The return of a starting quarterback has created a lot of buzz for the 12th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers.
Senior Scott Tolzien is entering his second season as the No. 1 signal caller and this marks the first time the Badgers have had a multi-year starter at the quarterback position since John Stocco in 2006.
With Tolzien under center in 2009, UW was one of just six teams in the nation to average 200 yards rushing and passing per game, and the Badgers led the Big Ten in scoring.
But Tolzien isn’t the only starter returning to a potent UW offense. In fact, 15 offensive players are set to return with multiple starts under their belts.
With all that experience, the pieces are in place for UW to form one of the most feared offenses in the country.
“I feel really good about the offense,” junior running back John Clay said. “We have seven returning starters on the offensive line, have the whole receiving corps coming back. We are going to be a special offense when we are on top of our game.”
A dynamic backfield
Wisconsin football is defined by its running game and Clay has emerged as the program’s next elite back.
After posting over 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2009, last year’s Big Ten offensive player of the year is poised for another tremendous season behind all of his starting linemen from last season.
But there is one thing different about Clay heading into 2010.
After surgery on both ankles, Clay is running free of pain, which is a scary thought for defenders.
“I feel great,” Clay said. “I’m running well out there and now I just need to get my reps in before the season starts.”
Clay isn’t the only weapon UW can deploy from the backfield. Sophomore Montee Ball has added weight in the offseason and he’s ready to build on his freshman season where he ran for over 400 yards and four touchdowns.
“I like where Montee is at,” running backs coach John Settle said. “He’s bigger, more mature and he’s come in real focused. I think he’s going to have a great year.”
The veteran of the group, Zach Brown, is back for his senior season along with true freshman James White, a shifty speedster from Florida. With those four options, UW has a little bit of everything in the backfield and all that talent has put a smile on Settle’s face.
“Since I’ve been here this is by far the deepest group of running backs we’ve had,” Settle said. “They each bring a different dynamic to the game and I think defenses are going to have a tough time stopping us.”
In a single season, Scott Tolzien went from an unknown to the conference’s most efficient passer.
He posted a 92.3 rating last year while completing over 64 percent of his attempts. In the process, the Rolling Meadows, Ill. native set a school record for completions in a season.
Now he’s prepared to improve upon those impressive numbers, and teammates say his comfort with the playbook is the main reason why.
“He just has such great knowledge of the playbook and it helps him be so poised out there,” senior tight end Lance Kendricks said.
But while his first season at the helm was a prolific one, Tolzien struggled with turnovers against Ohio State and Iowa and to live up to the high expectations in 2010, he knows he needs to limit mistakes and create more plays downfield.
“The two things I’ve been working on is lessening the turnovers and being more opportunistic,” Tolzien said.
Much to Tolzien’s delight, there are plenty of skilled playmakers surrounding him in the huddle to make life easier.
“It’s really exciting to have all these weapons back,” Tolzien said. “Now its my job to distribute the ball and get it into their hands.”
One versatile security blanket
As the next in a line of skilled Badger tight ends, Kendricks is asked to do a lot in the UW offense.
He’s asked to be the go-to target on third downs, block for the running game, and even take some carries on an end-around every once in a while.
But all that responsibility is fine by him.
“I know I have a big role this year and I’m learning some new plays that are expanding the offense,” Kendricks said.
A pre-season all-conference selection by Phil Steele and Athlon, Kendricks possesses a rare combination of size and athleticism that makes him both a terrific route runner and a dependable blocker.
In last year’s Champs Sports Bowl, those abilities were on display as Kendricks hauled in seven balls for 128 yards while sealing the edge on two touchdown runs.
“Lance takes pride in being a well-rounded tight end, whether he’s lead blocking or pass blocking or running routes and making plays,” tight ends coach Joe Rudolph said.
The chemistry between Kendricks and Tolzien has been on display throughout fall camp with Kendricks holding on to almost everything thrown his way.
“We have had a lot of reps together and there is definitely a lot of chemistry out there,” Tolzien said.
The deep threats
Clay likes attracting the extra attention of opposing defenses.
Not because the star running back wants to face an eight-man front, but because he knows that scenario creates opportunities for his teammates, especially the wide receivers.
“Defenses can’t just play the run game because we have such good receivers and tight ends,” Clay said. “If they want to load the box then we have plenty of receiving options to move the ball downfield.”
Those options include experienced seniors David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson, but while those three are capable targets, it is junior wideout Nick Toon who headlines the group.
Toon had a breakout out year last season and with a better grasp of the offense and a more polished technique, fans can expect those big plays to continue as Toon prepares to enter a second season with Tolzien.
“It’s awesome. Any time you can play with the same quarterback you can’t ask for anything else,” Toon said. “Scott is very smart and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and we are all looking forward to playing with him again.”
The success UW had last year has brought a lot of confidence to Toon and the rest of the offense, but offensive coordinator Paul Chryst knows his unit can’t become complacent, as the 2010 Badgers still have plenty to prove.
While last season’s statistics are nice to look at, a team with Big Ten title aspirations can take nothing for granted.
“Last year doesn’t matter,” Chryst said. “Each guy has to continue to be the best player they can be. Then we’ll find out how good we are as an offense.”