by Richard Branch
Monday marks the end of the first week of camp as the Badgers take the field in their first scrimmage since the spring game. While words by the thousands are churned out dissecting every aspect of camp in infinite detail, there are certain storylines that should be watched more closely than others, and some that don’t really deserve as much attention at they are getting. Here’s the breakdown:
An Audition, not a Competition
The battle over who ends up under center is no doubt the biggest story of the fall. While much is made over the three way battle at quarterback, in reality it’s more accurate to think of it as Tanner McEvoy’s job to lose.
Gary Andersen featured mobile quarterbacks at Utah State in Chuckie Keeton and Diondre Borel. Since taking over the Badgers in December he’s made it clear he puts a high premium on an athletic, mobile quarterback as he’s secured the commitment of three of them in just eight months on the job. Escapability and the ability to make plays with their feet are a necessary feature of his ideal offense.
Tanner McEvoy was not brought in due to a lack of depth; Wisconsin had three quarterbacks with starting experience from 2012 and highly regarded redshirt freshman Bart Houston ready to compete for the job. The reason for McEvoy’s addition was simple: the players he inherited on the roster did not fit the offense Andersen wants in place come August 31.
As such the bar for McEvoy to win the job is likely lower than Stave or Phillips. He’s fast – he was recruited mostly as a receiver out of high school – and if he’s a quick enough study and can move the ball through the air as well as Stave or Phillips (maybe even a notch below given the added dimension his speed brings to the offense) the job is his.
This doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to be the starter. Look to Stave to win the job if McEvoy falters (if Phillips could win it the staff wouldn’t have brought on McEvoy in the first place) but the smart money is on McEvoy leading the offense onto the field against UMass. He wasn’t brought in to wear a headset. A lot of focus will be on this battle, but this isn’t really worth all the attention it will garner unless McEvoy fails to seize on his opportunity.
Vonte Jackson’s Injury is Significant
Much attention this off season focused on the lack of depth and experience in the secondary (we will get to that, I promise) but the running back position became a lot more questionable with Vonte Jackson’s season ending ACL tear. After the 1-2 punch of James White and Melvin Gordon, Cory Clement appears to be the presumptive 3rd back with Jeff Lewis now at safety. Beyond Clement, the best option at tailback may well be fullback Derek Watt.
Despite a run heavy offense, Wisconsin has been relatively lucky when it comes to injuries in their backfield. If 2013 is the season that lucky streak comes to an end, Corey Clement’s ability to adjust to the college game will be put to an immediate test. The ground game likely can’t be borne on the shoulders of a single player, so Clement will need to learn on the job.
Initial impressions are positive; between Clement being in the first crop of new players to earn his stripes (literally) or the glowing reviews of beatwriters. Still, fans need to keep tabs on Clement’s progress in camp. If Clement’s progress slows and he needs time to grow in the program significant injuries to White or Gordon would be a major challenge as there aren’t many options on the roster; the remaining players are walk-ons and special teams players unsuited for punishment between the tackles.
A Smooth Transition to the 3-4 is not a Given
The transition to a more attacking, aggressive defense has been met with near universal acclaim. What is unknown is how well suited a roster recruited for a 4-3 can adjust to new roles in Dave Aranda’s 3-4. Some players appear better suited than others but the ability of the front seven to seamlessly adapt is not a given.
The defensive line looks best suited for the new defense. Beau Allen is a perfect nose guard able to reliably draw a double team, crucial to the success of a 3-4. In fact, he’s probably better suited to a 3-4 than the system he was playing in past seasons. Beyond Allen, presumed some combination Warren Herring, Ethan Hemer, Pat Muldoon, and Konrad Zagzebski fit the blueprint for ends as well.
The inside of the linebacking corps looks ready to play. Chris Borland and the Conor O’Neill/Derek Landisch winner have the size and tackling ability to fill gaps up the middle.
Where there is less certainty is on the edges. Players like Brendan Kelly are being asked to play out of a two point stance, defending in space as well as attacking the passer. What is unknown is their ability to cover an offensive player, something they haven’t done in the past.
How well they can adjust to playing in space will determine how flexible this defense can be. If Kelly and company can effectively cover the field in ways they rarely were in the past then Aranda has far more flexibility in attacking offenses in creative ways. If they struggle then Badger fans will see more traditional four man fronts and less of the creativity they crave.
The Secondary Isn’t as Bad as it Sounds…Hopefully
Despite the adjustment to an entirely new defensive scheme, the biggest concern with the defense this year appears to be in the secondary. No doubt, three quality starters were lost to graduation in Devin Smith, Marcus Cromartie, and Shelton Johnson. However the team is not devoid of experience and quality playing time amongst this year’s probable starters.
