MADISON – This spring was going to be a special time as far as Travis Frederick was concerned. The sophomore was Walworth Big Foot was anxious to sit outside and have some ice cream from Memorial Union (Berry Alvarez is his favorite flavor) and catch a couple baseball games (convinced that this is the year for the Milwaukee Brewers).
More importantly, Frederick is better prepared this spring to make a run at a starting position, the thing that has excited him the most about this time of year.
"This whole spring was about me fighting for a job and this whole summer is about me wanting a job with the guys being out," Frederick said. "I have to go out there and play at the highest level that I can."
Going through 15 spring practices that began in mid March and culminate with Wisconsin's annual spring game this Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, the big gains and substantial losses Frederick has made in one year are noticeable.
Frederick has dropped 15 pounds since the end of the season, has spent countless hours in the film room studying blitz pick-ups at center and both guard positions and try to refine his technique.
"This spring is a lot different," Frederick said. "Coming in and being through the whole season, I am not a rookie anymore and I need to go out and take a leadership role."
That extra jump makes Frederick one of the prime contenders in one of the most competitive position battles that the Wisconsin staff has going between now and the season opener September 4 in Las Vegas against UNLV. The Badgers have five capable bodies fighting for the two guards and center positions, a competition that was created after injuries last season forced UW to shuffle its line around, building depth in the process.
John Moffitt returns for a senior season after being a first-team All-Big Ten selection at left guard after moving from center. He's been limited this spring following hernia surgery, but has practiced this past week for the first time.
Sophomore Peter Konz started at center for nine games last season after Frederick when down with an ankle injury against Fresno State. Konz in versatile enough to play all three line positions, but has been removed from contact due to taking blood thinners to fix a blood clot issue that surfaced prior to the final regular-season game at Hawaii.
Ironically, it was an issue that put Frederick back in the lineup for the final two games at left guard.
"I am lifting weights, running during practice, snapping with the quarterbacks, so I am trying to stay active," said Konz, who should be full-go by the start of summer conditioning in June. "It was kind of a let down having a good season and not playing the last two games, but I've been feeling great and am excited to get back."
The Badgers have junior Kevin Zeitler returning at right guard. Zeitler started all 13 games last season after incumbent guard Bill Nagy was sidelined for most of the season with wrist and foot injuries sustained in a scooter accident last July.
Nagy's wrist surgery was successful, but the torn ligaments on the arch of his foot and swelling made his season a struggle. Practicing at left guard throughout the spring, Nagy is getting closer to 100 percent.
"I think competition brings out the best in everybody," Nagy said. "The reality is that not everybody is going to be playing. It is what it is, but if we keep pushing each other, it'll be OK. It is a team game, so whatever is best for the team."
When asked, Nagy was quick to identify more than a couple horses in the race, commenting that sophomore Ryan Groy and redshirt freshman Zac Matthias could be two of the strongest linemen in the program and junior Jake Current, who is currently the backup center, can also play guard.
With everyone getting equal reps Saturday, the group that keeps pressure out of the backfield has a leg up heading into the summer.
"We have three or four or five guys competing for three spots, so that's going to bring a lot of competition," Frederick said. "I think that's when you are getting the biggest gains, because you are competing and getting ready to go."
The Rite of Spring
No surprise that the quarterbacks will draw most of the focus from the Wisconsin fan contingent. Fortunately for them, the drama of who will be the starting quarterback come fall won't be as prevalent as it has been in year's past.
Junior Scott Tolzien spent most of last year's spring games working with the reserves. After a solid 2009 season, Tolzien will be the man under center and has looked stellar this spring, throwing with more confidence and more zip than he has in the past. But who is going to back him up?
Sophomore quarterback Curt Phillips suffered a torn ACL and sources indicate a possible MCL in his right knee before spring break and could be on the shelf for at least a year. The injury makes freshman Jon Budmayr the backup signal caller and junior walk-on transfer Nate Tice, who has gotten only limited work in practice, the third stringer.
