Badger Nation Spring Guide: Players to Watch

Wisconsin football looks to put the finishing touches on its 2009 spring football season, making its 15 practice open to the public for UW's annual spring game. Badger Nation Publisher Benjamin Worgull gives his top offensive and defensive players to look for on the field Saturday.

The Top Four Offensive Players to Focus Your Binoculars On

Junior Running Back Zach Brown

The forgotten player last season, Zach Brown was nowhere near the same person in 08 that rushed for 250+ yards against Minnesota his freshman year. With P.J. Hill, the back who Brown replaced down the stretch of the 07 season, heading to the next level, Brown seemingly has found himself again.

Displaying that familiar shiftiness, Brown is hoping to become more than just a third-down back (his main role with UW last year) and move into the number two slot behind presumed starter John Clay.

"Going back to winter conditioning, I believe Zach, once he heard that P.J. was departing, knew that everybody would be talking about John Clay. Zach runs with a little bit of purpose," Bielema said. "He's become thicker. Zach's a great attitude, great energy kid and has been good for us in protection, but he has to become a complete back and I think he's making strides to be that."

Redshirt Freshman Quarterback Curt Phillips

Although some fans of Badger Nation clamored Bielema to burn his redshirt and throw him right into the fire as the quarterback position sputtered at points last season, it's obvious now that despite all of his accolades, Phillips isn't quite ready to be the lone signal caller for the Badgers. Although his throws have been erratic at times, the thing Phillips brings to the table is his speed, as he's hands down the fastest of the four quarterbacks.

In last Saturday's scrimmage, Phillips showed what kind of weapon his speed can be, as he completely fooled the defense on a naked bootleg, and hustled 90 yards down the field without anybody coming close to bringing him down.

"Curt Phillips and what he can do in the quarterback run game, you can't ignore certain things like that," Bielema said. "If that allows you to put more than two quarterbacks in the lineup, I think that's something you certainly do if it makes you a better team ... Curt is definitely more advanced than all the other quarterbacks in his ability to make plays with his legs."

Redshirt Freshman Running Back Erik Smith

Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst didn't mince words earlier in spring camp when he said that Wisconsin's running game was missing dynamic quickness around the end last season. If things go according to plan, Smith could provide that missing speed.

Continuing to take steps every practice, Smith has done a good job reading his linemen and finding the running lanes, which combined with his speed has produced immediate results.

The 5-foot-11, 192-pound freshman ran the ball 21 times during UW's first scrimmage, getting the call on just under a quarter of the offensive plays called. The results were Smith rushing for roughly 104 yards and a couple of touchdowns.

Smith is a change of pace guy that could greatly benefit Wisconsin this season and by taking accurate notes during his redshirt season, learned the necessary patience that a running back needs in the Big Ten. Smith should get his fair share of carries Saturday and hopefully he impresses the fans that come out as much as he's impressed the onlookers in camp.

Redshirt Sophomore Wide Receiver Nick Toon

Wisconsin was extremely green at the wide receiver position early last season, a group that included Toon. While all of those players have taken considerable steps forward, nobody has taken a bigger leap forward during the spring practice schedule than Nick Toon.

A kid that came into his own as last season wore one, Toon had continued that momentum, having a huge spring camp compared to last year where a hamstring injury limited him for much of the time.

Toon is one of Wisconsin's biggest receivers and has used that size on the perimeter to make some big-time catches. Forget the perimeter, Toon has caught virtually everything under the sun by either out jumping a defender or simply by being the more physical player to the football.

One example of that came Thursday. On a ball that was thrown where it was Toon's to lose, the sophomore wide receiver elevated over top cornerback Aaron Henry and hauled in the pass with Henry right in his face and trying to knock the ball away.

Toon's hand-eye coordination has always improved, which can be shown by another example from Thursday's practice. Freshman defensive back Shelton  Johnson nearly picked off an underthrown pass intended for Toon, but saw the ball deflect off his hands The deflection went right to Toon, who showed solid hand-eye coordinator by hauling in the pass and turning on the speed to breakaway down the field for a long gain.

The Badgers need receivers to become playmakers to take pressure off the running game and free up coverage for the tight ends. Toon could become one of those playmakers.

