No surprise here, as the quarterbacks will draw most of the focus from the coaching staff and from the Wisconsin fan contingent that brave the obscenely warm weather on Saturday. Senior Dustin Sherer, who Bielema said would be the starter if Wisconsin had a game this week, looks like he has a firm grasp on the starting job based on the fact that he is the only one of the bunch that has live game experience, has spent the most time in the offense and has been much more accurate with his throws, a trait he said is partially in due to heading down to Florida with freshman Curt Phillips during UW's spring break to fine tune his fundamentals. He's still far from perfect, however, as the fifth-year signal caller still has room to grow within the offense and finding his consistency.
The battle seems to be for the backup role with junior Scott Tolzien, redshirt freshman Curt Phillips and true freshman Jon Budmayr. Tolzien is the least athletic of the group, but has shown in practice that he is capable of uncorking the home-run play. Phillips has struggled with his arm strength and delivering balls on target (although he was better during UW's scrimmage a week ago), but the thing that has UW's coaches excited is how Phillips is able to make plays with his legs.
Budmayr enrolled early and, after missing most of his senior season with a broken collarbone, has impressed onlookers with his crisp passing and his poise when the defense throws a blitz at him. Budmayr is battling through a groin injury that has limited him over the past week, but looked fully recovered Thursday and is expected to get plenty of snaps Saturday.
Bielema made mention that all quarterbacks will get equally reps (Sherer, Tolzien and Phillips will the first team offense and Budmayr with the second team offense), so Badger fans will get a good grasp on the position.
Stare at Wisconsin's end-of-the-season stats from the 2008 season and one of the things that will jump is Wisconsin, with three seniors on the defensive line, registered only 23 sacks of opposing quarterbacks, a figure that ranked them 10th in the Big Ten and 72nd in the nation.
Senior O'Brien Schofield is putting a lot of pressure on himself to boost that number up. He's added about 13 pounds of weight (he's now listed at 245), spent a lot of time studying to increase his consistency and, most importantly, says he has the knowledge of what he needs to do in order to make an impact.
Other guys to look out for are: senior Dan Moore (a big guy that is real explosive with a solid motor); sophomore Patrick Butrym (who has greatly improved in the area of pass rushing from a year ago); senior Jeff Stehle (studied extensively behind Mike Newkirk and looks poised to be a starting tackle) and freshman Brendan Kelly (saw his first season cut short with a hand injury, but is a blue-collared, athletic player that will make an impact).
It'll be interesting to see how the new-look offensive line, a group that has to replace three starters, responds to the challenge, especially junior Jake Bscherer, who redshirted last season and has been penciled it at left guard; a position he had to learn for the first time after playing tackle through the early parts of his UW career. It also doesn't help that Bscherer has been battling the flu bug, which has limited him at points over the past week.
Also look for Josh Oglesby to make an impact. Always possessing the necessary size to make an impact at the position, the sophomore now is trying to find his 'mean streak,' as he's determined to not let anyone push him around at right tackle. Oglesby has made vast improvements ever since the coaching staff demoted him onto the second team offense.
Spring games are always hard to get a true measuring stick of what the offensive and defensive lines can do because of all the intermixed personnel substituted in, especially when UW puts out its No.2 o-line that is full of even younger players trying to learn their positions. The key will be how those first two units shake out against each other.
Cleaning Up the Messes
"Last year is last year and this year is this year." That typical phrase, either abbreviated or expanded upon, has been the message the Wisconsin football team is preaching this spring, choosing to focus on the now and not the past.
That said, there are still problems that have reared its ugly head this spring. The tackling, which was one of the top issues last year, has been much improved at times and porous at others. During Wisconsin's two Saturday scrimmages, Wisconsin quarterbacks and running backs have been able to make plays by getting to the sideline, which has allowed the offense to generate plenty of big plays and success in the red zone, two other problems that were problematic for the defense.
The other big bugaboo that was contagious on both sides of the football last season was penalties, especially those of the pre-snap variety. It appears that Wisconsin is trying to get all of its penalties out of the its system now, as the Badgers committed 14 penalties during last week's scrimmage. If you think Bielema isn't taking the penalties seriously, one just had to watch the old-school punishment he dealt the team afterwards; a punish that involved up-downs every five yards the length of the field ... twice.
Wisconsin penalties and missed assignments cost the Badgers dearly a year ago. Hopefully, last week was the low point.
Needing a Defensive Standout
Both units need to replace six starters, but one could argue which unit will suffer more by the losses. One unit that looks strong is the cornerback position, which only lost one starter (Allen Langford) and returns a throng talent.
The problem is that, while most of that unit is returning with a year of experience, that unit was generally ineffective in causing turnovers. Wisconsin finished in a tie for 59th nationally with 12 interceptions. Of those picks, only six came from cornerbacks and came from just two people (Niles Brinkley (4), Langford (2)). Needless to say, the Badgers need playmakers from their d-backs.
Brinkley, a converted wide receiver that started seven games in 2008, looks like he has a good grasp on one of the starting spots. The other spot looks to go to sophomore Aaron Henry, who was forced to redshirt last season after tearing his ACL in bowl practice before UW's Outback Bowl loss.
In his true freshman season, Henry started twice, but played in 12 games and registered 38 tackles, registering 3.5 sacks and intercepting one pass, production UW's coaching are hoping will return. Through 14 practices, Henry has shown more than flashes of his old self, as his breaks on the ball and his solid one-on-one coverage has shown that his knee is perfectly fine.
The jury is still out on sophomore cornerback Mario Goins, who started six games in 08 but was suspended for spring practice by Bielema, and on sophomore cornerback/safety Kevin Claxton, who missed spring practice due to an injury.
The Badgers do have playmakers in the safety position (second-team All-Big Ten selection and one of the league's hardest hitters in Jay Valai, senior transfer Chris Maragos, senior Shane Carter who has nine career interceptions and senior Aubrey Pleasant with 41 career games played), but need more from their cornerbacks.
I Got to Get (Full)Back to the Good Life
Nobody on this roster is going to replace departed senior captain Chris Pressley, but the Badgers certainly have some players capable of stepping into the fullback position. The leading candidate to fill that void was expected to be sophomore walk-on Bradie Ewing. Like Claxton, however, Ewing's off-season shoulder surgery forced him to miss spring football, a huge blow for a guy that UW coaches have high hopes for.
Other than short-yardage situations, the offense rarely used a fullback in the spring and when the situation did call for an extra blocker, UW usually had a tight end come in motion and line up in the spot. However, UW did rotate three players into the position during the spring: freshman Dex Jones, walk-on Sam Spitz and senior Mickey Turner.
Jones had his eye on the fullback position throughout his redshirt season, hitting the weight room and the film room multiple times a week. Jones looked fully capable of stepping into the role this season and being a tone setter, as the coaching staff threw Jones right into the first last Saturday at both positions in the backfield.
Turner could be the best player on Wisconsin's roster that people don't know about it. He's a sound blocker and has shown the ability to make a catch in the flat or on a sideline go route. The fullback might not be vital to the success of UW's running game, but a solid fullback certainly couldn't hurt UW's chances.