When Wisconsin football was on a bye last weekend, head coach Gary Andersen noted how he enjoyed being able to sit back and watch football on Saturday. He doesn’t get many Saturdays off during the fall and neither do his players.
Whatever they were doing — whether it was heading home for the weekend or doing some bow hunting — they were enjoying a Saturday away from Camp Randall. They were taking their bye week seriously in the form of relaxation.
It almost seemed as if the UW program was temporarily shut down, but that’s far from the case. The bye week doesn’t offer a game, but it sends assistant coaches to trek the recruiting trail and leaves much of the program up to the players.
Most of UW’s assistants took off Wednesday and Thursday last week, leaving the players in Madison to help build the program for the future. It comes during a point in the season where the focus is likely looming on the Big Ten schedule and upcoming opponent Iowa, but removing themselves from game preparation is more important than it would normally seem.
“It’s greatly important to get the chance to refocus your energies on something else,” running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Thomas Hammock said. “It gives you the opportunity to go out and get some live evaluations on some kids and make some decisions on what guys you think can help your program.”
It’s a week they use to check in on prospective players and get a second or third look at possible recruiting avenues. It can be very useful, according to Hammock, to see how a player has progressed from year to year, because “a kid as a junior can look a lot different than the kid as a senior.”
Each assistant is geared to recruit personal assets, either by position or by region of the country. It can mean a lot of traveling during those few days where Wisconsin puts down the playbook. However, it’s part of the job.
As one of the few assistant coaches to stay at Wisconsin during the coaching upheaval, Hammock took on the recruiting coordinator position. Hammock says he hasn’t had much difficulty transitioning into the new role. “If you can recruit, you can recruit,” he says.
It takes organization and planning, according to Hammock, balancing the many assistants and their personalities to best appeal to recruits on the road. It was Hammock’s plan that helped Andersen lock up Wisconsin’s freshman class once former head coach Bret Bielema, the man who helped commit them all to the Badgers, elected to head to Arkansas. Together, the two coaches tag-teamed trips to many homes to ensure the commitments of incoming freshmen.
“I knew I had the most trust in Wisconsin when they actually came to my house,” freshman running back Corey Clement said. He never had a college coach in his New Jersey house before. “Coach Andersen and coach Hammock actually had dinner and everything has been pretty smooth from there on.”
Keeping things smooth with recruits can be imperative, simply letting them know that Wisconsin is still around and not solely focused on the here and now but also very much on the future.
That was important for freshman wide receiver Rob Wheelwright. Of all things, he enjoyed that the Badgers just stuck with him throughout the entire process.
“I had a lot of schools, but I was always just excited to see Wisconsin come and I would get to talk to them,” Wheelright said. Andersen also paid him a home visit to Ohio, just one week after the coach arrived in Madison.
That interpersonal sense is a main reason why Wisconsin’s assistants need to make those trips from Madison in the middle of a busy fall season. A simple face in the crowd can say more than an absent one. But nonetheless, the coaches are largely absent back in Madison and preparation for Iowa doesn’t end.
That’s when the recruiting bye weeks turn to those left behind, allowing the players to define and police their work during some time off. The large senior class takes on much of the coaching responsibility, in order to pave an easy path to when the coaches return. For the running backs, that’s James White’s job.
“With James still in charge, it’s still easy as having coach Hammock here,” Clement, the freshman-following-in-footsteps, said. “He already knows what to do and we just follow after James because he’s a senior and we show him the most respect.”
Elsewhere, it’s not all about the seniors. Although the wide receiving corps is laden with seniors in Jared Abbrederis, Kenzel Doe and Jeff Duckworth, it’s more of a positional team effort when coach Chris Beatty is gone.
Graduate assistant and former Wisconsin wideout Luke Swan helps his former position but together they all contribute.
“When we watch film, they see something, they’ll say something to you. And they even tell me if I see something, say something to them,” Wheelwright said. “We were all coaches for that week. We all learned from each other that week.”
Considering it’s their season, Hammock knows that the time spent without the coaches in town is solely on the players. If they don’t perform the right way in their alone time, the following week won’t run as smoothly. He wasn’t worried, though.
“If I had an immature group it would be tough,” Hammock said. “But I’ve got a pretty mature group of guys that, even if I’m not around, they know the way to act and how to perform and how to go about their business.”