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Senior Dustin Sherer, who started six games last year for Wisconsin, competing for the starting position this spring.

With a little more than five months remaining before the season’s first game, the University of Wisconsin football team kicked off its spring season Tuesday with an afternoon practice at the McClain Facility.

After a disappointing finish to the 2008 season at the hands of Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, head coach Bret Bielema and the Badgers are eager to put last season behind them and look ahead to the 2009 campaign.

“I’m very excited to start spring ball,” Bielema said. “We went through seven weeks of pretty aggressive winter conditioning and made some changes on how we approach that. During that time I was also able to sit down with 90 plus players and … they’re excited about the challenges and what they have in front of them.”

One challenge Wisconsin will face during the spring season is attempting to replace running back P.J. Hill following his decision to declare for the 2009 NFL draft.

Fortunately for the Badgers, sophomore John Clay improved steadily as the season went along in 2008, rushing for 884 yards and nine touchdowns on 155 carries. Although Clay struggled for UW in the bowl game, he showed signs near the end of the season — three games of 100 or more rushing yards over the Badgers’ last five — that he had the ability to take over the starting duties for Wisconsin.

“As the season went along, we kept trying to give [Clay] more and more responsibilities,” Bielema said. “At certain points during the year he really embraced them and was able to step forward.”

There are a few aspects of Clay’s game, however, that Bielema believes the player must continue to improve to earn the starting spot with ball security and knowledge of the playbook among the most important.

“From a coaching standpoint, he needs to know the entire playbook,” Bielema said. “He needs to know every play and what his assignment is. We just can’t put him in on certain plays that we want to execute from an offensive point of view.”

In addition to Clay, junior Zach Brown and freshman Erik Smith should see plenty of time in the backfield throughout the spring season, including in the April 18 spring game.

Bielema holding players accountable

In an effort to improve the accountability of players, Bielema is making some changes that are less football-related and have a greater focus on the organizational aspect of the program.

Bielema has encouraged his athletes to do a better job managing their time to avoid a similar situation to the one that kept defensive back Mario Goins from being eligible for the bowl game and has led to his subsequent suspension from the team.

“Probably the first thing I talked about when we came back in January was just being on time, holding yourself accountable and doing things right,” Bielema said. “I’ve seen a big jump in the way that they’ve approached things, and hopefully that’s going to carry over into good football now too.”

Because of the nature of the academic programs at UW, Bielema knows his players need to put forth as much effort in the classroom as they do on the field to ensure they’re eligibility to play for the Badgers.

“We had … a couple players ruled academically ineligible for the bowl game and a lot of that might’ve been directly carried over to class attendance,” Bielema said. “Thankfully, anything that we’ve gotten (this semester) report-wise from the academic world has been outstanding as far as guys’ class attendance.”

From the infirmary

While the Badgers returned to the field Tuesday for the first time since a Dec. 29 bowl loss, several players were unable to practice due to injury. Some of the players will miss the entire spring season, while some have a chance to return before the end of spring practice.

According to Bielema, four players — defensive back Kevin Claxton, running back Bradie Ewing, wide receiver Daven Jones and defensive lineman Tyler Westphal — will miss the spring season entirely due to surgery.

“Two players have had surgeries with a chance to return,” Bielema said. “Maurice Moore probably has the slightest chance to return, but Jay Valai had surgery almost seven weeks ago, (and) we expect him to be back on the early part of next week hopefully if everything goes through with where we expect it to be at the end of the week.”

Early departures

In addition to Hill’s decision to leave for a shot at the NFL, four former UW players, including linebacker Elijah Hodge, have decided to pursue their options elsewhere, according to Bielema.

Kicker Matt Fischer, however, has left the program to follow an academic goal, rather than for football-related reasons.

“He just received a scholarship offer to pursue a degree that he really wanted to, I believe at Cornell,” Bielema said.