Before I get into anything, just keep one thing in mind you should already know: Don’t take the Wisconsin football team’s spring game on Saturday ultra-seriously – that is, if you plan on paying any attention to it.
We are in the middle of April, and the 2011 college football season doesn’t begin until Sept. 1. Like bicyclists who leave their steeds outdoors in the winter, spring is just about shaking off some of the rust.
So when I’m about to tell you to keep your eye on these five things during the spring game, don’t go and give up on the season or make reservations for the Rose Bowl based on how they play out this weekend.
The linebackers on display on Saturday will be an unfinished product – Chris Borland will sit out – yet the spring game still gives us clues as to how Mike Taylor and Kevin Claxton will fare in the pass rush now that Borland is moving to middle linebacker.
When healthy, Borland is by far Wisconsin’s best edge rusher, but now that he’ll be the enforcer in the middle of the field it’s up to first-year starter Claxton and Taylor (who’s regaining his explosiveness since his season-ending knee injury during his freshman year).
We won’t see all the contents of the bag of blitz tricks Wisconsin has drawn up – especially the ones that include Borland – but make sure to watch Claxton and Taylor whenever they gun it for the backfield and see how much disruption they can cause.
Budmayr under pressure
On Monday, head coach Bret Bielema announced the No. 1 offense and the No. 1 defense will clash in the spring game – a change of pace from years past when all starters played on the same side against the reserves.
That means we’ll get an earlier-than-expected look of starting quarterback Jon Budmayr against a starting Big Ten defense, and his decision-making on Saturday should be a relatively accurate reflection of his progression thus far.
Budmayr’s been off and on so far during camp. He’s overthrown a few deep balls but has been on the money at other times. He’s also shown some adeptness at scrambling.
The Abbrederis Connection
Jared Abbrederis has impressed me the most during this spring camp.
The redshirt sophomore has proven to be as reliable as anyone on the field. He doesn’t drop passes, he doesn’t run bad routes and he can outrun defenders.
Wisconsin is, of course, known for its running backs and offensive linemen, but the Badgers always manage to find diamond-in-the-rough wide receivers, and Abbrederis is next in line.
I’ll bet five bucks he scores a touchdown on Saturday, and don’t be surprised if he scores twice. It’s not as sure of a thing as James White crossing the goal line, but the point is Budmayr can hit this guy on the fly – they stretch the field together.
Nzegwu to take the next step?
Wisconsin lost only one player on the defensive line, yet that one player, J.J. Watt, just happened to be the defense’s biggest playmaker.
The other layers of UW’s defense has its established playmakers (Aaron Henry in the secondary and Chris Borland and Mike Taylor at linebacker) so while it’s great that the rest of the defensive line returns, one of them needs to step up as a hazard for opposing offenses. A place to look for the next one is fifth-year senior Louis Nzegwu.
Last season, Nzegwu functioned as reliable defensive end, one who didn’t seem to make costly errors. He finished second on the team with three sacks, third with 7.5 tackles for loss and also disrupted six passes and forced one fumble.
Those numbers aren’t much of a departure from what Watt did during his junior season in which he first played at starting end. After a mistake-free junior year, look for Nzegwu to up his play.
D-backs a bane no more
Last season, UW’s secondary was usually regarded as the weakness of a strong defense. UW’s rush and pass defense both finished third in the Big Ten in fewest yards allowed, but what separates them are their touchdowns allowed.
Wisconsin’s pass defense allowed 20 scores, while the rush defense allowed just nine.
Although two starters departed from last year, Wisconsin’s defensive backs still sport a healthy amount of experience.
Henry returns from a second-team All-Big Ten season (58 tackles, three defensive touchdowns), and Antonio Fenelus (team-leading four interceptions) also returns after a solid season last year.
They’re joined by Devin Smith, a cornerback who started all 13 games in 2009 and is enjoying an impressive spring this year, and Shelton Johnson, who earned some playing time filling in for Jay Valai last year. Dezmen Southward, an extremely athletic player who has earned some reps with the No. 1 defense, is also pushing Johnson for the strong safety spot.
This is a mature group that’s got a good amount of leadership as well. Henry has developed into a natural leader, while the rest of the unit features smart players.
They’re all led by safeties coach DeMontie Cross, who’s done an excellent job in his first spring, and defensive backs coach/co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who transformed Henry into a Second Team All-Big Ten safety after playing cornerback a year before.
One year under Ash and the defensive backs already saw improvement. Expect the progress to continue.
Elliot is a junior majoring in journalism and philosophy. What are you going to keep on eye on in this year’s spring game? Drop Elliot a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.