Had Peniel Jean not missed most of 2012 with injury there would be far less anxiety about this year. As a redshirt freshman, Jean performed admirably in the nickel package 2011 and in all likelihood would’ve retained the role last year. Assuming he is fully recovered from injury, Jean should be more than ready to be an every down defender.
In 2012 Darius Hilary was pressed into the nickel back role when Jean went down. He had his ups and downs and was far from dominant but his in game experience should give him something to build on to become a serviceable cornerback this year.
Playing corner at the college level takes time to learn and his time on the field was no doubt invaluable. Given Cromartie’s improvement between the 2011 and ’12 seasons, it’s not unreasonable to expect Hilary to make strides becoming a serviceable member of the secondary.
The bigger question is who will replace Shelton Johnson at safety. While the first week of camp left the media projecting Leo Musso or possibly Michael Caputo as the most likely candidates, there are other options should neither seize the opportunity.
JUCO transfer T.J. Reynard arrives on campus a cornerback, but played all of 2012 at safety. In much the same way the never-admitted Donnell Vercher was recruited to bring experience to the safety position, Reynard could accomplish much the same thing even if that was never the intention of bringing him to Madison.
Beyond Reynard, perhaps the most intriguing option is Jeff Lewis. The converted running back is short on experience but has the top end speed that’s clearly valuable to the new staff. A move to the position before spring practice would have been ideal but if he’s a quick study he has a shot to get on the field.
Every defense wants to return experienced starters from year to year, but given the fact that 75% of the starting secondary is being replaced, the Badgers are in a good place all things considered. There are no doubt questions. Players don’t automatically bounce back from injuries; average to mediocre players aren’t guaranteed to get better every year. There is however reason to think the secondary should be serviceable. There are other areas of bigger concern.
Wide Receiver May be Just as Bad as it Sounds…or WORSE
The need to find a complementary threat to Jared Abbrederis gets a lot of attention. That attention is well deserved. Excluding Abbrederis, the former walk on, the Badgers don’t have a proven wide receiver - or hugely promising newcomer - on the roster.
Unless major strides are taken at improving their play, the likely candidates from last year aren’t impactful enough. Jeff Duckworth, Chase Hammond, and Jordan Fredrick all appear limited athletically. Reggie Love and A.J. Jordan saw little action last year and when they did failed to make a positive impression.
Coming out of spring, Kenzel Doe looked to be making a push to start but has his own questions. Doe’s diminutive stature (5’8” 170 lbs) and lack of breakaway speed make him more suited as a slot receiver running cross routes and bubble screens to take advantage of his quickness. Out wide he will face constant challenges at the line from bigger and stronger defensive backs not worried about his ability to pull past them. The idea of Doe as an everyday player is hard to swallow.
For these reasons true freshmen Rob Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy are getting serious looks at the position. Peavy would likely be a near automatic redshirt and not even remotely in the starter discussion was the shortage of talent less dire. Peavy has the tools to compete someday but probably needs seasoning.
Wheelwright appears to have more ready talent and a higher ceiling based on his ratings in the services, but he isn’t truly a “now” player. In the perfect world Wheelwright would be assigned a minor contributing role at most; like Peavy asking for immediate significant contributions from Wheelwright is a tall order and very telling.
The team’s depth at tight end has been cited as a workaround to the problem but has its own share of question marks. Aside from Jacob Pedersen, the upperclassmen in the group haven’t contributed much as receivers. Brian Wozniak, Brock DeCicco, and Sam Arneson have a combined 15 career receptions. To this point in their careers they have not been asked to be a threat in the passing game. This doesn’t preclude one or more of them filling that role, but given their complete lack of experience in that regard it’s a sure sign of extend to which the staff is searching for answers.
There may be a solution somewhere amongst that mix of personnel. A wide receiver can emerge, the tight ends may have more to offer than blocking on running downs, or the running backs could get more involved in the passing game. The Badgers will have to pass and someone will have to catch it but right now it’s hard to envision who that is going to be.
Hopefully this post has not crushed your hopes for a successful season (this ended on a downer, didn’t it?) or convinced you the Badgers don’t face any challenges on a senior-laden roster (re-read that part about the wide receivers if it didn't). It’s not meant to do either.
Wisconsin is three weeks from starting the season with definite questions that need answering but nothing “mission critical”. The reality is somewhere in the middle. If the staff finds a way to address these issues this team has a shot of going from a good squad to a very good one.