Spring Position Preview - Offense

With spring football getting into full swing this week for the University of Wisconsin, Badger Nation preview the main units. Second is the offense, where UW had a steady a quarterback and two standout wide receivers, but are looking for young players to step up at the running back, tight end and offensive line position.

MADISON - From little-known quarterback, to junior starter to senior leader, Scott Tolzien's rise in the University of Wisconsin program can be a surprise to some, but not those close to the Badgers' program, especially since nobody worked harder or studied more film.

Maybe that's why Tolzien scoffed when a television reporter made the mistake of asking him if it felt good having the starting quarterback job locked up entering a season where the UW offense returns 10 starters on offense.

"I mean … I still take the approach that it's an open competition," Tolzien said. "Every day, it means something. You can come out and be lacksidasical or get complacent. We've got some great young talent at the quarterback position and a lot of other positions, as well. I don't think there's any spot that's sealed for the season."

True, but Tolzien was one of the big reasons the Badgers led the Big Ten in both scoring (31.8 pps) and total offense (416.9 ypg) last season, two averaged that rank among the top five in school history and first time in conference history (records began in 1985) that UW did just that.

More important that the averages, UW bounced back from a seven-win season in 2008 to win 10 games last season. UW capped the year with an influential win over then No. 14 Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl, finishing a season with low expectations on a high note and creating an added hype in Madison for the upcoming season.

"It's always great to have those high expectations, but we just have to focus on the now," Tolzien said. "I have more responsibility now, having a year of experience under my belt. It's not just me. We have a lot of guys that have experience that need to step up."

One of those players Tolzien identified is himself. He barely acknowledged the good he achieved – school-record 211 completions for 2,705 passing yards (second-most in school history), 16 touchdown, 11 interceptions and tops in the conference in Big Ten pass efficiency – during the season, but the senior signal caller didn't watch any DVD highlights of his season.

Instead, Tolzien intently studied the three losses the Badgers suffered last season and the missed opportunities in those games, primarily against Iowa and Ohio State. In those two games, Tolzien combined for five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns by the Buckeyes; no touchdown passes and 10 sacks.

"I can honestly say it's a lot more enjoyable watching film when it's you on film and not someone else," Tolzien said. "There's so much more you can look for. Not just looking at reads, but just your own footwork, recalling what you saw pre-snap on a play, it's a lot more exciting to watch film … and easier to log more hours.

"I can sit here for hours and hours (talking about things to correct). There were some things I was surprised with. I saw so many missed opportunities and you look at the three losses last season, there were so many critical opportunities. It's tough to watch those but at the same time, it builds confidence with some of the throws you make. You take the good with the bad."

Tolzien will have a chance to show the Buckeyes, Hawkeyes and Wildcats what he's learned, since all three appear on the schedule this upcoming season.

"It's no different than playing in the backyard with your brother," he said. "He beats you once, you want to get him the next time."

The back-up role during spring will be a competition between sophomore Curt Phillips and redshirt Jon Budmayr. Playing in four games last season, Phillips completed 7-of-12 passed for 65 yards, but it most potent weapon was his legs. Phillips ran 14 times for 143 yards, including 92 yards on just four carries against Wofford.

Budmayr suffered a shoulder injury last season that limited his throws during fall camp and into the season, but the highly-touted quarterback seems fully healed, as he consistently uncorked 45-yard tight spirals through two days of spring camp.

"Those guys have worked really, really hard this winter and I think everyone knows they are tremendously talented," Tolzien said. "They are hard workers and have great attitudes. You combine all those things and I think they are going to make some noise this spring."

Running Back

One would expect spring ball to seamless for Tolzien and the Wisconsin offense, seeing as most of the firepower from last season has returned. While true, a good portion of that firepower is watching from the sidelines, the biggest weapon being sophomore John Clay.

Clay rushed for 1,517 yards to lead the Big Ten and rank eighth in the country. Clay averaged 5.8 yards per carry and scored 18 touchdowns, one of the main reasons he was an overwhelming choice to be the conference's offensive player of the year (just the third Badger to win that award and the sixth sophomore).

Clay was able to withstand the rigors of a full Big Ten season without suffering a lingering injury, handled the brunt of the workload and never wore down, but like every prized vehicle, it needed maintenance.

Plagued with ankle problems since the seventh grade when he suffered a fractured tibia in his left ankle, Clay had surgery on that ankle on January 7, a procedure that removed a rouge piece of bone from his ankle. He will have surgery on the right one — which has also given him problems — on March 25, which will sideline him for the spring.

"The thing that excites me about his injury is I think you're going to see an even better John Clay down the road," Bielema said. "The issues he had, I think, are going to give him a lot of relief and allow him to be an even better football player."

"Our goal, for what we need out of John in the fall, we thought the best option for him is to get completely healthy," said Bielema.

Clay missed parts of summer conditioning drills last season and Bielema thought that him not participating caused him to get off to a slow start, not fully hitting his stride until the conference season.

Part of Clay's rehabilitation schedule includes four swimming pool workouts a week, which start at 4:45 a.m. Bielema said it's the only time the pool is available. Clay wakes up at 4:15 a.m. for those sessions, which are followed by another workout at 7 a.m. It's all worth it if Clay can play with pain-free ankles.

"Very exciting," he said. "I'm looking forward to — this year — playing without pain."

With Clay spending extra time watching tapes and studying his playbook, the spring provides a great opportunity for sophomore Montee Ball to add to his expanding repertoire. Despite missing the first four games (dealing with illness and a family death), Ball was an important piece of UW's running game down the stretch, as 328 of his 391 yards came in the final five games, including a 115-yard performance at Indiana.

