There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the immediate future of the Wisconsin football program.
You know the obvious ones:
The dynamic running back duo of Montee Ball and James White.
The return of linebacker Chris Borland and several talented members of the defense.
Three returning starters on one of the nation’s top offensive lines that’s showing no signs of slowing down.
But spring camp gives us an opportunity to watch the guys you won’t hear about in the pre-season magazines. It allows us to see the emergence of new leaders as the foundation is built for a season yet again filled with high expectations.
So with that, here are some spring observations for all those already counting down the days to football season (myself included) as we close in on the final four spring practices.
Defense playing with a new swagger
It’s one of the first things you notice when you watch the Badger defense practice: It plays with a mean streak and it isn’t afraid to celebrate.
The defense has taken on the personality of its new coach – defensive coordinator Chris Ash – and its vocal leader, senior safety Aaron Henry.
Under previous coordinator Dave Doeren, the UW defense was very workmanlike and steady. It rarely blitzed and just went about its business, making key plays when it had to.
Ash and his assistant coaches want the defense to be more aggressive. They want the players to feed of each other’s energy. This group is still very workmanlike, but now it plays with a pronounced swagger and it makes it known each time it takes the field.
Heck, it even practices its celebrations during a pick-six drill.
The Badgers have embraced this new mentality, and Henry has made a point to keep the energy level high during practice. Henry’s voice is heard just about every snap, calling out assignments or pumping up a teammate.
“I got to get everybody going. Me being a leader, I have to be that spark,” Henry said. “It’s about coming out here and having fun, but before all that we still have to make sure we are doing our job.”
Converted defensive backs stand out at linebacker
Most Badger fans don’t know much about Kevin Claxton or Conor O’Neill, but that should change in due time.
Claxton is in line to start this season at outside linebacker after getting some meaningful snaps as a junior last season. Claxton started his career at safety before making the switch to linebacker and getting his weight up to 233 pounds.
One thing about Claxton’s game has become very clear this spring – he can hit.
I asked Claxton how he would describe his playing style. There was no hesitation in his answer.
“Very physical. I like to punish fools,” Claxton said. “That’s my game. Anybody that’s in my way, I try to punish them.”
Surely sounds like the kind of player Ash and company are looking for. They’ve also found another one in O’Neill.
The redshirt sophomore has been one of the biggest surprises this spring, and he could be a dark horse selection to develop into a star down the road.
O’Neill came to UW as a linebacker, but after struggling to put on weight, he made the move to safety. During the offseason, though, O’Neill finally put on some muscle and got his weight up above 220 pounds.
Despite the added weight, O’Neill kept his quickness, so he was moved back to linebacker, where he has flourished as a playmaker this spring.
His back-to-back interceptions Saturday had the entire defense excited, and O’Neill tends to find himself in the right place at the right time. He has a nose for the ball, and he’ll make a name for himself before his time in Madison is done.
Numbers can be deceiving
The Badgers must replace five starters on defense and seven on offense in 2011.
That’s a lot of quality that needs to be replenished, but UW still has a ton of experience remaining – and it shows. On both sides of the ball, there are still plenty of familiar faces.
On defense, for example, Borland and cornerback Devin Smith have each started games earlier in their career.
And on the defensive line, upwards of 11 players rotated in and out last year, gaining valuable experience in big game environments.
“The numbers can be deceiving,” senior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. “You look at all the depth that we return. We have so many guys that have had valuable experience. It’s a good thing.”
“The turnover is so small this year, and it’s nice because you have to teach so little,” he added. “That’s so helpful that we can just jump right into it.”
It’s a similar situation on the offensive side.
Ryan Groy has started. Travis Frederick and Josh Ogelsby have as well.
Running backs Ball and White carried the load with John Clay injured, while tight ends Jake Byrne and Jacob Pedersen have plenty of experience to draw from.
Long story short, don’t expect inexperience to be an issue as the Badgers reload for another run at a Big Ten title.
“They have all seen games, and it’s really nice when you can put someone in there who has seen action,” junior center Pete Konz said. “And I’m not talking about third string against Austin Peay. I’m talking about first string, Big Ten-type of defenses, so we are pretty comfortable with that.”
Quarterback is the one position where a fresh face will be thrown into the fire as a starter for the first time, but if the spring is any indication, that signal caller will have plenty of seasoned talent surrounding him.
Max is a senior majoring in journalism. Want to talk spring football? Send an email to [email protected].