Following the Badgers' last practice, Saturday afternoon, head coach Bret Bielema said that he expects offensive tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel to be cleared for full-contact scrimmage work this week. In drill work the Badgers have moved Vanden Heuvel to right tackle, with incumbent right tackle Kraig Urbik shifting to right guard with the first-team offense. But in Saturday's extensive controlled scrimmage Urbik played right tackle with Vanden Heuvel sitting out.
"Vandy, next week he is released full go, so once he's released then we can start to move some people around," Bielema said. "We're short at the tackle position. That's why we haven't been able to play with it much. But they didn't want (Vanden Heuvel) to go into a full scrimmage situation today. With Vandy back in the mix next week then we can kind of begin to play with some guys inside.
"Urbik's a smart player. He's able to do a lot of different things."
With All-American Joe Thomas recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Urbik has been the Badgers' best offensive lineman this spring. But despite having three new players at the first-team interior line positions, and having walk-on Mike Van Someren filling in for Thomas, the offensive line did a commendable job pass blocking Saturday.
"I was happy," Bielema said of the pass protection. "I told (offensive line coach Bob Palcic)… I see them straining. A lot of times guys, from an offensive point of view, you feel yourself losing an edge and you just kind of give up, but you'll see guys fighting that extra little foot just gives (the quarterback) that extra second time of time to get the ball off."
The offensive line has faired surprisingly well in pass blocking so far this spring, but has not been as far along the curve run blocking. Still, within the typical defense-dominates-offense dynamic of an early practice season, the offense is having better-than-average success.
The offense has had some noteworthy struggles with ball security, from interceptions to fumbled center/quarterback exchanges to tailbacks fumbling. Part of the interception issue revolves around the need for No. 1 quarterback John Stocco to build a rapport with a new crop of receivers "in the depth." Stocco had terrific chemistry with Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr last season and the Badgers need that type of connection to develop again this season with the new targets.
"I think as we look at this film now when we go back up there and correct it, there's also a little bit to do with John's got to get used to where those routes are (ending up), getting used to the receivers so they're consistent," Bielema said, after Stocco threw three interceptions Saturday. "I think that was one of the things that really jumped out early on when (offensive coordinator) Paul (Chryst) came here was to get the No. 1 receivers working with the No. 1 quarterback as much as they can… He always talks about timing and timing and timing. So that's got to be a huge emphasis."
Bielema said Saturday that he currently is expecting UW to "be a role-playing team" at the tailback position this season. That very well could be the case, but expect the Badgers to come out of spring workouts with a narrower interpretation of who could fill roles than they have shown so far this spring.
With last season's top two tailbacks — Brian Calhoun and Booker Stanley — gone, the Badgers have given substantial reps to all five of their current tailbacks: senior walk-on Dywon Rowan, junior Jamil Walker and redshirt freshmen P.J. Hill, Dion Foster and Jerry Butler.
"Rotating so many guys through we'll begin to zero in and focus on the guys that we need to," Bielema said.
Walker, who has the most game experience of the returnees, and Hill have made the most frequent appearances with the first team. Hill has shown the most promise and the greatest potential to be a multi-faceted feature back, though he has had some fumbling issues. Foster has also emerged as a potential feature back.
Rowan cannot compare to the other four players athletically, but he has been the most secure with the football this spring, and he is a tough runner between the tackles who has exhibited some decent quickness. He could be a spot player in the fall.
Butler is the fastest player on the team and could find a niche as a result.
Bielema said that Rowan and Foster jumped out at him the most in Saturday's scrimmage, but that Hill has been the most consistent through the course of the spring.
"P.J. Hill's done a lot of good things catching the football as well running it," Bielema said. "… P.J. probably gives you the best option in a short-yardage situation from what I see right now.
"Dion can do a lot of different things with his feet.
"Butler looked good today too. There were a couple bounce plays… He knows what his deal is. He's got people in the open field, he can make some people miss, duck in and then bounce it out, whatever it is."
For more on Saturday's scrimmage, check out our April 8 practice report.