Bielema Kicks Off Spring Football

Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema addresses the media the afternoon before the Badgers start their 15-practice spring season, culminating with UW's annual Spring Game April 18

Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema -

full transcript

BRET BIELEMA: Very excited to start spring ball. You know, just from the standpoint of we went through seven weeks of pretty aggressive winter conditioning, made some changes in how we approach that, and during that time I was also able to sit down with 90+ players. I was able to grab a lot of our seniors that departed us over the past couple months and just the overall feeling from where they're at, to be in the position that they're in. They're excited about the challenges and what they have in front of them.

So they've been anticipating today. I pushed back spring ball. Originally I was going to start before spring break, but really wanted to give us a seven-week window that really gave us almost an entire amount of time that's equal to what we do during the summer. So we kind of gained almost two summers during our out of season program, which has been the goal. I thought there were a lot of guys that have had some individual gains that hopefully will carry over into some big team gains.

Just a couple roster updates. First off, from a position change standpoint, there really hasn't been any movement from the offense to defense, but we have experimented, we'll look at some guys moving within a position. For instance, guys may be repping at fullback that have repped at running back. Defensive ends to defensive tackles and vice versa. Offensive tackles to offensive guards, guards to centers. Different little things like that, but no dramatic position changes.

A couple spring surgeries have, will cause four players to miss spring ball entirely, Kevin Claxton, Bradie Ewing, Daven Jones, and Tyler Westphal. All those guys have had surgeries that will miss the entire length of spring ball. Two players have had surgeries with a chance to return. Maurice Moore probably has the slightest chance to return, but Jay Valai had surgery almost seven weeks ago. We expect him to be back on the early part of next week, hopefully, if everything goes through with where we expect it to be at the end of the week. And then gone from the program, four guys, James Stallons, Jasper Grimes, Ricky Garner, and Elijah Hodge have opted to move on in a different direction.

And then also Matt Fischer came to me about two weeks ago. He just received a scholarship offer to pursue a degree that he really wanted to, I believe, at Cornell. So he has left the program as well. And then there's one other player that's currently suspended from the program, and his status will be determined by basically how he handles things, Mario Goins, and how he handles things over the next couple months will determine where he is in the future.

So with that, you know, it's probably one of the most exciting times as coaches because you see these guys work out individually, try to go through different drills, and they compete, and have certain weight gains and do certain things, but bottom line, it comes to how you play the game of football. So we have a lot of competition out there, all positions. I know you're going to focus in on a few here in a couple minutes when I give you a chance to ask questions, but really, from offensively and defensively and special teams, it's wide open, and I think our guys know that and understand that and are excited about where they're at. We're going to focus on the basics and fundamentals of football and have a chance to move forward.

So with that, I'll open it up and ask for any questions.

QUESTION #1: Bret, can you elaborate on the changes to the winter conditioning program?

BIELEMA: For the most part, it was well documented, John Dettmann has done a tremendous job here over the years. I came in and was very impressed with John. One of the first conversations I had with anybody after coach Alvarez informed me that I would be taking over as a head coach is I went down and had a conversation with John and asked him to stay and remain as our strength coach.

The conversation started about a year ago, if not maybe a year and a half, about the transition from him being the full time head strength coach for football into more of a departmental athletic administrative type role. He's currently had a very unique position that he oversaw all of the strength and conditioning and football. It's pretty unique. And he now has moved into an administrative role. When I suggested it to him, or talked to him, inquired, it was surprising to me how quick he wanted to do it, and we did it in a very short fashion.

Ben Herbert was able to take over. And as I sat down and interviewed all those players, it was about two weeks after Ben had taken over and started to put his thumbprint on how he wanted to go about things. And as I sat and visited with players, there wasn't one player, when I asked the question how they felt things were going in the weight room or in the winter conditioning sessions and the drills that we did, that there wasn't a real quick grin, a very sense of, a huge sense of excitement, and that really carried all the way through until our last winter workout day, which was on the Friday before spring break.

We had a little bit of a competition where we wanted to set up a clear cut winner and a loser between position groups on the team, and had a little bit of a competition built in within our team so that offensive and defensive players competed against each other, but then also competed together. You know, the specifics of it, we weren't all that much different, but it was definitely a different atmosphere.

QUESTION #2: Bret, regarding Goins, is his situation related to the academic issue that kept him out of the bowl game? And there's another guy that didn't participate in the bowl game, Shane Carter. And you said you expected to see good things from him this spring. What would you like to see out of him?