The absence of Clay also is a prime time for senior Zach Brown to get his confidence back. After starting the first five games of the season, Brown had trouble with ball security, dropping a couple against Wofford and one at Minnesota that nearly cost the Badgers. After the Gophers game, Brown had only 12 carries for 68 yards, a far cry from his stellar freshman year.

So far this spring, Brown looks to be in good shape physically and some of that burst he showed three years ago is back in flashes.

The spring is also going to be an important time for junior Bradie Ewing, as the Richland Center (Wis.) walk-on is final healthy and the coaching staff is hoping he can bring his physical nature to the fullback position.

"(John's injury) forces guys not to take a backseat and step up to show the coaches when they can do," Tolzien said.

Wide Receivers

A position that in recent years has had high turnover and struggled with consistent production, Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst has to be excited with the return of junior Nick Toon and senior Isaac Anderson to the offense after a couple of breakout seasons.

Leading the Badgers with 54 catches and 805 yards in 2009, Toon's yardage total was just 76 yards fewer than his father, Al's, best season as a Badger. A big, physical body that runs crisp routes and finds the open spot on the field, Toon's comfort level grew by the game, a main reason Tolzien and Toon developed such a solid connection. Through two spring practices, Tolzien isn't shy about throwing the ball in Toon's direction and letting him go and get it, then standing and watching the speedy wide receiver run by shaking defenders.

Next to Toon is Anderson, who set the tone for UW's season by catching an 80-yard touchdown pass from Tolzien on the first offensive play in the first game. Although drops and penalties cost Anderson some playing time (and perhaps more), Anderson still started 11 games and finished with 480 yards receiving and two touchdowns.

Along with Anderson and Toon, seniors David Gilreath and Kyle Jefferson will be looking for bounce-back years, especially since Gilreath is best known for the end-around and so-so kick returning and Jefferson is remember for taking a couple of nasty hits that resulted in concussions.

Those missteps allowed Anderson and Toon to step to the top of the depth chart, as Gilreath and Jefferson combined for only 212 receiving yards last season, far below expectations. Through the early part of the spring, Jefferson looks like he has more confidence in his game and is starting to use his height and speed to his advantage, corralling high passes and being a big running threat in the secondary.

As for Gilreath, time will tell if he can be more than a return specialist. If he can't handle it, freshman Jeff Duckwork or Jared Abbrederis might find their way into the lineup, especially Abbrederis, who has used his speed to haul in multiple deep throws off the arm of Budmayr in two spring practices.

Tight Ends

Garrett who? Mickey huh? Doubtful anybody is really saying that around the tight end group, especially Tight Ends Coach Joe Rudolph, but the performance of Lance Kendricks in the Champs Sports Bowl certainly puts the mind to rest about the strength of the position.

In UW's 20-14 win over Miami, Kendricks gave people assurances that the tradition of productive tight ends at Wisconsin would continue. Finishing the bowl win with seven receptions and a game-high 128 yards receiving, Kendricks, a former wide receiver, ranked fourth on Wisconsin last season with 29 catches and 356 yards, not to mention rushing for 91 yards against Purdue.

The Badgers will miss Garrett Graham (51 receptions, including a team-high seven touchdowns) and Mickey Turner (invaluable blocker as fullback/tight end and team leader), but have young components that can start filling the shoes.

Spring will be a big time for junior Jake Byrne and freshmen Brian Wozniak and Jacob Pederson. Although injury made him miss large portions of fall camp, Byrne has appeared in 24 games in his first two seasons after enrolling in spring ball two years ago and continues to be involved in rotations with the first and second team.

Wozniak has been the standout so far this spring, catching numerous passes off the arm of Phillips. After put on 30 pounds since entering the program, Wozniak catching abilities have increased and his size has made him formidable in the blocking game.

"He's coming along," Rudolph said. "His learning curve has a lot there. He finished fall camp at 240 and he can easily be a 260-pound tight end. He's got a big frame for it and you would love him to be that 260-pound fifth-year senior if he could."

Offensive Line

The Badgers return virtually their entire offensive line after a season that was filled with juggling lines. The positive from Wisconsin starting six different combinations and seven different players starting games is that the Badgers return a lot of depth to the position, as only senior-to-be Jake Bscherer left the program.

For spring ball, however, the Badgers will be limited, as senior left tackle and first-team All-Big Ten selection Gabe Carimi and guard/center John Moffitt (also a first-team selection) won't participate for the first half of spring ball while recovering from surgery. Throw in the fact that center Peter Konz is out until at least the summer while recovering from blood clots in his lungs and the Badgers will rely on their depth.

Right guard Kevin Zeitler (started all 13 games last season) can play anywhere on the offensive line and junior Josh Oglesby continues to make strides after a last-season knee injury cost him three games. Sophomore Travis Frederick because the first true freshman in school history to start his first game on the offensive line when he played center, but an ankle injury early in the second game kept him in reserve until the Hawaii game.

When Konz went down with his heart problem, Frederick was shifted to left guard for the final two games and played beautifully, giving him confidence in his second spring camp that he can earn back a position on the line.

Another player hoping to earn his spot back is senior Bill Nagy, who played sparingly last season after being struck by a car while on driving his moped in July. Working with the No. 1 offensive line at left guard, Nagy has made it through two practices so far and according to Bielema, hasn't experienced much discomfort as of yet.

"We're really monitoring his reps," Bielema said, noting UW will have back-to-back practices just twice this spring. "Because the bottom line is he hasn't played football for so long that he's going to maybe start to feel things more than the other guys. But he really felt good coming out of Saturday's practice."

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