Spring Practice Report: Day Six

With a flip of the calendar came a turn for the worse on the injury front, as Wisconsin lost one key defensive player for the remainder of spring football. But the Badgers continued to go about their business as they near the midpoint of spring practices.

MADISON — The University of Wisconsin football team took its first day off of the week on Wednesday, and thus was back to business in full pads on Thursday afternoon for 24 periods.

The Badgers continued to work on the spread, with quarterbacks Dustin Sherer and Curt Phillips getting most of the snaps and focusing on triple options with mixed results.

In Attendance

Thursday was a quieter day on the sidelines, as no marked recruits were in sight. A group of four University of Dubuque coaches did take in the entire practice, and chatted with UW head coach Bret Bielema for a few minutes after its conclusion.

A Walworth Big Foot coach and four or five players also hung around for the first portion of practice. Other than that, Bielema's boss, Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez, sported a leather coat as he watched his prized program for about 45 minutes or so.

From the Infirmary

It took five practices, but the injury seal was finally broken. Defensive lineman Louis Nzegwu was injured in Tuesday's session, and Bielema said after Thursday's practice that Nzegwu will miss the next six to eight weeks with a torn right MCL, which was actually a satisfying report for the sophomore from Platteville.

"One of the things (the trainers) found right away was they could feel an ACL, so it was a good knee injury," Bielema said. "He tore his MCL, but he didn't have any damage structurally to anything else."

According to Bielema, Nzegwu believed he was hurt in "the best practice of his career", and was in good spirits while roaming the sidelines on crutches with a heavy brace over his right leg.

"He was really just listening and understanding where he needs to go," Bielema said. "He put on good weight and it was carrying over to what he was doing out here. We unfortunately lost him for the rest of spring, but he should be good for all of summer drills."

Running back John Clay had his midsection wrapped and left practice momentarily to have it retaped. Emerging wide receiver Nick Toon looked great after tweaking his back on Tuesday. Lastly, wide receiver T.J. Williams came out with a right hamstring issue about 20 minutes into team drills, and did not return.

Team Drills

Tony Megna picked a good day to have a great practice. With mom and dad in attendance, the sophomore linebacker from Oak Creek, Wis. started off by getting into the backfield and stopping Erik Smith for a loss. Then later on in 7-on-6 drills, out of nowhere, Megna picked off a bullet pass from Jon Budmayr.

Megna wasn't the only one to pick on the freshman Smith. Linebacker Kevin Rouse also beat the offensive line inside and would have lit up Smith if it was a game situation, standing him up about three yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Clay continued to bully the defense with his size, but Zach Brown showed off his shiftyness with some nice shake-and-bake moves against the ones. Smith has had a strong spring, but was stuffed multiple times without gaining much yardage on Thursday.

7-on-6 Drills

The Badger offense operated in aggressive first-down mode, playing from their own 25-yard-line and looking for the long ball. It would appear that Dustin Sherer has found a favorite target ... and it's not David Gilreath, who couldn't haul in Sherer's first pass with Aaron Henry in coverage.

Sherer tried Toon deep down the right sideline on back-to-back plays, and just like in the movies, the original was better than the sequel. The first attempt was a touchdown with Sherer hitting Toon perfectly in stride, with Antonio Fenelus and Chris Maragos getting a front-row seat to watch Toon haul in the long score. However, Sherer tried it again on the very next play and overthrew the lanky Toon, but made up for it on his final snap by connecting with Toon on a 15-yard out route.

Gilreath was more successful with second-stringer Scott Tolzien, catching a long pass over Marcus Cromartie for his own touchdown reception. The Badgers' leading receiver last season also caught a Tolzien pass over the middle. Tolzien's first pass was a bullet into Elijah Theus' gut, and Theus hung on. However, Tolzien did misfire to T.J. Williams (before he was injured) on a checkdown.

After that, Curt Phillips and Jon Budmayr traded off snaps against the second unit. Budmayr was shaky again, with a wobbly overthrow to Jake Byrne and a couple other misfires to the sideline looking for Kyle Jefferson. Budmayr was also picked by Megna trying to connect with Toon over the middle.

Phillips was more consistent, spreading it around to Garrett Graham on a hook, Gilreath on a deep out, Theus with a left side kick and an over-the-middle hit to Isaac Anderson. But he also had two throws in the dirt on shorter attempts.

To be fair, Phillips and Budmayr both had decent passes dropped, by Richard Kirtley and Lance Kendricks, respectively.

Split team Work

In order to keep up with the rest of the Big Ten, UW spent much of 2008 trying to get its defense in sync with the spread offense it would combat during the season. Now it's trying to fight fire with fire in 2009; looking to put certain spread packages into the offense.

Sherer, the expected starter in the fall, and Phillips, the best-equipped spread quarterback on the roster, have seen most of the reps. Sherer has definitely looked out of place, struggling to get big yards or even toss off option handoffs to Smith or Dex Jones. One pass actually went way behind the tailback, though the defense wasn't able to recover the wild fumble before it bounced out of bounds.

Phillips has looked a little better thanks to his size and innate quickness, but since UW's defense is getting better at defending the spread, Phillips hasn't gotten many openings when he tucks and runs.

"That's what we're going to see on a week to week basis," cornerback Niles Brinkley said. "We're not going to see our traditional Big Ten-type offense. Ohio State is a spread team, Michigan, Indiana, all of these teams are going to spread. So we're trying to work on what we're going to see."

The offense did pull off a reverse with Anderson that would have gone for a long gain. We all saw what Gilreath can do on reverses in 2008, so that remains a viable "option" in Paul Chryst's playbook.

11-on-11 Team Drills

The defense was strong once again, particularly feasting on Phillips and Budmayr. Option plays weren't clicking with Clay, Brown or Smith, and another Phillips pass was dropped. Brendan Kelly made his way into the backfield and joined the "I tackled Erik Smith for a Loss on Thursday" club.

Sherer was picked off by Carter on a deep throw, and a Nick Toon would-be catch was fumbled right into the hands of Aubrey Pleasant, for either an interception or fumble ... but either way, another turnover.

But there were bright spots too; Phillips was bailed out on a very nice grab by tight end Michael Brunner, and both Clay and Brown used their thunder and lightning to pull off solid gains. Brown was particularly active with his feet, trying to pull close to Clay in the race for running back carries.

Tolzien overthrew Gilreath by a wide margin when he entered, and completed a wobbly pass to Toon with two men in coverage. Brown finished off the day with a 12-yard touchdown when the Badgers ran a few red zone plays.

Up Next

The Badgers get to have some fun on Saturday morning, with their first scrimmage of spring practices ahead at 9:45 a.m. Friday is supposed to bring temperatures in the 50s and rain isn't expected again until late Saturday, so there's a chance UW could move outside for the first time.

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