BIELEMA: Well, first off, in regards to Mario, the status that he had going into the bowl game made him ineligible for the bowl game itself. But because of the NCAA rules, you have to stay on the progression, and you have to put yourself in a position to stay above a certain number of academic requirements. When he came back, all the guys that had any issues from the previous semester, I sat down and told them of my expectations. Sometimes they may be higher than what the NCAA puts out there, but Mario has done some good things in some areas, but hasn't needed to do, or hasn't done what he needed to get done in all areas, and that's caused him to be suspended from the program until really the end of the semester we'll find out exactly where he is.

As far as Shane, he I think came back and, like everybody else, he knows he's in a position battle. We've got a host of safeties back there that can do some good things. Unfortunately, Jay won't be with us, but Jay Valai, Chris Maragos and Shane Carter have all played a lot of good football and Aubrey Pleasant. Those guys are all battling back there.

QUESTION #3: You talked about competitions, I assume quarterback is one of those. Is that something you think you'll have decided by the end of the spring ball?

BIELEMA: Question number three, that was a record. Yeah, you know, the quarterback position is wide open. We have four quarterbacks that, obviously Dustin (Sherer) will have the biggest amount of experience coming into today's practice, but Scott Tolzien, Curt Phillips, you know, probably one of the guys that will have the biggest benefit from being in a year ago at this time, coming in last January, just being able to have that much more experience coming into this first spring practice. I just saw him. I got nervous. I cut through the training room and I saw him sitting in on a training room table about three hours ago and I went in to make sure he was all right. He was just checking up on something, so I know he's excited to get out there.

And then Jon Budmayr has come in and shown just as a freshman, that he thinks beyond his years as far as the way he can approach things, but he's still entering his first semester of college life, let alone college football. So we're excited to watch it. As far as what happens during spring ball, we'll only know at the end of spring ball.

QUESTION #4: I'm sure you had time in the off-season to reflect and reassess a little from last season. What kind of things did you think about, and do you see any need to make some changes, you know, going forward?

BIELEMA: Well there was a need to make changes, and that's why we made them. There were several things that we did within our program. Some of the probably best discussions we've had as a staff, you know, obviously X's and O's and how you need to do things, but also just different ways of stressing it to our players; giving some history lessons on why we've been able to have success, different things that we may do from a technique standpoint. Obviously, trying to learn techniques and where we're at, but the changes that we've made will be subtle in certain regards, but also, I think if you asked our players, they've been dramatic in others.

One of the basic fundamental things I asked our kids, probably the first thing I talked about when we came back in January was just being on time, holding yourself accountable and doing things right, and I've seen a big jump in the way that they've approached things and hopefully that will carry over into good football now too.

QUESTION #5: With the departure of P.J. (Hill), that opens up some opportunities, obviously, for the returning guys. How much of a, how big of a jump do John (Clay) and Zach (Brown) need to make? And for those of us who haven't seen much of Erik Smith, is he a change of pace type back, and what do you need to see from him?

BIELEMA: Good question. You know, John Clay last year, I felt as the season went along, we kept trying to give him more and more responsibilities. At certain points during the year, he really embraced them and was able to step forward. There was a point where he maybe hit a little bit of a hiccup, and we wanted to make sure that we progressed him the right way because the last thing you want to do is throw a young player into a situation he's not prepared to handle. And I think, I reflect back to the first time I saw John after P.J.'s decision to come out, and, you know, I basically made a comment to him that if he was ready to step up and perform at a higher level and his answer was very reassuring to me.

And a guy that we've noticed, from everything that he's doing in the weight room and on the field and trying to take a leadership role, Zach Brown needed to take a big step there, and hopefully he'll be able to show up and do some things there. And Erik Smith probably has been one of the more pleasant surprises for all of us because we saw him work down on the scout team. Offensive coaches, during the fall, don't get to see him all that much, but he's definitely put, I think he's put on, if I'm believe, eight or 10 pounds and does have a little bit of a shiftiness. He's at a different pace when he's going through those bags.

Bradie Ewing, unfortunately, had two surgeries that will prevent him from going through spring ball, but he's a guy that we know can kind of fill into the role like what Billy Rentmeester might have done, little bit of a running back/fullback combination. And then we're very excited about the addition of Montee Ball coming in in the fall.

QUESTION #6: What's your plans for (Jake) Bscherer, is he going to battle at right tackle, and do you still feel good about the decision to redshirt him, and what did he gain the most from that year?

BIELEMA: Yeah, we feel really good. Actually, two years ago, we approached, I approached the subject with Jake, and by his response that year, I didn't think he'd have any interest in doing it this year. And then I think as he progressed through the season two years ago and realized he didn't get as much playing time as he wanted, and then this year going in, if people stayed healthy, he may not be able to get into that tackle spot. But our plan right now is to kind of get an understanding of where he's at. We'll give him a shot in at guard, but also, when the season, or when the spring is done, I know Coach (Bob) Bostad does a great job of trying to advance plan, and what we want to do is try to make sure that we have our five best offensive linemen on the field. And however that pans out, whoever is able to survive and stay healthy, will be, you know, the guys that are on the field.

