by Richard Branch
College football is my favorite sport. I love it. A lot. But I can’t say my love for the sport is universal. Don’t misunderstand, I follow the bigger recruits and know how the Badger class is shaping up. Recruiting is enjoyable at that superficial level.
There is something exciting about catching a glimpse of what the future holds for my favorite team. In some ways it’s more exciting to hypothesize – maybe even fantasize – about the great things to come with the annual infusion of new talent arriving from the high school ranks. In some ways thinking about what “could be” is more exciting than what “is”. This holds true in good years as well as bad.
My interest is tempered by the circus that is major college recruiting, especially at this time of year. The mix of professional journalists dissecting the tweets of teenagers as major breaking news, reading what seems like the same interview over and over - no matter who is asking or answering the questions - about who is “showing interest” in a particular recruit, their enumeration of their top schools, or the fact that I understand the contextual use of the term “brah” as a result of this culture all make the process bizarre and a bit creepy for me.
There is light at the end of the tunnel however. National signing day is about a week away. One more week of players telling you which coach is “showing them love” and then we can at least starting talking about something that is sort of like real football: spring practice. While the spring game is about as watchable as the Pro Bowl, the series of practices do provide a good opportunity to see how the team is taking shape under Gary Andersen.
The handful of practices provide an early glimpse into how his staff tackles the question marks on the 2013 squad. So with that in mind here’s something for others who share my recruiting malaise. Practice is still months away but it’s not too early to start debating what to watch.
Fresh Faces in the Secondary
Wisconsin didn’t graduate many players in 2012, but of any position group the secondary is the most hard hit. There will be three new starters – and a lot of question marks - in 2013 as Dezmen Southward is the lone holdover from 2012.
Based on recent playing time, Darius Hilllary and Peniel Jean project to start at the corners. Hillary and Jean have both seen time in the nickel package the last few seasons (Jean in 2011 as he missed most of 2012 due to injury) but will have to demonstrate the ability to play on every down. While Hillary and Jean have the inside track to a starting job, Devin Gaulden, Terrance Floyd, or even early enrollees Keelon Brookins (if he doesn't move to safety) and Sojourn Shelton may make enough noise to at least get into the conversation in the spring.
The open safety position will likely fall to Michael Trotter or Michael Caputo. Trotter saw limited action in the 4-2-5 schemes the Badgers employed against Ohio State and other read option teams and thus appears to have the inside track. Caputo could still win the job as he made a strong showing last fall and could well catapult to the starting job with strong spring and fall camps.
In addition to breaking in new starters, this group needs to adjust to running tighter coverages. Wisconsin was an effective “off and soft”, bend but don’t break defense in 2012. Utah State was the exact opposite. The philosophy that comes to Madison with the defensive staff will be a big change for the returning players. The secondary is expected to play a lot more press and single coverage outside as Andersen’s defenses blitz far more than anything under Bret Bielema.
This group needs to demonstrate the necessary skill and athleticism to work without the benefit of soft zones while breaking in a trio of new starters. The secondary should be watched closely and is the top concern in camp.
Questions on the Offensive Line
Aside from the defensive backfield, the offensive line will be the group looking to plug the most holes. With Travis Frederick joining Ricky Wagner in the NFL the Badgers need to replace the two positions most critical to a good line: left tackle and Center.
The good news: the Badgers have a viable replacement at both positions. The bad news: at both positions it’s the same guy. This obviously presents a problem for the Badgers. For Groy to move to tackle (where he filled in for an injured Wagner admirably) another player needs to emerge at center.
At present Dan Voltz is a likely candidate and good fit to emerge as a new starter. He was skilled enough as a true freshmen to go into the last week of fall camp last year with a shot to start at guard; Voltz has talent. He also spent most of 2012 working as the 2nd team center. If he can manage the transition to game speed and the protection responsibilities as center shaping the 2013 line will be much easier. If not, more of a position shuffle is in store as Groy moves to center and the Badgers look for answers at the “blind side”.
Receivers beyond Abbrederis
Usually a position group returning all of its players is a strength; this is definitely not the case for the Badgers in 2013. There were concerns about this group coming into 2012 that in hindsight were obviously well founded.
Outside of Jared Abbrederis, someone in the rest of the receiving corps needs to be a difference making player. Jordan Fredrick is an able blocker who can catch an occasional pass but doesn’t look to be more than an average receiver at this point. Given his physical limitations, Kenzel Doe’s best fit is as a change of pace/slot receiver. Jeff Duckworth caught 7 passes against Oregon State in September. He finished the season with 2 more. After that the list of returning players is not much more than a group of names as meaningful playing time is spread thin or non-existent: Chase Hammond, Reggie Love, Marquis Mason, A.J. Jordan, Isaiah Williams.
