Spring football notebook

Strickland's toughness stands out; Tackling postponed; Hankwitz's position role; linebacker depth

MADISON — During the course of the University of Wisconsin football team's practice Wednesday night, two players that the Badgers are thoroughly counting on this season — wide receiver Jarvis Minton and cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu — left the field with what appeared to be minor injuries.

"I haven't gotten the full details on that," head coach Bret Bielema said. "I knew Jack was a little bit tight. He's a guy that's always got some issues with different parts of his body. Just try to push those guys through."

Bielema said he gained a greater appreciation for cornerback Ben Strickland, who toughed it out through the entire two-and-a-half hour practice despite an undisclosed injury that was supposed to limit his participation.

With Ikegwuonu out, Strickland moved up to the first-team defense Wednesday, with redshirt freshman Prince Moody rotating in behind him. Strickland and Moody were also the second-team corners.

When the Badgers were working on punt coverage, Strickland covered punts and caught them — he appears to be one of four players in the mix for UW's punt return job, along with Marcus Randle El, Jerry Butler and Minton.

"Ben Strickland is a guy that's supposed to be in a limited practice, and you've got to club him over the head to get him out of here," Bielema said. "I mean he's out there every play. Just a mentality that we have to try to establish in all of them."

Hankwitz's "floater" role adding versatility to coaching staff

UW has a unique dynamic evolving with its defensive coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is a man without a position coaching duty, which allows him to go from position to position helping out with different drills.

For instance, he worked with the defensive tackles during an extended drill session Monday, while defensive line coach Randall McCray worked exclusively with the defensive ends.

Hankwitz also regularly helps out with the linebackers and secondary, allowing the position coaches to specialize their drill sessions.

"I really like the way that's happening, early on in particular," Bielema said. "And then I've sat in on a few defensive meetings and it's obvious he's got the voice that I want. And what goes on beyond that, he kind of develops that within his staff. So who does what (and) when they need to do it, as far as calling things on the field as well."

Bielema said that he and Hankwitz spoke before practice Wednesday as they were walking into the locker room and Hankwitz, who is entering his 37th season as an assistant coach, said that he does miss coaching a specific position. But the arrangement appears to be working smoothly.

"I really think they are utilizing him well in the individual periods," Bielema said. "He kind of meets with the defense collectively at times, but then he sits in on certain position meetings and it allows him to have an understanding of what's being said to all three groups."

Tackling postponed

Bielema had originally planned to have the team's first full-tackle sessions on Wednesday. But he was not happy with the level of play exhibited in Monday's practice, and was afraid that the defense would have too large an upper hand in any scrimmage situation.

Typically, early in a spring practice or fall camp setting the defense has a distinct edge, as it tends to take longer for chemistry to develop offensively, and it is easier to be aggressive from the get-go on defense.

"Based off Monday's practice, it wasn't as clean as we wanted," Bielema said Wednesday night. "I thought there were certain things — the guys on edges that can, A, create negative plays for one side of the ball versus the other. And I didn't want to start off on that term. I wanted to have kind of an even field.

"So Saturday we'll get after it. I felt pretty satisfied with today's performance, so we can go out there and scrimmage. As always, the defense probably is a little bit ahead as far as early on in the spring, but I didn't want to have a positive experience for one side and lead to a negative side for something that you had to battle through. So I wanted a little bit of an even playing field and I think we can get that done on Saturday."

Teaching moments

Two aspects of Monday's practice, though, were less than appealing from Bielema's perspective. One was the offense's struggle to hang on to the football. There were several fumbles, interceptions and dropped passes.

For instance, during a run-game segment early in practice, redshirt freshman tailback P.J. Hill dashed through the line and was on his way to the end zone when the ball — having slipped from his grasp — flew through the air as he ran forward. Strong safety Joe Stellmacher recovered. The passing game was rather hit or miss, with each quarterback mixing success with some lapses in judgment or execution, and receivers such as Paul Hubbard — who has displayed excellent potential this spring — mixing great catches with a few drops.

"To me the biggest thing on offense was the ball on the ground," Bielema said. " P.J. had a nice little break right here — he's through the hole — ball goes up in the air. So offensively the ball on the ground, whether it's a running (back fumbling), a quarterback-exchange, a wide receiver dropping the ball, whatever it is."

On the other side of the ball, the Badger defense gave up several big plays after allowing a running back to turn the corner or a receiver to get beyond the coverage deep.

"The big thing on defense is just leveraging the football," Bielema said. "A lot of times early on with young players, making them understand you don't have a chance if you don't set an edge. You saw (tailback) Jamil (Walker) with that big break around the edge, a couple routes that got away from guys here and they get down the sideline.

"That's a key element on both sides of the football that's easy to correct but hard to understand until they see it."

Depth blossoming at linebacker

Wisconsin appears to be developing some solid depth at linebacker, which is a departure from recent seasons.

The first-team linebackers throughout spring have been Mark Zalewski, entering his third season as a starter, in the middle, with sophomores Jonathan Casillas at will and DeAndre Levy at sam.

Levy and Casillas swapped positions after last season and appear to be handling the switch very well.

"Dre's got a little more lead in the tail so he moved up on the line of scrimmage," Bielema said.

Levy has been holding his own battling on the line of scrimmage, while Casillas has been all over the field, getting himself in position to make plays.

"Jonathan is very, very gifted athletically," Bielema said. "He's got an extreme, sudden burst to the football… What you think is going to be a play, all of a sudden he's running through.

"I'm looking for him on Saturday. I want to see him tackle. He's in the right spot, he's making plays."

Another player that has jumped out is second-team mike linebacker Elijah Hodge. The redshirt freshman has great instincts against the run and pass game, he is arguably the most ferocious hitter of anyone on defense, and he has been somewhat surprisingly adept in pass coverage.

"The other guy that jumps out is Elijah, who can play the ball in the passing game," Bielema said. "You always see him kind of flashing around the scene…

"And Zew is doing a lot of the same things that he's done in the past. The key element for our guys is going to be the developing of O'Brien Schofield and DeAndre at sam and the development of Casillas and whoever fills into that second role at the will linebacker."

Schofield, another redshirt freshman, has impressed as well. He has a solid combination of size and athletic ability, and he appears to be pretty comfortable at his position.

The question mark may be depth at will, where walk-on Ben Landgraf has been backing up Casillas, and Jammar Crane has been third string. Another option could be walk-on Ryan Flasch, who has played mike and sam so far this spring.

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