QUESTION #7: Bret, do you have a handle on your defensive line situation and linebackers? Do you feel comfortable in those areas?

BIELEMA: Well, we know the players are going to line up and practice in there today, but really, untested guys. O'Brien Schofield, you know, made great progress last year from game one to the bowl game, but he still isn't at the level that we would like to have him on every snap. And I know he's probably taking the off-season as a personal challenge, did a great job within his group. But really, everybody else is unproven. All the defensive tackles inside have really taken a second seat behind (Mike) Newkirk and Chappy (Jason Chapman) last year, but there's some guys that have made big strides in there.

And at defensive end, Brendan Kelly played in several games before getting injured. Dan Moore popped into a couple different games. A guy that we're really excited to get out there today and see what he can do is J.J. Watt. He's done a lot of things on the scout team end, but different guys have been able to step in and we have a couple new faces that hopefully will be able to bring some energy and some excitement.

At linebacker, there are guys that have played. The first three guys, you know, Jaevery McFadden, Culmer St. Jean at the mike and Blake Sorenson had all seen playing time. So those three guys need to continue to move forward, but there are some young guys, Mike Taylor from Ashwaubenon, who we felt good about coming into fall camp, but because of his surgery last year right before camp, we had to redshirt him. But there's a host of guys in there at both the defensive line and linebacker that hopefully will give us a chance.

QUESTION #8: Coach, do you expect to change spring camp as far as how you run it? Last year, a lot of injuries, a rash of injuries during camp, concluding with (Matt) Shaughnessy getting hurt right before the spring game. Do you expect to run it differently as far as to keep away from the injuries?

BIELEMA: No. You know, we definitely took a look at how those injuries occurred. Matt Shaughnessy, the one that you brought up, occurred in basically a two-on-two line stunts that we do every day, every camp, every NFL camp, college camp, but it just seemed there were a few things that didn't go our way last year in that injury department. Hopefully you run through them. A lot of them were, you know, things that happened with a guy falling into another body, just things that kind of happen in football. Sometimes they don't happen at all, other times they do. But we also took a look at how we approach things in the weight room, in the training room, to make sure that we weren't doing anything that may bring those issues to arise.

QUESTION #9: Coach, you mentioned John Clay. What does he need to do in your mind to make that next step and to be, you know, kind of, maybe not an elite back, but to take the next step in progressing?

BIELEMA: From a coaching standpoint, he needs to know the entire playbook. He needs to know every play and what his assignment is. We just can't put him in on certain plays that we want to try to execute from an offensive point of view. You know, ball security is always going to be an issue, I think, as we looked at our offense overall a year ago, and defensively not getting enough of them. The turnover ratio within our team was a big, big factor. So that's going to be a huge factor, or a huge emphasis for us in our spring ball preparation, coaching emphasis.

And then John, just another year in the program of learning to do things the right way, learning how to approach, you know, practice and not just putting himself through. And then also physically, John's always going to have a challenge. He's big. He's a big back, and I know he wants to play at a certain weight. We've talked to him about that weight. He's still not quite there. And once he gets that weight down, hopefully around the 240 range, that's when he'll be more productive.

QUESTION #10: You mentioned Dan Moore a little bit. Are you going to start him at end, on the outside, inside, or is he going to be a guy who can swing?

BIELEMA: He should be a guy that can swing. We're going to start him off on the inside just because we want to see what some of those outside guys bring to the table, and he's done a good job of bulking himself up. Unfortunately, had a little bit of a setback with the knee, I believe two or three weeks ago, but he, today had a full medical clearance, so he is a guy that we've had extensive discussion about. Him and J.J. Watt, those two guys in particular may have the ability to play inside and outside more so than anybody else.

QUESTION #11: What do you as a coach hope your team gets out of spring practice?

BIELEMA: Well, I hope we get better every practice, to focus on anything else other than trying to improve. You know what I'm going to focus in on; today we have a certain amount of plays that we want to be able to execute offensively. Defensively, we're going to stick to some basic fundamentals and a basic call and try to get good at our techniques. Special teams, we're going to work coverage drills. So if we can sit back at the end of practice and say that, you know, we definitely see some positive things, but the big thing is, tomorrow when we practice, we need to move forward. And you're never going to get anywhere by looking back. You've got to continue to move forward and analyze what's happened in the past, but continue to move.

