As the Wisconsin football team’s spring game draws nearer, head coach Bret Bielema has been pleased with the progression of his players so far in camp.
Even though there hasn’t been much full contact in camp yet, Bielema said he’s been surprised at the level of intensity on the field.
“The first two days of practice were actually kind of a shock to me, being as clean and as efficient as they were,” Bielema said. “The intensity is as good as we’ve ever had here.”
Coming off a second consecutive Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance, Wisconsin now faces the tough task of replacing a group of 20 seniors – as well as junior center Peter Konz who declared for the upcoming NFL draft – and six assistant coaches.
With plenty of new opportunities across the roster, Bielema has seen freshman offensive lineman Dan Voltz mesh into the college game nicely so far. Like center Travis Frederick before him, Voltz is one of three Badgers to have graduated early from high school in order to practice with UW in the spring.
And so far, the 6-foot-4, 288-pound lineman has impressed Bielema the most out of Wisconsin’s newcomers.
“Since the recruiting process, he has been nothing but a highlight for us,” Bielama said of Voltz. “He’s very detail-oriented. Probably one of the more gifted O-linemen since I’ve been here that I’ve ever seen come in and handle things so well from the get-go. He’s going to be a very, very good football player for us, either at the center or guard position.”
The Badgers will also have to replace both their kicker and their punter this year, something they haven’t had to worry about for four years. Both former kicker Philip Welch and punter Brad Nortman both saw significant time on the field for all four years of their time at Wisconsin.
This year, redshirt sophomore Kyle French is the favorite to replace Welch as the starting kicker. French saw a lot of time last year as Welch missed the majority of the first half of the season with a leg injury. During Welch’s absence French went 3-for-5 on field goal attempts while also handling most of the kickoff duties. According to Bielema, French is off to a good start this spring.
“French was 4-for-4 Sunday, which was the first time we’ve done live kicking,” Bielema said. “The biggest thing is to try and create as many pressure situations as possible.”
Another position with major shoes to fill is at wide receiver. Wisconsin will lose its top receiver from last year, Nick Toon, who led the Badgers with 10 touchdown receptions in 2011.
However, Wisconsin will return its team leader in receiving yards from last year in Jared Abbrederis, but he’s been sidelined throughout the spring, leaving a wide open chance for someone to step up.
One candidate to take over as the No. 2 receiver is redshirt sophomore Marquis Mason, who is a year removed from knee surgery and has yet to see the field on gameday as a Badger.
“Nobody has made as big of a jump from Tuesday to Thursday’s practice,” Bielema said of Mason. “He’s got big ol’ mitts and is so freaky athletically. He’s got something that nobody else has, so the more of that we bring out, the better we all will be.”
Few scholarships remain for 2013 class
Another topic of discussion this spring is the few scholarships that Bielema and the Badgers have to work with for recruiting. For this upcoming season, Wisconsin has only nine available scholarships to give out, a number that is usually closer to 20.
That makes it even more important for the Badgers to get a lot of the in-state talent they usually do. According to Bielema, over 40 percent of the players are from Wisconsin, something that he says the school stresses as one of its priorities.
“I try to emphasize that our priority always starts in the state of Wisconsin,” he said. “Lots of other schools I’ve been to like Iowa and Kansas say that, but here in Wisconsin it’s the heart and soul of what we are.”