The Top Four Defensive Players to File Away in Your Memory Bank

Redshirt Freshman Marcus Cromartie

Pounding iron in the weight room and studying film until his eyes went crossed, Marcus Cromartie, unlike other members of his 2008 recruiting class, have yet to see the fruits of his labor. Choosing to redshirt last season, Cromartie admitted that it was tough at times seeing good friends Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith out on the field, but the harder he worked, the more apt he would be to make a contribution this season.

Without question, he made the right choice.

Cromartie has had plenty more good practices than bad ones, provided solid coverage on UW's receivers and been consistent in his technique and footwork, two important keys in every great cornerback's repertoire. It's obvious just by watching Cromartie that he has made strives from the beginning of camp, something the Texas native could see in himself, as well. Cromartie probably won't overtake Brinkley or Henry from the starting job, but he certainly has thrown his name into the conversation.

Fifth-year Senior Mike Linebacker Jae McFadden

Senior Jae McFadden led the team in tackles from the middle linebacker position last season, but that is purely a memory. McFadden, who will move to the will linebacker position this season, wasn't coy about grading his play last season, saying that he left way to my plays out on the field and, club hand or not, needs to make more plays.

"I am just trying to be more productive," McFadden said at the beginning of his spring. "What I mean by that is try to get some sacks, an interception here and there, force some fumbles and increase my tackles for loss. People know that I lead the team in tackles in defense, but I need to do more than that and my team expects that. I did have the injury with the cast and the broken arm that set me back a little bit, but I feel is I can stay healthy, I can do good things. At the same time, I feel I could have made a lot more plays. I left a lot of plays out there."

This spring, that hasn't been the case. Despite being at the outside backer position, McFadden plays the position like a mike linebacker, always being around the ball no matter where it goes on the field. Even when McFadden makes a minor mistake, his athleticism allows him to recover and still make the play

"Jaevery plays well on the edges, but he had that experience at mike," Bielema said. "He's one of those guys that could potentially be a big-play guy for us just because of that athleticism."

Redshirt Junior Linebacker Culmer St. Jean

Replacing McFadden in the middle is St. Jean, who impressed Bielema so much so during the last half of the season that the fourth-year head coach was on record in saying that St. Jean would be the starting mike linebacker … in February!

Finishing the season with 23 tackles, St. Jean had a career-high nine tackles against Cal Poly, which earned him the start at middle linebacker against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl; a game in which he made seven stops. Much like McFadden, St. Jean has separated himself from the other linebackers by having a nose for the football, as the junior always seems to be where the action is.

"He's got good patience with the football," Bielema said. "A lot of times at the Mike, you can get ahead of plays early, especially with our offense because we have so much misdirection and pulling (of guards). I really like the patience he's playing with and his demeanor. He's not a very vocal guy. He's not a rah-rah guy, but he's out there being consistent."

Redshirt Sophomore J.J. Watt

Eager, anxious and putting in his due diligence, it's hard to tell if the UW coaches or J.J. Watt himself is more excited to see him play. Since transferring from Central Michigan and switching to the defensive side of the ball, Watt has made ground in every aspect of his game by meticulously watching film, hitting the weight room and, as he put it, getting ‘crazier.'

"It's just a different mentality on defense," Watt said at the beginning of spring. "The mentality is that guys are a little bit crazier on defense, so I had to get that in me and I think I got it. It's going to be a lot of fun."

Not only does Watt bring stability to a defensive line that lost three starters, Watt is bringing versatility. Throughout camp, depending on the offensive set up, the coaching staff moved Watt to the end position to utilize his size, athleticism and speed off the end. Throughout the course of camp, Watt has played at all four positions and looks prolific at each spot, getting the better of virtually every offensive lineman and one point or another and having batted down a plethora of passes at the line of scrimmage.

"I think (J.J.'s) getting more in tune with what we're asking him to do," Bielema said. "The first week, I think he was kind of focused on being good instead of being good at what he's doing. Now he's bought in and learning where we want him to be and where his hands need to be. The one thing J.J. is is very powerful. He brings a little bit different game to that position because of his size and his strength."

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