Some of the core fundaments that we talked about as a staff, you know, being physical, lining up and executing, don't defeat ourself before the snap from a ball security standpoint, as well as trying to create turnovers on defense. Those fundamental things we've got to approach every day the same way and be consistent in how we're coaching them.

QUESTION #12: You've already talked about how unproven the, most of the defensive linemen are. What do you like about that group? Is it the numbers, are there some young, talented young guys you expect to make breakthroughs?

BIELEMA: There are guys. Some guys jump out more than others during the winter conditioning drills, but, you know, being as I played that position, I think that's one position that maybe if you aren't exactly flashy during your drill work, you can be a productive player if you line up, use good fundamentals, use good technique, and can execute the call. One point that I thought someone made, you know, we've got 92 players taking practice field today, minus a couple because of injury, but of those 92 players, 55 of those players are freshmen and sophomores, eligibility-wise. So we're a young football team, but on the same account, guys that are hungry and want to be successful.

QUESTION #13: Bret, I think you get asked this every year at this time, but bowl results, whether it's a win or a loss, can that serve as a driving force, you know, at a time like this, and do you buy into that, and have you seen that?

BIELEMA: Oh, absolutely. I think it's more when you get back from the bowl and, you know, the different things you can use as motivating factors in winter conditioning. But at this point to bring up the bowl or to bring up really anything than the glaring things that we're trying to correct in spring ball, that you'll kind of point out and make reference to, is kind of a point of diminishing returns. You can bring it up at times, but it's kind of like that's a thing of the past. The players that played in that game, some of which have moved on because of eligibility being expired, others made personal choices, personal decisions to move on. Some of them were moved on by my choice. But whatever the case, the guys that are going to take the field today are the guys that want to be a factor in next year's team, and they want to be a positive effect. They know they got to be able to be a positive practice out there today.

QUESTION #14: Bret, you mentioned Dan Moore had a situation with his knee. Is that the same knee that he had to play with a brace on last year?

BIELEMA: I believe it is, Jeff. I know he's in an argument with the training room. He thinks he needs less of a knee brace and they're just being cautious. So whether or not I'll be able to allow that.

QUESTION #15: How much was his play hampered by that knee last year?

BIELEMA: Well, unfortunately, we could never really gauge. You know, I saw him as a player. That's why we recruited him. That's why we offered him. We thought he could play. The injury he sustained was relatively early during his time in training camp or in spring training a year ago, and never was really able to get himself healthy during the spring. And the fall, you know, just probably wasn't ever as strong as he wanted to be. So unfortunately, that's one of the issues that you have.

QUESTION #16: You mentioned not looking back to the past, but the way last year went and the way it ended, do you feel any extra pressure this year?

BIELEMA: Well, you know, the first thing I know when I realize as a head coach is everything starts with me. So the part that we probably enjoy as much as anything as coaches is self-scout, self-analysis. I know there are several things, that as I looked back, that I wish that I would have been able to be more on top of or recognize, and that's definitely, you know, something I address personally, but also from a staff standpoint, one of the best things that we did is we broke down a bowl game.

For instance, if Iowa or, sorry, Wisconsin was getting ready to play Wisconsin in a bowl game, our offensive staff looked at four or five games against our defense, and they gave them a critique or a scouting report, and vice versa. And it was good to hear the debates and the issues that popped up and some of the things that were brought to light that had never occurred to the respective sides of the ball. And it was something that I, as a head coach, had witnessed before and, you know, was really a growing moment, not only for me as a head coach, but I think for our staff and hopefully for our players will be a benefit as well.

QUESTION #17: Kyle Jefferson and Aaron Henry both came in, contributed as true freshmen right away. Last year had some injuries, Henry missing the entire season. What are they, physically right now where are they at, as far as you know, and what are your expectations for these two guys who contributed early in their career and now, you know, a junior with Jefferson and a sophomore here in Henry?

BIELEMA: Well, Aaron Henry was able to get in at the tail end of bowl practices last year. I don't think he was quite 100%, but you could see, just the little bit of a swagger. He came back. Aaron is a big corner, so he's always got to battle that with a size factor and his ability to be able to play that position. Aaron Henry, I think, is a good football player, though, so he'll find himself onto the field. I know he's excited to get back out there, and it's nice to have him with us because he's one of our better practice players.

And as far as Kyle, a year ago, he was involved in the track season. I removed it from him, but I went to a track meet earlier this year, and saw him, and Nick Toon both running a race. And Nick actually won the 70, and Kyle, I believe, finished second in a open race that he ran. Just the way those guys were glowing and the way they felt, and I realized that being able to be out there on that track surface actually built their confidence up. And all I want those guys to do is have more and more confidence. So hopefully, you know, Kyle and Aaron, as they've gotten older, will be able to practice better, which will hopefully make them a better player overall.

