The Wisconsin football team scrimmaged Saturday for the first time this spring and head coach Bret Bielema knew it was going to be a learning experience — especially for his young players.
Referees were on hand to oversee the action and they were put to work. Flags were thrown left and right as the Badgers adjusted to officiating for the first time in months.
“I knew today there was going to be some things popping up penalty-wise — and that’s the way I wanted it,” Bielema said. “I told them [officials] to call everything.”
The officials may have been extra sensitive, but Bielema was still unhappy with a number of pre-snap fouls.
Penalty-free football was a key to success for UW last season, and at the conclusion of practice, Bielema made sure his team understood that, ordering the players to get some extra conditioning work in before ending the day.
“We had some disciplinary actions there,” Bielema said. “We had a number of mainly our younger guys for the first time out here with the officials, so it’s the first time they’ve been penalized.”
“I just want to make it real and we’ll do that every Saturday.”
Bielema wasn’t pleased with the penalties, but he had no complaints with the level of physicality he witnessed.
Safety Aaron Henry was a force all day, throwing his weight around and producing some big hits. The running backs were delivering some punishment as well, finishing their runs with authority.
“I thought there was a lot of great energy,” Bielema said. “I really liked the physical nature. I thought our defensive guys really laid some nice hits out there.”
“I can’t argue with the way they are working, hustling and competing.”
Running backs still really good
The quarterback situation may be working through some inconsistency, but the UW running game has been consistently sound all spring.
Montee Ball and James White have looked both quicker and stronger, leading to numerous long runs each practice.
“Montee and James are very, very good football players,” Bielema said. “They just competed all winter and really put themselves in a position to have a great year. The two of them together are really competitive.”
O-linemen a work in progress
Bielema knows he’s got a talented first-team offensive line, but he also readily admits the unit has plenty of room for improvement.
The right tackle spot is still up for grabs and Travis Frederick is still settling into the left guard position, while the twos and threes work their way through spring mistakes.
“From left tackle to right guard, those are some pretty good football players,” Bielema said. “Travis [Frederick] has got to continue to get his niche there at left guard… We have a lot of viable bodies.”
Young receivers catching on
The UW wide receiving corps — minus the injured Nick Toon — have had their struggles with drops, but Bielema was encouraged by the play of redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams and true freshman Kenzel Doe.
Williams has shown impressive route running ability, while Doe has flashed his tremendous speed on designed screens.
“Isaiah and Kenzel are the two guys that, to me, have really maximized their opportunity,” Bielema said. “They have both caught the ball pretty well. They are competing. They have a nice little competitive balance to him.”
Tight end Jacob Pedersen is another pass-catcher who has impressed this spring. The redshirt sophomore made several tough catches in traffic Saturday and drew some applause from the offensive coaches for his efforts.
Henry wasn’t the only one who came up with big plays for the defense.
Senior linebacker Kevin Claxton got the defense excited when he displayed a textbook spin move off the edge to record an easy sack.
Moments later, A.J. Fenton diagnosed an out route from quarterback Jon Budmayr beautifully and snagged an interception that he returned for a touchdown. That put a smile on linebackers coach Dave Huxtable’s face, who ran over to Fenton to celebrate.
Bielema publicly announced his engagement earlier in the week, and the 41-year-old spoke about it briefly with reports after practice.
“I actually told the team the first day we were back and got a nice little applause,” Bielema said. “A standing ovation out of a couple.”