It seems that Wisconsin has begun a transition to play the younger guys more to help them develop for next year, as some of the freshman and sophomores have seen a recent increase in their playing time. That includes offensive talents running back John Clay, receiver Nick Toon and tight end Lance Kendricks. While defensive tackle Patrick Butrym, cornerbacks Kevin Claxton and Antonio Fenelus have played more on defense.
Head coach Bret Bielema would never admit that the team is building for the future while still playing games, but it might be the best move.
At this point in the season, Bielema has his worst record in his tenure. Even with last year's struggles, the team started 5-0 and went to the Outback Bowl. Barring a miracle, the Badgers will not be going to a prominent bowl game this year
. So, why would he not play the young guys?
Well, that shows a certain amount of disrespect towards the current seniors. They didn't bust their tails for four years just to get benched during their last year for an underclassman. It also hurts when Bielema recruits high school players who might question if they too would be benched during a down season.
Wisconsin faces having a significant drop-off in talent to switch players. Many of the best players are seniors including defensive end Matt Shaughnessy, tight end Travis Beckum, linebacker Jonathan Casillas and defensive lineman Mike Newkirk. If those players were benched for youth, Wisconsin's level play would instantly drop and the learning curve would be installed.
The confidence of the team would also decrease. Each player would observe what the coaching staff is doing, and they would more than likely lose all hope for this year.
For example, look at the decision to be made with the tight end position. If healthy, Beckum is without a doubt the best possible option the team has at tight end. It's just unfortunate that he is now trying to recover from an injury and adapt to a second quarterback, all in the same year.
Fortunately, his absence allowed backup Kendricks to blossom on several occasions. He showed that he can handle the position and will probably be heavily relied on next year. However, he hasn't shown production close to Beckum's level.
Playing Beckum exclusively might help squeak out another win out of this season. There might be intangible effects like building Sherer's confidence or increasing the fan's interest in Wisconsin's superstar.
They're all irrelevant for next season.
Anything resembling this type of hope would be a small payoff compared to getting more wins in 2009-10. Like most other teams, the potential for a better record and bowl game should be the highest priority. If developing players get more playing time now, they could vastly improve the team's future.
All of this is obviously hypothetical and is limited to one position. Yet, this is a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed in the following weeks.
Bielema, the final voice on all personal matters, has to decide whether he values this season more than the future. Use the young guys more and playing near .500 would be impossible, while letting the older guys ride out the season doesn't correct this season's early mistakes.
Look for Bielema to make no decision or something similar to a split decision. It won't be obvious, but he will start to play Clay, Kendricks, Butrym and the others more.
Bielema should try and sub them in more frequently than he did in the beginning of the year. An example would be Clay, who has seen more carries as the season has gone along. During the tougher part of the schedule, Clay's workload has increased to 3, 3, 10, 10 and finally 16 carries in three quarters of work against Iowa.
The goal for Bielema is to maintain a balance of keeping the juniors and seniors happy while encouraging the freshmen and sophomores.
This will probably be Bielema's toughest decision of the season. His choices will determine more than this season: it affects recruiting, the future and overall team confidence in their leader.
Every coach has to deal with this situation, but Bielema's hand has been forced by the team's horrendous record. He can't hide behind the possibility of going to a great bowl game because there is a minuscule chance. Now, more than ever, Bielema will have to prove that he is a good coach.
With Wisconsin being out scored 86-23 the last two weeks, something has to change and for the better.