Spring football notebook

Linebacker injuries, opportunities; Cooper ahead of schedule; Hodge's progression impressive

MADISON — With DeAndre Levy nursing what head coach Bret Bielema called a minor groin injury, senior linebacker Paul Joran had the opportunity to run with the University of Wisconsin's first-team defense during its lengthy full-tackle scrimmage sessions Saturday.

"I was really happy with Paul Joran," Bielema said after practice Saturday. Joran, who normally serves as the third-team sam linebacker, replaced Levy at that position with the starters. "He's a guy that's been in the program for a long time, knows all those (linebacker) positions, has done some things to help those younger guys. Even a year ago he was my best assistant coach out there on the team. He was doing a good job with those young guys. So he knows what he's supposed to do and I thought he did a favorable job.

"I know he missed the one tackle on Travis, which was a good play today, but Paul stepped up and did some good things."

The missed tackle Bielema referred came on an impressive individual effort by tight end Travis Beckum, who bounced off a solid hit from Joran that would have stopped him near the line of scrimmage.

All told Joran played well Saturday. He has been a valuable part of UW's first-team goal-line defense and he affords the team a solid depth player across the board at linebacker.

In addition to Levy's injury, UW's depth at linebacker took another hit when sophomore Ryan Flasch suffered what appeared to be a major knee injury during Friday's practice. Flasch, who was solidifying himself as the No. 2 will linebacker, was on crutches Saturday and his right leg was in an immobilizing brace.

After Saturday's scrimmage, Bielema said that Flasch would not return this spring and that he expected to learn the full extent of Flasch's injury today or tomorrow. Bielema is next scheduled to speak to the media following Wednesday night's spring practice.

"Monday and Tuesday we'll do more inclusive tests to find out exactly" what the injury is, Bielema said. "He was in with our trainers (Friday) night — they could see there was something (wrong) but what significance it is we won't know until Monday or Tuesday morning."

Flasch is a walk-on at Wisconsin after transferring from UNLV, where he held a scholarship. He redshirted last season while recovering from surgery last summer to repair a sports hernia.

"The thing about Ryan, he's a guy that's battled back," Bielema said. "(He) was injured coming in, had some issues coming from UNLV and (he is) just a good worker and had begun to do some things, he'd make some plays.

"I think he could be a guy that eventually could be a player for us. He needs to keep developing, but we would use him on special teams in particular (this year)."

On the plus side of the injury ledger, defensive end Jamal Cooper is progressing ahead of schedule after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last season. He was not expected to take part in any contact work this spring, but he did just that Friday afternoon, participating in all of UW's drills and team sessions. He was held out of Saturday's scrimmage as a precautionary measure, but Cooper looked terrific on Friday. Bielema said that Cooper was experiencing some soreness Friday, but it was not coming from his surgically repaired knee.

"I was very surprised," Bielema said Saturday. "… He's a guy that we were thinking we weren't going to get much out of him in the spring… especially yesterday he got some really quality work. But I was a little hesitant to put him in in a scrimmage situation today because we were throwing at people, we were cutting and doing all the things involved. But it looks like he'll be back to being able to do what he does."

Opportunity for Hodge

The coaching staff held standout linebacker Mark Zalewski out of team work for most of Friday in a concerted effort to give first-team reps to second-team mike linebacker Elijah Hodge.

"Every rep that he gets he improves," Bielema said. "So that was a coaching point that we wanted to do was get Elijah more reps, especially in these last two weeks."

Hodge, however, did not play as well Friday as Bielema would have liked, given the opportunity.

"He's a guy that I really think has got special talents, and the more he brings it out of him — I really was hard on him (Friday) because I didn't think he was doing all the things I knew he needed to do to get better," Bielema said. "Because we purposefully took Zew out to get (Hodge) some more reps. But he's a kid that anything you throw at him he's eager to learn. So he'll absorb everything."

Hodge responded and played well during Saturday's scrimmage segments. He played in the first-team goal-line in a package that included two mike linebackers.

"Elijah and Zew were in there side by side in that goal-line package (and) it looked pretty good: both mike linebackers downhill," Bielema said. "Plus, Elijah's brother Abdul was in the stands so I think he was trying to show off a little bit for him."

Abdul Hodge, a standout linebacker at Iowa the past four seasons, was in town from Iowa City, after that city experienced a tornado Thursday night.

"I guess they had some tornadoes down that way a couple days ago," said Bielema, who recruited Abdul when he was an assistant at Iowa, prompting Abdul to rib Bielema good naturedly. "He goes, ‘You know, that's another thing that you lied to me about in recruiting. You told me there were no tornadoes.'"

As for Elijah Hodge, expect him to fill in for Zalewski with the first team again this week Wednesday and Friday.

"(Zalewski's) not going to get much work, until probably next Saturday," Bielema said. "Just because he's established himself pretty good."

Running commentary

Bielema on P.J. Hill's 73-yard touchdown run in Saturday's scrimmage: "Everybody's worried that maybe P.J. doesn't have that top-end speed, but there's a lot of fast guys on defense that couldn't catch him on that play. So I was kind of encouraged by that."

Bielema on cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu's two openfield tackles on Hill, stopping the big tailback near the line of scrimmage: "I like (Ikegwuonu's) commentary afterwards. He told P.J. to lose some weight too. It was pretty good. Obviously… any time that they bring some support (from the wide receivers) and crack it down (on the linebackers), the corner has got to be able to stand up in the run game. He was able to do that. That was a positive thing. Jack even last year would do that at times. What we've been on Jack about is just becoming a complete football player. I think he's beginning to do that and understand it."

Bielema on Jerry Butler's 70-yard touchdown, when he dashed outside and out-ran the pursuit, after initially running right up the middle: "I think Jerry made a really nice play. There was eight yards that the play was blocked up, and then he made the rest on his own. (I) really like the way he came out."

Bielema on Jamil Walker's recent improvement: "Jamil, kind of even from Wednesday on has made some steady progress. He was a guy that was running with that first group and we made a little bit of a change after last Saturday, and he's responded favorably. He's battled back."

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