MADISON - After another practice of constant rain, the Badgers were finally rewarded for their hard, dedicated work.
Going straight with full pads since Friday, Head Coach Bret Bielema backed off a little on the Badgers Wednesday night. Although they were still in full pads, UW practiced for less than two hours, trying to get good work in and keeping guys fresh.
Even more relaxing, or terrifying for some, was Bielema's plans for the next two nights, as the head coach is taking all 103 players on the roster and his staff to an area hotel for a little team bonding and a get-to-know-you session.
"Coach Cooks had a great quote the other day," Bielema said. "He said, ‘You grow as a man when you are outside your comfort zone.' So, we're going to be outside of our comfort zone tonight."
Bielema's plans are to mix and match players from different walks of life and different positions, have them get to know each other and put on his quizmaster hat during the morning meetings tomorrow.
"We're doing opposite ends of the state, opposite ends of the country, big/little, white/black, really mix it up," Bielema said. "I've got a couple questions they need to find out and research about their roommate. It's more entertaining tomorrow. I'll bring them up front like a quiz show and find out if they got the right answers."
Needing to Be Special
Last season was far from a banner year for Wisconsin's kickoff return unit. Ranking last nationally – No.119 – in kickoff returns in 08, the Badgers averaged only 17.1 yards per kickoff, a number that, more often than not, put a precarious Badger offense in shaky situations.
Over the last two days, Bielema, who remains in his role as special team's coach, has worked hard on identifying who will be the first-string blockers for him to help that number jump north in a hurry.
On Wednesday night, the Badgers had freshman Dezmen Southward, freshman Josh Peprah, sophomore Aaron Henry, senior Prince Moody and sophomore Devin Smith on the front line, senior Jae McFadden, sophomore Kevin Rouse and senior Garrett Graham on the second line and Culmer St. Jean and Bradie Ewing as the last line of defense.
"We're trying to work guys through there (and) find out who can do it," Bielema said. "Kickoff return is a unique block. It's the one time on the field where you have to talk on a full speed cover person. You are usually at a slow pace, or standing still, when you are ready to make contact. You have to be under control, almost like making a tackle, but you can't grab or hold."
Although David Gilreath was the primary means of return on the kickoff last season (returning 40 kicks for 784 yards, a long of 63 and no touchdowns), Bielema also experimented with junior Isaac Anderson, sophomore Nick Toon and Fenelus returning some kicks.
No changes between this morning and this evening's practice on the UW offense. Four UW starters (Gabe Carimi, Jake Bscherer, John Moffitt and Kevin Zeitler) were all out of action, making the front line the youngest, and inexperienced, it has been during camp.
Only one change with the first-team defense, as Jae McFadden was given the night off and freshman Chris Borland filled in his place. Schofield, Stehle, Moore and Watt on the line from left to right, Borland, St. Jean and Sorensen as the backers and the secondary was Henry, Valai, Maragos and Smith/Brinkley.
The second-string defense was the only unit that had a different look. Sophomore Louis Nzegwu manned the end position, and looks fully recovered from an MCL injury that kepy him out the second half of spring football. Nzegwu still wears a brace on his right knee, but that's the only noticeable difference about him.
Next to him were senior Jordan Hein, sophomore Patrick Butrym and freshman Anthony Mains. The linebackers were comprised of freshman Matthew Groff, freshman Leonard Hubbard and freshman A.J. Fenton. The secondary consisted of sophomores Antonio Fenelus and Kevin Claxton, redshirt freshman Shelton Johnson and true freshman Dezmen Southward.
Red Zone Strikes
Curt Phillips ran the red-zone offense first, completing a check down pass to Zach Brown in the flat, completing a pass to Kyle Jefferson, who bobbled the ball before securing it, on a six-yard comebacker and threaded a spiral to Isaac Anderson, who ran an inside slant for a 15-yard touchdown, beating Devin Smith on the coverage.
On the first play of the next series, Phillips escaped pressure, but Anderson started turning up field before securing the pass. Phillips also put too much air under a sideline out route, throwing it near the first row. Phillips was also bailed out by Nick Toon, who knocked the ball out of Devin Smith's hands, breaking up a sure interception after Phillips put too much air under the ball.
Phillips recovered later in practice when the teams ran the same drill, selling the play action, forcing the safeties to creep up, and hitting junior tight end Lance Kendricks over safety Chris Maragos for the touchdown. He also threw well on the run, faking the handoff and hitting Isaac Anderson on the goal line as he rolled out to his right.
Sherer followed, hitting John Clay twice in the flat, the second going for a touchdown up the middle. When the groups reset, Shelton Johnson made a diving interception after Sherer tried to force a pass into the end zone.
Unlike his two predecessors, Tolzien had the big benefit of having Kraig Appleton as a target. Tolzien wasted no time in throwing the ball his way and Appleton answered, showing off his impressive vertical leap by out jumping two defenders and coming down with the pass just inside of the pylon.
The Tolzien-Appleton connected wasn't finished. With the offensive line holding back the pass rush, Tolzien checked through his options until he found Appleton wide open in the back of the end zone. Another rocket pass and Appleton had another score.
"It was good to see Kraig Appleton back out there," Bielema said. "You guys (the media) haven't seen much of him, but what you saw today is what we saw last week at camp before he got injured."
Staying at Corner … For Now
Somebody eventually stood up to the big wide receiver in team drills, as fellow freshman Dezmen Southward gave Appleton a good pop on a wide receiver screen. Southward also made a great play right at the end of practice, elevating with Appleton and knocking away a sure touchdown pass, a play Bielema was excited about before the snap.
"I was actually excited when I heard the call and I looked up and saw Dez lined up," Bielema said. "Those are two big bodies and it was excited to see those guys compete. Dez got up."
With Southward ability and agility, Bielema is hoping to keep working Southward at the cornerback position.
"Absolutely because of his size and frame," Bielema said. "I don't know this, but I bet if we lined up all the guys on the goal line and sprinted through the 50-yard line, Dez would win it."
Fenelus continued to push for time in UW's nickel and dime package, providing solid one-on-one coverage downfield. Fenelus, who focused exclusively on his technique and footwork during fall camp, looks to have made noticeable strides in his ability to cover bigger wide receivers.
Michael Taylor returned to practice, albeit wearing a green jersey, but showed some decent mobility as he nears 100 percent from a tweaked hamstring. Bradie Ewing returned from a groining injury to do some individual and special teams work. Kevin Rouse also returned to practice field after suffering a concussion.
Bscherer was fighting a stomach virus, which he showcased on the field in the morning practice. Bscherer was given the day off and Bielema hope he can return tomorrow.
Conor O'Neill tweaked his groin and should return by the end of the week. Same with Brendan Kelly, who has been fighting a groin injury on and off since July.
Jon Budmayr was back in there, although he wasn't airing the football down the field. Budmayr worked with the scout team and the first team offense when the units worked on the rushing attack.
"He's still a little sore on his arm," Bielema said. "He was really hurting that first day and with a little bit of rest, he's become a good (handoff) quarterback."
Quote of the Night
"We've got to practice (twice) in wet conditions and I really stressed to our guys ball security. I really didn't see any problems when we were out there." - Bielema on the Badgers holding onto the ball in the pouring rain.
Wisconsin returns for practice No.13 tomorrow afternoon at 3:50 p.m.