Conor O’Neill, from the beaches of Florida and reputable St. Thomas Aquinas High School, came to Wisconsin as one of the most hyped recruits UW head coach Bret Bielema had managed to secure.
Somewhat surprisingly, O’Neill went four semesters in the program without finding his way onto the field for any serious playing time, as he found himself without a position to suit his athletic combination of strength and speed.
It may have taken longer than most expected, but O’Neill appears to have finally found a home.
O’Neill intercepted two passes on two consecutive plays Saturday during UW’s live scrimmage at Camp Randall. It was just the peak of what has been an extremely impressive spring camp for the redshirt sophomore as he transitions from safety to linebacker.
“I thought Conor made a big jump,” Bielema said. “Conor was a heavily recruited kid a few years ago; we tried him at safety because we knew he had ability, but I think that may have really helped him out because he is good in the passing game. He has a good understanding of where he needs to be in the zone fits, and he gets his hands on a lot of balls.”
An Extra Inch Or Two Wouldn’t Hurt
Jon Budmayr had another uneven day, unofficially going 7-for-15 with a 52-yard bomb successfully completed to Jared Abbrederis. However, Budmayr also threw an interception into the hands of linebacker Mike Taylor.
As he has been struggling with all camp, Budmayr had two passes batted down at the line — both by David Gilbert — that hindered his effectiveness.
While Budmayr undoubtedly has the best arm of the quarterback bunch, his short height and tendency to force throws that become interceptions has prevented him from running away with the starting job.
Still, Bielema is not too concerned about the batted balls at the line.
“I think similar to when we had [Tyler Donovan], who was a [short] in the pocket guy,” Bielema said. “So if Jon was the guy, we could do some stuff conceptually to help eliminate that.”
Starting Right Tackle?
For the third practice in a row, freshman right tackle Rob Havenstein lined up with the starters all day. When spring ball opened up, redshirt sophomore Casey Dehn started at right tackle.
With Josh Oglesby still returning this fall, neither Dehn nor Havenstein is expected to start, but the battle for the backup position remains wide open.
Bielema noted while both have improved, they are nowhere near the playing level of the other four line spots.
“Robbie has done some nice things,” Bielema said. “Casey [Dehn] had an opportunity to run with the ones, and I think [Bob Bostad] was seeing what would come out of that. I would say the both of them have gotten better but are not yet at the level we need them because at the other four spots we are pretty solid.”
Not Done Yet
After redshirting last year for what would have been his final practice, Zach Brown has to battle in a crowded backfield yet again if he is to receive any playing time this year.
Brown knows he has to work harder than Montee Ball or James White if he will ever see significant game action again.
Saturday, Brown accounted for two touchdowns (one running, one receiving) and unofficially accounted for 47 yards on 10 carries. Most impressively, he ran with forcible violence in his limited action.
“Zach is an angry running back,” Bielema said. “I think he is a guy who everyone wants to talk about those other guys, and people forget that he ran for 200 yards his freshman year and won some games for us … if he is our power back, that is great.”
Putting on third down situational drills, the defense handily beat the offense, preventing a third down on 17 of the 24 third-down plays. … The second string offensive line especially struggled with pass protection Saturday, giving up a plethora of sacks on blitzes and straight four-man rushes alike. … Ryan Groy and Joel Stave fumbled an exchange yet again, a reoccurring problem with Groy this spring. … Peniel Jean made the play of the day, intercepting Stave with an acrobatic grab in mid-air as Jean fell to the ground.