Stepping Back Before Going Forward

After a relatively productive spring practice schedule, some Wisconsin players felt the spring game was a step backward. With high expectations after a 10-win 2009 season, ending on a poor note might be the best dose of reality the Badgers could get.

MADISON - Consider the way Wisconsin's 15 spring practice schedule ended as a perfect lead in to the next phase of the 2010 season.

Wisconsin's spring had gone surprisingly well, considering the injury bug only bit backup quarterback Curt Phillips, the Badgers had built some depth at linebacker and offensive line and saw marked improvement at defensive line and cornerback.

But after a spring game devoid of excitement and best described as lackadaisical, the theme of ‘nothing being guaranteed' was back at the forefront.

"I don't think we were as mentally prepared as we should have been," senior John Moffitt said of the game. "There wasn't any emotion. There wasn't anything really great. We didn't have those long move-the-ball-consistently drives that we as an offense should have.

"I think that's why we really didn't move forward today. We probably moved backwards."

The message was instilled in January by Head Coach Bret Bielema and the coaching staff. Even though the Badgers return 43 letterwinners and 18 starters from a team that exceeded expectations a year ago, nothing the Badgers did last year will guarantee that UW will meet the much higher expectations in 2010.

"We just challenge them to be at their best," Bielema said "Whether you are the third-string right guard or the first-team left tackle or wherever you fall, try to play your best football. I think they are hungry, understand where they are at."

UW approached this spring with question marks at more than a few positions, particularly if the defensive line could build off last season's success with mostly new personnel and if the secondary could find more consistent players after an up-and-down campaign.

On the defensive line front, the Badgers will rely heavily on junior Patrick Butrym (the only returning interior lineman) and redshirt freshman Jordan Kohout, who just completed his second spring practice and looks more like a fish in water after a year of adjustment.

Walk-on Ethan Hemer is another option after having a strong finish to the spring, but the Badgers are still looking for depth, which might come in the form of incoming freshmen Beau Allen or Joe McNamara, who had a good view from the stands that there is potential for playing time.

"They really got a lot of reps," Bielema said of his interior linemen. "I thought Patrick was probably playing as good as he's played, but I wish he continues to make progress in the pass rush game. Jordan Kohout is very powerful, very explosive, he's very hungry. Ethan Hemer has made steady progress … I am very excited to get a couple of d-tackles we recruited on campus."

On the opposite end of J.J. Watt, the Badgers are hoping junior Louis Nzegwu can continue to stay healthy and progress in a positive manner. Nzegwu, who is one of Watt's roommates, had three sacks in the spring game, showing glimpses of his predecessor, O'Brien Schofield.

"One of our best pass defenses last year was a pass rush by No.50," said Bielema, who acknowledged that David Gilbert and Tyler Dippel are the third and fourth ends but Brendan Kelly and Tyler Westphal, both of whom have been plagued by injuries at UW, remain a long way from contributing.

When the defensive line doesn't do its job, Wisconsin is hoping that its returning secondary group can consistently make up for it.

Cornerback Niles Brinkley, who missed two weeks of practices with a strained hamstring, broke up two passes in a span of three plays against the Cardinal squad comprised of starters. Devin Smith worked with the No.1 unit throughout spring and made significant gains and after a poor start to spring, sophomore Antonio Fenelus became, according to Bielema, the most consistent cornerback over the 15 practices, something that gives Secondary Coach Chris Ash three viable contributors.

"I felt we should have some healthy competition," Bielema said. "Coach Cooks, when he was leaving, I asked him to fill out a bio sheet on all the DBs. One of the things he said was that Antonio was probably our toughest competitor in the group. I know that about Antonio. He's hungry."

In the Badgers' three losses last year, Moffitt indicated that a bad week of practice or unforced errors carried over to that week's game, preventing the Badgers from reaching their potential.

So consider the bad taste that the spring game left in the offense's mouth as a bitter reminder not to relax. The same problems that plagued UW in those three losses showed up in the spring game – turnovers (two interceptions, four fumbles, two lost), struggled in the red zone (six attempts, two touchdowns) and big plays (longest play was a 22-yard pass play).

"We have expectations to win games," Moffitt said. "Those are goals we set up in the fall. Obviously you want to reach your full potential as an offense, and that's something the expectation of us.

"The coaches have enforced that (get better everyday) mentality. It's up to us to believe in it, take it on and work it in."

The mood has definitely changed compared to last spring in Wisconsin's locker room. Last year, UW was coming off a humbling loss in the Champs Sports Bowl and had more questions than answers. Now the coaching staff and the players know they have a good football team, even if injuries to key personnel stunted growth in certain areas.

Players also know that spring football isn't a tell all for how a season is going to go. Just ask Scott Tolzien, who was the third-string quarterback last spring game but returns after leading the Big Ten in passing efficiency and gives UW its first returning starter under center since John Stocco in 2006.

Even so, finishing a spring on a bad note will keep a veteran team hungry well after it opens the season at Nevada-Las Vegas September 4.

"Hopefully," Moffitt said. "I think that's what everyone is trying to get across (after Saturday)."

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