CHICAGO - Permitted to bring up to three players with him to Big Ten Media Days at the Hyatt Regency, Bret Bielema decided to go against the norm. Traditionally wanting to reward seniors, Bielema did decide to bring senior quarterback Scott Tolzien and safety Jay Valai.
But when it came to his third pick, there was no way the fifth year head coach could leave big John Clay at home.
"I joked around wanting to have a better relationship with the media but he's the reigning Big Ten player of the year," Bielema said Monday. "You guys want to talk to him more so than Billy Nagy. I wanted to give him the forum because we have put him in that position (for success), but he has done it."
Clay won the right to represent Wisconsin at the two-day conference based on his monster sophomore season. Leading the Big Ten and finishing eighth in the country with 1,517 rushing yards, Clay averaged 5.8 yards per carry and scored 18 touchdowns, becoming just the third Wisconsin player to the award.
How ironic though that Clay, who announced in December his intentions to return for his junior season, was not selected as the Big Ten Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. That honor went to Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor for the second straight year, as the Buckeyes were picked by the media to finish first, just ahead of Iowa and Wisconsin.
"I think because Ohio State is picked to be one dominant teams and he is probably the guy that makes them go from an outside public," Bielema said. "I am glad it was him. I'm glad it wasn't John. John has got enough things on his plate with the Heisman talk (but) I like the way he's handling it."
The motivation on Clay's shoulders was evident by what Bielema described as an intense summer of working out. Held up on crutches after duel ankle surgery during the offseason, Clay's weight ballooned up to 270 pounds, 20 pounds more than he played at during the 2009 season.
"He's done a tremendous job of getting (his weight) down," Bielema said. "His body is stronger, bigger, faster than it was. John Clay is a big human being, is naturally gifted and can handle the work load."
More importantly, Clay, according to Bielema, has become a more complete player. Admitting to not knowing how good Clay would be as a running back when the Badgers first started recruiting him, Bielema admitted that Clay brings a buzz to the air, bringing energy to a practice.
"He knows all the audibles and checks," Bielema said. "His first year, there was no way we put him in some of the situations we did last year. He took pride in that."
Improving the Special Teams
With criticism mounting since the 2007 season about the lack of success of Wisconsin's special teams unit, with games in 08 against Penn State and Cal Poly becoming near boiling points, Bielema has finally allowed his assistants to do the hands-on work while he watches from a distance.
Defensive Line Coach Charlie Partridge, who Bielema originally wanted to name special teams coordinator when he first hired him, felt comfortable with the status of the defensive line to run both punt and kickoff coverage. New Secondary Coach Chris Ash will handle punt return and punt block unit while Tight End Coach Joe Rudolph will handle kickoff return.
Greg Jackson was originally slated to handle that role, but Bielema wanted to get his new assistant time to get acclimated to the program. Jackson will help on all four units while Bielema had no qualms about giving more work to Rudolph.
"He's one the rising stars in this profession," Bielema said of Rudolph. "To give him something that allows him to take a coordinator-type of position and to see what he does with it … I am not oblivious to the fact that Paul Chryst is a very good coach and I have to prepare for the unexpected. I want to see what Joe does in that type of situation."
Bielema did maintain that he will have final say in personnel issues.
All 30 freshmen who joined the football program in February as signees or preferred walk-ons are listed on the roster and Bielema was quick to signal out a couple.
In addition to talking about senior Culmer St. Jean and how the Naples, Florida native has come full circle in his career, Bielema commented on how Cameron Ontko (Seven Hills, Ohio), Michael and Marcus Trotter (Racine, Wis.) and Josh Harrison (Huber Heights, Ohio) had impressed the staff during summer.
The one player many coaches expect to contribute immediately is Minnetonka defensive lineman Beau Allen, who has been the hot topic of debate among the upperclassmen. From text messages to Bielema from Valai and with junior J.J. Watt calling him one of the most prepared incoming linemen he's ever seen, Allen appears poised to help the front four.
"Good players recognize good players," Bielema said. "I think that makes a good statement. He's been 100 percent go the whole way through."
As far as his team, Bielema said linebackers Chris Borland (shoulder) and Mike Taylor (knee), both of whom are returning from offseason surgeries, might be limited in camp on days the Badgers practice twice but should be ready for the season.
Lineman Peter Konz (blood clot) has been cleared and is practicing at 100 percent and quarterback Curt Phillips (knee) has started throwing, dropping back and participating in modified drills.
"He's ahead of the schedule in the rehab department," Bielema said of Phillips. "He'll be with us, but he won't with us in an obvious live scrimmage situation. If we can control it, he'll be a guy we can use as well."
Bielema ideally hopes Phillips will be ready by the start of the Big Ten schedule, but recognized that time frame might be pushing it. Phillips tore his ACL this past March.
"He's just a hard charger,' Bielema said. "He'll be back sooner than later."
After being suspended along with wide receiver Kraig Appleton and defensive end Shelby Harris during for spring drills because of an off-campus incident, redshirt freshman linebacker Nick Hill has been reinstated to the team.
Bielema acknowledged during spring that Appleton had left the university, and confirmed that Harris has left the program, along with a couple other scholarship players.
After not playing last season because of injuries, Tyler Westphal, the highest-rated prospect in the 2008 recruiting class out of Menasha High School, has left to enroll at North Dakota State. Joe Schafter requested a transfer so he could play back in Minnesota at St. Thomas College.
Including the departure of T.J. Williams, the Badgers current have 78 scholarship players on their roster, allowing for the 2011 signing class to be a maximum of 24 players.
Quotable on Increased Expectations
"From the outside world looking in, maybe. I'll be quiet honest, my first year and last year coming out of fall camp was the best I have felt about both teams, as far as the balance, the leadership and the way they handled things. I felt last year coming out of fall camp that we had a real strong group of senior leadership. Not strong in numbers, but really good in kids. I couldn't be happier the ways the senior leaders are now."