Although Budmayr has suffered through a broken collarbone, a groin strain and problems with his throwing arm, Budmayr is going through his second spring, a main reason for his growth. Budmayr is more apt to step up in a pocket and deliver a throw rather than scramble out of the pocket. He also has a cannon for an arm, which he has displayed on more than one occasion, and according to Tolzien, understands the offense better than he did when he was a freshman.
Budmayr is still young, which showed with his three interceptions, one by linebacker A.J. Fenton and two by cornerback Marcus Cromartie, he threw in last Saturday's scrimmage. Out of the three quarterbacks, the coaching staff will probably give Budmayr the most reps, so fans will get their first real taste of what the 6-foot signal caller brings to the table.
The combination of O'Brien Schofield and J.J. Watt at the defensive end position did wonders for UW and stopping its opponent's run game last season. Opponents rushed for only 88.2 rushing yards per game, the No. 2 mark in program history, and no Big Ten team broke 100 yards Watt. Now (15½ tackles for loss, five passes broken up, 4 1/2 sacks) returns and could be a shoe in for team captain, but Defensive Line Coach Charlie Partridge must replace Schofield (12 sacks, 24½ tackles for loss) and three of the top four defensive tackles.
Partridge has seen strides made from sophomore Jordan Kohout and Ethan Hemer, as those two will probably rotate in with junior Patrick Butrym, the only d-tackle in camp that saw significant time last season. Saturday will be important for Kohout and Hemer in their progression.
Once a standout tailback at Platteville High, Nzegwu was having a stellar spring until he tore his MCL kept him on the shelf for six weeks. Picking up where he left off in fall camp, Nzegwu sustained a shoulder injury that made him a scratch for the first three games.
That opening gave Gilbert a chance, who made his mark on special teams. Against Wofford, Gilbert recorded his first two tackles and first two fumble recoveries of career, including one for touchdown after blocked punt. Gilbert finished the season six tackles in 12 games, but has been a noticeable presence in the weight room.
Nzegwu played in 10 games last season and finished with 16 tackles, including 3.5 sacks, and has gotten more consistent in his play, something Partridge has noted after a couple of seasons when Nzegwu was somewhat of a liability.
"It's key to build depth, build trust and if there's a young man (Nzegwu) that doesn't play with everything he's got, it's hard to trust him," Partridge said. "You have David Gilbert right there that is working just as hard, so it's a fun competition to watch."
With both Chris Borland and Mike Taylor missing all of spring camp to recover from off-season surgeries, Defensive Coordinator Dave Doeren was looking for young linebackers to grab the reigns and move up the depth chart. Doeren when fishing and got some nibbles, the biggest coming from converted safety Kevin Claxton.
Head Coach Bret Bielema brought the position change to Claxton before camp as a way to build depth at linebacker and to give him a chance to perform in the field. Claxton is understandably a dangerous hybrid, having the ability to drop back in pass coverage or jump up in run coverage to make a play.
Another player is junior Kevin Rouse, who is finally healthy and performing up to his potential. Highly rated coming out of high school, Rouse has started to show that on the field with his speed, as Rouse has been able to drop back into coverage and break to the ball or run step for step with a running back out of the backfield.
The Reincarnation of Aaron Henry
Since registering 38 tackles and one interception in his first 12 games of his freshman season, Henry has gone through ACL surgery, a redshirt season, a bout with the H1N1 virus and seeing his confidence deteriorate as his skills turned rusty.
But it's a new year for Henry and a new position, as the junior from Immokalee (Fla.) has spent the last six months working at the safety position, watching some film with the smart minds of Jim Leonard and Chris Maragos and staying true to his faith. The results have allowed Henry to experience a rebirth in his game and his confidence, while giving the Badgers a player with game experience to step into the void in the secondary.
Henry's position may have changed, but his work ethic is still second to none. Henry has made positive strides since moving to the position late last season and spring has shown that he can still make plays.
"I am just excited," Henry said. "I don't want to say prove to people, but I am excited to go out here and play. It's a new position, a new year and it's so exciting because I know I have the ability to go out there and do some great things. Ability alone doesn't get it done, and you have to physically go out there and be successful."