The ineligibility of Erik Bickerstaff has been a hot topic in Madison over the last couple of days, and rightfully so. Bickerstaff was scheduled to be the starting fullback this fall, and due to an administrative error, it's been discovered he cannot recover the year of eligibility he lost as a partial qualifier four years ago.
Some people have asked over the past couple of days, is this really a big deal? Should we care about the fact that Bickerstaff can't play this fall?
The answer is yes, you should care. This is a huge deal. A major mistake that is completely inexcusable. All but the most diehard Badger fans (such as the ones that read this website) probably don't understand why, because Erik Bickerstaff is not a household name and he's never proven himself on the field.
But it was a virtual certainty that Bickerstaff would have made a huge impact on the offense this fall. If it weren't for a minor injury that held Bickerstaff out of the spring game, many more people would be up in arms. Those of you that followed Inside Wisconsin's website during spring football might remember that Bickerstaff was named the "Player of the Day" so often that it became redundant. It got to the point it was assumed every practice we were looking for players OTHER than Bickerstaff that had strong practices.
Coaches were talking about him not just in terms of his impact this fall, but his prospects in the 2003 NFL Draft. His improvement was mind-boggling, as he looked dominant in almost every scrimmage situation and live drill.
The failure to assure Bickerstaff was eligible is a devastating blow to the program, particularly combined with Lee Evans' injury. Most fans will never know what a huge setback it is, because they never saw Bickerstaff's potential on the field. It's a tragedy that, for the time being, he will remain best known for his off-the-field incidents such as being caught using Michael Bennett's ID to enter a bar one day prior to this 21st birthday.
But from all accounts, Bickerstaff had matured off the field, and he was devoting everything he had to making a difference his senior season. All indications on the field were that he was the answer at fullback, and the big back that Coach Barry Alvarez had previously searched for in recruiting.
Now the Badgers have to go back to the drawing board, and it's likely that one of those true freshmen will be used in that role. Last year, the fullback position was de-emphasized considerably, but the Badgers need a bigger back to get tough yards and take some pressure off Anthony Davis. Here is a look at the most likely candidates to fill the void:
RUSS KUHNS – One of the reasons Bickerstaff had a chance to showcase his abilities during spring was an early injury to Kuhns, the younger brother of former starter Chad Kuhns. The younger Kuhns is an extremely physical player that has improved consistently over the past few years. He is more likely to serve a role similar to his brother, rather than be used in ways the staff could have used Bickerstaff. The staff was considering Bickerstaff for one-back sets because of his breakaway speed. Kuhns has good speed, but he is more of a typical UW fullback.
MATT BERNSTEIN – The door is open for Bernstein, a redshirt freshman, to take a huge step forward. The 6-2, 261-pound bruiser had a world of potential coming out of high school, but hasn't made the transition to the college game as quickly as some people hoped. Missing most of spring football with an injury hurt his early chances to contend for a wide open fullback spot. Bernstein looked like an absolute monster coming out of high school and after a year to get adjusted to Wisconsin and Big Ten football, now is the time for him to perform.
DWAYNE SMITH – This true freshman from Hales Franciscan High School in Chicago is 215 pounds and is exactly the type of big back Alvarez was seeking in last year's class. He has 4.4 speed and rushed for 1,589 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. When Alvarez visited Smith's home prior to Signing Day last year, he told him he expects Smith to challenge for the No. 2 back position right away.
LAMARR WATKINS – One of the top-rated recruits in the 2002 recruiting class, Watkins will likely end up on defense, but he played running back in high school and would love to play that position in college as well. At 215 pounds, Watkins has 4.5 speed and is a physical player.
BOOKER STANLEY – Fans living in Wisconsin have surely heard Stanley's name frequently over the past four years. Stanley was one of the top players in the state last season, and has the capability of becoming a very good college player. The 5-10, 195-pound back was very difficult to bring down in high school, while his 4.45 speed and elusiveness caught the eye of college coaches all across the nation.
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