The Badgers needs to be more balanced on offense in 2013 if they are going to compete for a conference championship. Stability at quarterback will be part of the solution; finding another receiver to complement Abbrederis is critical. Maybe Hammond can be a big-bodied possession receiver to complement the deep threat that Abbrederis has evolved into. Perhaps Isaiah Williams puts his off field distractions from last season behind him and makes an impact with the new coaching staff. Alternatively, the answer lies with someone else (my guess would be Reggie Love) making the jump.
Jared Abbrederis is one of the best receivers to pass through Madison in years. If another player can emerge as a viable starter opposite him, the Badgers may have one of the better passing attacks in recent vintage.
The battle at quarterback will get the most press but really presents the least amount of drama as Wisconsin has an embarrassment of riches (relative to Wisconsin at least) at the position. The Badgers have three viable options.
Joel Stave is the leading candidate and should be considered the favorite. Stave showed an ability to threaten defenses deep last season off the play action pass and was a perfect compliment to the Badger ground game. An overlooked walk on a year ago, Stave is poised in the pocket and unintimidated by hostile crowds. He is still a work in progress but still has room to grow.
Stave’s biggest competition may well come from the most storied quarterback recruit in Wisconsin history. Bart Houston was amongst the top high school quarterbacks in the nation last season and looks to challenge for the starting role next year after losing a season to shoulder surgery.
Like the rest of the group, Houston will be learning an all new playbook but has the added challenge of building a rapport with receivers he has barely worked with thus far. For the first time at Wisconsin, Houston will be at full speed physically for spring camp and needs to be a quick study if he wants to compete with the rest of the group.
It may sound unlikely, but perhaps the player who should be most excited about the departure of Bret Bielema is Danny O’Brien. After falling out of favor with the prior staff, O’Brien has a chance to redeem himself and compete for the starting job.
O’Brien has legitimate physical tools and is still the most experienced quarterback on the roster despite spending most of the season on the bench. A new staff and a fresh start may be just what he needs to reestablish his relevance.
O’Brien still grades as a long shot in comparison to Houston and Stave, but his odds are better than Curt Phillips who finished the season as the Badger starter. Despite providing yeoman’s work at the end of the season, Phillips is simply overmatched physically by his teammates. He is still relatively mobile but can’t win the starting job unless he finds a way to deliver a better deep ball or throw to the sidelines with more authority.
If spring camp ends with the quarterback job between Houston and Stave, it will be interesting to see if O’Brien, Jon Budmayr (if fully recovered from nerve issues) or even Phillips explore their futures at the FCS level as Joe Brennan did last year.
Adjusting to the 3-4
It was speculated since Gary Andersen’s hire that the Badgers would move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense. It’s appearing increasingly more likely that Badger fans will see at least some form of it in 2013. The key for spring will be seeing how well the defense adjusts to their new roles and responsibilities in an unfamiliar defensive scheme.
Up front Beau Allen looks like a prototypical nose tackle as his size and skill should force teams to double team often enough to open tackling lanes for the linebackers, but the rest of the group is more up in the air. Defensive ends in a 3-4 tend to be bigger players who occupy the offensive line while linebackers off the end bring pressure on the quarterback. Wisconsin’s ends aren’t built like that.
David Gilbert projects more as the 4th linebacker than he does a defensive end; he’s built more to bring pressure on the edge than to fill space and funnel running backs to tackling linebackers. The remaining ends who saw significant time in 2012 - Brendan Kelly, Tyler Dippel, and Pat Muldoon – don’t have the speed or athleticism of Gilbert and need to adjust their play style to their new roles as ends more focused on occupying blockers than being a primary tackler. The defensive front should we watched closely; if the defensive line is adapting well the front should be consistently funneling ball carriers to tackling linebackers. If they aren’t able to occupy the offensive line well enough look for more four man fronts in the defense for the first year.
The Badger defense in 2012 was arguably the best of Bret Bielema’s tenure. A smooth adjustment by players to a new scheme and new staff is critical if they hope to replicate last year’s success.
There are other areas to watch of course – the battle between Melvin Gordon and James White, the kicking battle to name a couple – but in the interest of keeping this shorter than Moby Dick the scope has been limited to the most critical pieces.
So keep your chin up Badger fans. One more week of reporters recapping text message exchanges with high school seniors, after that we can look forward to actually talking about what happens on the field.
Seven more days or thereabouts…we can make it, I promise.