The Wisconsin football program gave its first preview of the team that will take the field in Camp Randall this fall in a scrimmage open to the media Wednesday. It was a taste of how players are responding to the new coaching staff and scheme that team has experienced in the wake of the overhaul that commenced after the departure of Bret Bielema. Some units shined and a few players may have given an early boost to their stock just three weeks into spring practice.
There is no doubt that the biggest question mark on the offensive side of the ball comes from the quarterback position where head coach Gary Andersen elected to have an open competition for the starting spot.
Curt Phillips started the scrimmage off with the first team. His first pass was a long completion to fullback Derek Watt near the sideline. Phillips looked sharp under center in his first drive, capping it off with a 20-plus yard rushing touchdown.
Although the starting quarterback will likely not be named yet for some time, Phillips gained some confidence from getting the nod be the first to take snaps Monday.
“I try not to make too much of it, but at the same time I look at it as my job until somebody takes it away from me,” Phillips said. “I definitely felt comfortable out there with those guys, I enjoy being out there and I plan on keeping it.”
Danny O’Brien was the second gunslinger to take snaps for the offense. The fifth-year senior overthrew his receivers multiple times and seemed to struggle to gain any rhythm in the offense.
Stave was next in line for the quarterbacks, starting his drive with an underthrown ball on an out-route that was nearly intercepted by defensive back Peniel Jean. Stave, similar to O’Brien, struggled to find a rhythm with the offense.
Houston showed off his arm strength on a few nicely placed passes on 10-yard out-routes and was fairly accurate with his passing.
The big news in the backfield Monday was the injury sustained from up-and-coming redshirt sophomore running back Melvin Gordon. Gordon rolled his ankle during the scrimmage and spent a majority of his time on the sideline with ice on his ankle.
With Gordon out, redshirt junior Jeffery Lewis was given the opportunity to take the bulk of the carries. Lewis took advantage of his chance, ripping off huge chunks of yardage, running right through the middle of the Wisconsin defense.
UW offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was among the people who were impressed with Lewis’ play in the scrimmage.
“Yeah [Lewis] had a couple of nice runs up the middle,” Ludwig said. “He needs to be a little more physical at the point of attack, but he popped a couple.”
Lewis also benefited from the coaching staff’s decision to give the less experienced players more reps in Monday’s scrimmage, which meant starting tailback James White spent the majority of the time watching.
“Yeah, it was nice. I just tried to take advantage of each and every opportunity I got,” Lewis said. “I was taking it one play at a time and not trying to have any mental errors. A lot of credit goes to the offensive linemen for the blocks that they had.”
Wisconsin held a scrimmage that emphasized the ground game on Saturday which opened the door for the offense to put its focus on the passing game Monday and see what the pass catchers could do.
With Jared Abbrederis not taking a single snap Monday because Phillips said “he had nothing to prove,” other wide receivers were given the chance to prove they deserve to run routes for the Badgers in the fall.
Sophomore wide receiver Reggie Love and redshirt sophomore Jordan Frederick proved their worth on the first drive with both route runners catching long balls from Phillips.
“A lot of the [wide receivers] played well today,” Phillips said. “Reggie Love is really coming along, he had a nice catch on the sideline and Jordan Fredrick was playing really well too.”
It was a circling door of substitutions for the receivers giving anyone and everyone an opportunity to get some reps with the offense.
A rarity in most football games, the defensive line for the Badgers forced back-to-back safeties in today’s scrimmage.
“I thought [the pass rush] was better,” Andersen said. “For the first time, as live as we have been, there was a good push in the pocket.”
Part of that push came from redshirt sophomore James Adeyanhu, who played in a large majority of the 70-plus snaps during the first scrimmage of the spring. A 6-foot-2, 259-pound defensive lineman from Chicago, Illinois, Adeyanhu is going to be a big part of what defensive coordinator Dave Aranda wants to accomplish this year.
“[He has] different areas he has to work on,” Aranda said, “but he’s very talented and will hopefully be a very big part of our defense.”
As far as the defense as a whole is concerned, Aranda was more than pleased with the way his team came out and performed.
“I applaud our guys for their want-to and their effort and the amount of time and study that they put into this,” Aranda said after the scrimmage. “A lot of concentration and teamwork goes into this – especially with new coaches and a new defense. It’s going to be a matter of time before we get it down, but today was a good step in the right direction.”
If there was one area of concern for the Badger defense it was the fact that the offense, led by Lewis, found a great deal of success running the ball up the middle.
“[Being beaten up the middle] really hasn’t been a concern for us,” Aranda said. “We’ve been pretty solid in that area, so I’m going to have to go back and look at the tape and see where our problem areas are.”
Senior defensive back, Dez Southward, didn’t seem to think the gaps in the middle of the field were an area of much concern, however.
“Come game time, once we’ve all been in the system a little more and know where exactly we are supposed to be a lot of those runs will go for negative yards and we’ll be celebrating on the other side of the ball instead of the offense,” Southward said.
In the passing game, however, the linebackers thrived. With senior Conor O’Neill and redshirt junior Michael Trotter being aggressive and making tackles in the backfield as well as in the open field, the group seemed attentive and physical even without veteran inside linebacker Chris Borland, who did not participate in the scrimmage.
The aggressiveness that the linebackers played with was also present in other positions on the defensive side of the ball.
“I thought [the aggressiveness] was a step up today,” Aranda said. “I think it’s difficult to be aggressive when everything is new and you’re learning on the run because things are happening so fast. So coming out and being aggressive was something we accomplished and wanted to do so that’s something that we can build on as we bring in new things and put guys in new spots to be aggressive and let it rip and there was some of that today.”
The most competitive and wide-open position battle on the defensive side of the ball lay in the secondary. Wisconsin’s coaches are still combing the ranks trying to find a player out a group that is generally inexperienced.
“The secondary made some plays today and it was great to see,” Andersen said. “Their confidence is growing a little bit and they’re more comfortable in the man coverage which is a positive. The quarters coverage, which is the base coverage that we play, is not a departure at all from what they’ve done for years so there’s a ton of carry over.”
As their confidence grows, so does their knowledge of the game and that is something that Southward noticed during today’s scrimmage.
“They took some of the things that were really bad in the last scrimmage and improved on them,” Southward said. “We weren’t perfect, but we were a lot better and it’s extremely encouraging.”
Redshirt freshman Nate Hammon scored the lone defensive touchdown of the afternoon after he stripped the ball away from fullback Derek Watt and ran it 75 yards for the score.
“The ability for us to get the ball out and cause turnovers and score on defense is a big thing,” Andersen said of the touchdown. “I want us to have more energy and juice when that happens. I’d like to see us be a little more excited at times but it’s great when that can happen.”
Another bright spot in the secondary was the play of Peniel “PJ” Jean, who is coming back from a broken foot.
“I felt really comfortable out there. It’s good to get your confidence back after breaking a foot,” Jean said.
In terms of how the secondary as whole can improve between now and the next scrimmage, Jean pointed to the need to working on eye-progression.
“Instead of looking at the quarterback the whole time [we should be] keying the receiver because that’s typically how you get beat deep.”
As for the competition as a whole, Jean couldn’t be happier with how things are developing.
“The competition is fun,” he said with a big smile on his face. “There’s no starting spot for myself or for Darius Hilary yet, so we’re all competing everyday to be the best in the Big Ten and to be the best in the nation.”