QUESTION #18: Coach, if I can get you back to the quarterbacks, how much does Dustin's game experience help him over the other guys?

BIELEMA: That's probably a question to ask Dustin. You know, he knows a lot of our offense. He should probably know it as good as anybody. He should be able to identify, because he's gone against our defense now for three years, he should be able to be on top of that just as much as anybody. But bottom line, you know, for him to be a senior in the position that he's in, he's got to play at a level that's way above everybody else to hold that position. And I know he's taking it seriously. I like the way he's approached things. There's certain things he's done away from the game of football that I really like that I think is going to help him become more accountable on the field as well.

QUESTION #19: Bret, you mentioned telling guys to be on time and hold themselves accountable. Are you talking about the fact that they were maybe late for meetings or things like that? And if that, and did any of that seep onto their performance on the field last year?

BIELEMA: Well, I talk about four things to live by, and the first one was being on time. And the reason I had said that was, we had for the first time a couple players ruled academically ineligible for the bowl game, and a lot of that might have been directly carried over to class attendance, you know, being ten minutes late instead of being there on time. There were certain things that popped up during the fall, not only just during the fall, but in bowl preparation, guys being held accountable to be on time and the repercussions because of it.

Thankfully, anything that we've gotten report-wise from the academic world has been outstanding as far as guys' class attendance and guys doing and what they're supposed to be writing, being where they're supposed to be. I've seen the accountability factor carry over to the football field. I've heard our players reference it, and that's something that has to be a staple in what we are and how we've got to get things done.

Also, because we're at Wisconsin, because we have such a stringent academic standard here, that these guys can't afford to, you know, be late for anything because they're held at such a high accountability.

QUESTION #20: With a young team, as you mentioned, and so many jobs open, do you want to scrimmage a lot, or what's the best way to get these guys ready and to accelerate that?

BIELEMA: Well, it comes a little bit with, yes, you want to scrimmage. I wanted to go the first Saturday, which is the first time this Saturday that we would have an opportunity to put on pads. After talking with the staff and looking back at past history, what we'd love to do is be able to teach our players Saturday how to practice and play hard in pads, and then we'll carry into probably either next Thursday or next Saturday our first scrimmage.

You do want to see them, you know, go out and scrimmage, but, on the same account, you want to make sure that you're coaching them up and you're putting them in the right position so when they go to make that first full speed tackle, they know their hat's in front, they know their eyes are up, they know that they're going to drive their feet on contact. But on the same account, you want that offensive player to know ball security, where the ball needs to be, how he needs to take on a would-be tackler, and then all the other things that go around a successful football play.

QUESTION #21: Are there some biggest questions in your mind right now going into this spring that you're looking to get answered?

BIELEMA: They're all big. You know, from a defensive point of view, you're always looking at kind of building the middle of your defense out. We've got certain players that have had certain amount of experience at the corner, at the safety, but you want to look and see how the middle of our defense, the defensive tackles and the inside linebackers, are going to play.

From an offensive standpoint, you want to see how the interior of our offensive line continues to grow and develop, how our quarterback position continues to pan out, and then, you know, the maturity and the growth of, we've got some receivers now that are going into their third, second, third, and fourth year of playing. They need to start playing like and growing as veteran receivers.

And in the kicking game, you know, we have two guys that if you just watch them execute the fundamentals of a kick and a punt, they're pretty good at it, but it has to be carried over and be consistent with everything that we're doing. And on the same account, I have to do a better job of teaching coverage and teaching blocking responsibilities within the schemes.

QUESTION #22: Since you opened that door to special teams, are you doing anything differently special teams-wise?

BIELEMA: Yes. And since you guys get to go to practice, you'll get to watch it. We'll see how smart you are and see if you can figure it out. But there's . . .

QUESTION #23: We don't have anything to compare it to. We couldn't see it before.

BIELEMA: Yeah. Get your notes from two years ago. I let you in certain points last year. Then the part that will be evident is, you know, from a punt, one of the rules that has been debated a little bit, in the NFL, when you have a punt, you're only allowed to send two people down the field at a time. That's why you have the conventional punt that we've used in the past and that you see a lot of college football, until about two years ago. But now there's a punt formation out there that a lot of people use to kind of spread out, gives you more people flying directly to the football.

College football doesn't have the same rule as the NFL. They can have players release immediately from the line of scrimmage, and we're going to take a look at that. We'll start, begin practicing that a little bit out there today and see where that takes us.

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