anybody in the stands would notice it, a change," Alvarez said Friday. "The subtle changes in what we're emphasizing in the passing game. Just the normal fan really wouldn't know the difference."

Last season, first-year defensive coordinator Bret Bielema, who will take over for Alvarez next year as head coach, did wonders with UW's defense, molding it into one of the best units in the country. However, he did not make major changes from a scheme standpoint. Bielema instilled confidence, changed some terminology at linebacker and moved some players to new positions. All of this was effective, but these were not radical changes.

With Chryst in charge of the passing game, Alvarez said, "Our terminology won't change. It's just we'll do some different routes and do some different things."

"We try to stay consistent," he said. "It's just different routes, different reads, different places we want to go to the ball and I think Paul's done an excellent job of making the quarterbacks aware of priorities in throws… anticipate where the ball should throw according to different reactions to the defense. I really think in his scheme he has a good teaching progression to help the quarterbacks."

How precisely the offense will look under Chryst will be worked out through the Badgers' fall training camp practices, which begin Aug. 10. There are other questions that must be sorted out as well.

"You have to have a question mark on our kicker because we were not very consistent in the spring," Alvarez said. "I think you have to have question marks on the three new starters in the offensive line. Defensively, can we improve at linebacker? Can some of these young linebackers contribute right away? That's really the only question mark I think on defense. I think we'll be fine in the defensive line and I think we'll be fine in the secondary."

UW returns all three of its starting linebackers and most of its depth from last season, while the defensive line is breaking in four new starters and the only returning defensive back, corner Brett Bell, has been working his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee since January.

So why is Alvarez more comfortable with the defensive line and secondary?

"The defensive line, those guys have played," Alvarez said. Projected starters end Jamal Cooper and tackles Nick Hayden and Justin Ostrowski were key reserves last year. End Joe Monty, who is competing for a starting spot with Jason Chapman and Kurt Ware, was also in the rotation.

"It's not like this is the first time they are ever going to get in a game," Alvarez said. "They haven't started but they've all had game action and I just think they have ability. It's not always just starting experience. I think those guys are more than adequate and have experience."

In addition to Bell, the secondary boasts senior Levonne Rowan and redshirt freshmen Jack Ikegwuonu and Allen Langford at corners and a quartet of junior class safeties: Johnny White, Roderick Rogers, Zach Hampton and Joe Stellmacher.

"In the secondary we've got some young guys but I think they're talented," Alvarez said. "I think Brett Bell, you know, they've given tremendous reports on him. His leg is really strong and that gives you a guy who was playing as well as anyone at the end of the year and that really would be a boost for us."

At linebacker, the incumbents are Mark Zalewski, Andy Crooks and Dontez Sanders, but several players will compete for playing time, including a half dozen freshmen.

"I think the hard part in… two-a-days is to quickly decide which of your young ones can contribute," Alvarez said. "So that you can get them enough reps so they're comfortable and yet you have to give the older guys, get them game ready. We really have to test the young guys and see who can contribute. We think a number of them… should be able to contribute in special teams."

Offensively, Chryst's points of emphasis will not prove worthwhile unless quarterback John Stocco can be more effective than he was in 2004.

"John has to improve," Alvarez said. "I think he's the first to tell you that. We have to be more consistent. I have no reason to believe that we won't."

"He's got 12 games under his belt now," Alvarez said. "I think he has to improve on his awareness, pre-snap reads, where he's going with the ball, before the ball is snapped, just his accuracy on some things. But I know he will compete hard. He's a willing soul. He wants to do well. And he's worked very hard this summer to improve.

"One thing I think a lot of people forgot: John, he had mono all last summer. He couldn't work out last summer. It was weak and I don't know what kind of condition he was in when we started the season. I think that alone (being healthy) will help him."

Alvarez said he was not sure how much second-team quarterback Tyler Donovan could push Stocco.

"It's not physical with Tyler," Alvarez said. "Tyler has to learn; I want to get Tyler involved because I think he really can do some things and can contribute to the offense. We want to do some things with him that John probably can't do. But I want to get him to be a part of the offense."

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