The phrase of the day from Wisconsin head football coach Gary Andersen when he spoke to the media Wednesday morning, a week into spring practice, was “a work in progress.” After losing a heap of key players from last year’s team, the Badgers’ coaching staff has plenty to assess and work on before the spring game April 12.
Included among the key losses for Wisconsin are nine players who saw significant time on the defensive side of the ball last season, but Andersen and the rest of the coaching staff still have a lot on their plate outside of the defense.
With Andersen and most of the other assistants now in their second year, the process has been smoother than a year ago, but that hasn’t stopped testing the newer faces.
“I wanted to give them some curveballs through spring ball as a young crew to see how they’re handling the adjustments and schedule and surprises for the coaches and surprises for the kids,” Andersen said of having Wednesday’s practice in the morning. “It was a good morning and overall this crew was working hard. We have a long ways to go on offense, defense and special teams.”
One of the key developments so far this spring, not surprisingly, is the quarterback competition. Highly touted newcomer D.J. Gillins, an early enrollee from Jacksonville, Fla. has seen most of the repetitions at the quarterback position so far this spring, with Joel Stave sidelined with the shoulder injury he sustained in Wisconsin’s Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina on Jan. 1.
Gillins comes to Wisconsin as the No. 4 rated dual threat quarterback in the country and the 17th ranked dual threat quarterback by ESPN.com. He has the skill set Andersen has said he wants in a signal caller.
Still, with only having gone through a handful of practices so far, Gillins is still in the process of adapting to a new offense.
“He’s definitely not a head of the offense at this point,” Andersen said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a jump that he’s making but he’s staying and maintaining his knowledge of the offense, which is impressive because there is a lot of offense going every day. He’s stayed focused since day one here.”
Meanwhile Stave, having missed the first handful of practices, was finally back in action Wednesday. In his first full season in the starting role, Stave threw for 2,494 yards on 208 completions, which earned him honorable mention All-Big Ten as voted by the media.
However, in the New Year’s Day loss, Stave went down with an injury to his throwing arm, which has kept him out of the spring festivities up until Wednesday and was still quite limited in his first action of the spring.
“He got in the red zone, so as you can see in the red zone the throws are obviously controlled. He doesn’t have to throw it as far. We felt like we could get him in those drills,” Andersen said. “It was good to see Joel get out there and compete a little bit in as a controlled situation as we can. We can’t control a situation more than the red zone.”
Another big hole on offense for Wisconsin, as it moves toward the spring game, is at the tight end position where the Badgers lost both of their starters from the fall, Brian Wozniak and Jacob Pedersen. As was the theme, Andersen called the area a work in progress with several younger players, led by Sam Arneson, competing for time at the two positions.
Although the Badgers lost several key members of the offense including the two tight ends, running back James White and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, those losses pale in comparison to the gaping holes left on the defensive side of the ball.
The biggest area of concern will be the front seven, where Wisconsin lost six of the seven members including the heart and soul of the defense, linebacker Chris Borland.
With the departure of many older key players like Borland, who also occupied important leadership roles on the team, the younger players, like Warren Herring and Derek Landisch, are still learning how to step up into newer roles.
“I think Warren [Herring] is still kind of a quiet leader. Landisch is much the same,” Andersen said of the nose guard and linebacker. “When I want to see their leadership come and rise to the top is when it’s going to get hard in spring ball, when there’s some adversity to the defense. And when it didn’t go so well, we’ll see how they are, what their leadership is. They’re respected by their team.”
The good news for Andersen and the Badgers is despite all of the gaps to fill, there is still a great deal of time to get things in order.
“I don’t want to go play a game tomorrow,” Andersen said. “I’m glad we don’t have to, but I think we’ll be ready by that time, as we move through this middle part of spring to the last third of spring. I think we’re going to be pretty comfortable. They are very athletic and their care factor is high, but again, it’s a work in progress.”