The Wisconsin football team is nearing the end of its 2014 spring practices. After Thursday’s final closed practice, the spring season will officially come to an end with the annual spring game on Saturday at 3 p.m. in Camp Randall Stadium. Each season the spring game is a chance for the players, coaches and fans to get a sense of where the team is before the fall practices in August and regular season.
Saturday will be one last chance for players to make a strong impression on their coaches and get a leg up on position battles before they take a four month break. The scrimmage will be in two portions, with the first being about 40, unscored, 11-on-11 plays, while the second portion will be two 15-minute quarters with normal scoring between the Cardinal and White teams.
Although the game normally showcases what to expect come fall, this year’s game will feature a healthy dose of surprises as well as a handful of new recruits who enrolled in school early. The quarterback group could possibly be the most exciting battle to watch unfold Saturday with an injury sidelining last year’s starter, Joel Stave. It will involve a junior college transfer trying to claim a spot at the top and a newcomer hoping to leave a lasting first impression.
Another spot to watch on offense is the receivers group, which — besides losing the second-best receiver in school history in terms of yards this past season in Jared Abbrederis — has dealt with a surge of injuries so far this spring, leaving only four healthy receivers at one point. Regardless of how many receivers end up seeing time Saturday, be prepared to whip out the roster with all the new faces between the tight end and wide receiver positions.
With heavy departures on both sides of the ball from last fall’s team, new faces will be a plenty, especially on defense where there should be a heated competition to replace linebacker Chris Borland and six of the Badgers’ front seven. All three of the defensive lineman from last season are gone, along with three starting linebackers and another who saw significant time. After being somewhat young in the secondary last season, the Badgers defensive backs might be the strongest part of the defense as of right now.
There has been a quarterback competition all throughout spring for the Badgers and that likely won’t culminate until a few weeks before the season begins Aug. 31 against LSU. Last season’s starter, Joel Stave, has struggled throughout spring practices due to a shoulder injury he sustained in the Badger’s bowl game last season on New Year’s Day. Stave didn’t throw for the first few practices of spring ball, and after practicing in full capacity the following weeks, missed Tuesday’s practice and will be shut down for the rest of spring, including Saturday’s game. He should be ready for fall practice.
Stave’s strongest competition comes from redshirt junior Tanner McEvoy. McEvoy came to UW last summer as a transfer from Arizona Western College. Unable to break through in last year’s quarterback competition, McEvoy switched sides of the ball and saw action in 11 games at safety last season. But once the season ended, McEvoy was back at quarterback and has been splitting first-team reps with Stave in spring practices. His dual-threat abilities makes him a unique prospect at quarterback, and he will command the first-team by himself on Saturday with Stave not playing.
Freshman D.J. Gillins is also in the mix at quarterback. Gillins came to UW as an early enrollee out of Jacksonville, Fla. in January. A four-star prospect, Gillins threw for 2,371 yards and 22 touchdowns while running for 602 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior in high school. He has been learning the playbook and adjusting to college life all at the same time this spring, while taking reps with the second and third-teams. It will be tough for the true freshman to earn the starting quarterback job, with redshirting this season being a possibility as well.
As of now, Bart Houston is on par with Gillins or even a little behind. Thad Armstrong, and Connor Senger in the running as well. All four are unlikely to factor into the final decision at quarterback.
The wide receivers have been faced with the difficult task of replacing Abbrederis this season. To add to that, the Badgers currently have just four healthy wide receivers. Included in those wide receivers is A.J. Jordan, who began spring practices at safety, but was moved back to wide receiver so they could simply have enough bodies at the position.
Among the healthy wide receivers is senior Kenzel Doe, who will look to solidify himself as a starter for the upcoming season. Other receivers who are likely to contend opposite Doe are Jordan Frederick, who was injured during spring practices and hasn’t practiced the last few weeks, as well as sophomores Rob Wheelwright and Reggie Love, who both finally returned to the practice field this past Saturday. Jazz Peavy, Lance Baretz and Jake Stengel were the only other healthy wide receivers for the Badgers for most of spring practice. Connor Cummins and Alex Erickson are both out with injuries as well.
The defensive line will start three new players this season. With an emphasis on speed and versatility, freshman Chikwe Obasih (6-foot-3, 245 pounds), who has really impressed the coach staff in spring, and redshirt junior Konrad Zagzebski (6-foot-3, 278), have been anchoring the defensive end position in spring practice. Freshman Alec James has impressed after being switched from outside linebacker to defensive end and could factor in as well. Redshirt junior Warren Herring (6-foot-3, 294) has taken on the duty of nose tackle in the 3-4 defense, with Bryce Gilbert backing him up at the position.
Much like the defensive line, the linebackers will start four new people this season after the departure of All-American Chris Borland, Connor O’Neil, Brendan Kelly and Ethan Armstrong. For most of spring, Michael and Marcus Trotter have been tackling the job of inside linebacker, while Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert have been working on the outside. Vince Biegel, Jesse Hayes and Leon Jacobs have all taken first-team reps as well and will likely compete for one of the four starting linebacker jobs as spring comes to a close and as fall practice begins.
The one place where the Badgers return most of their starters on defense, is with the defensive backs. Sojourn Shelton will be looking to improve on a freshman season in which he was named an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection. Darius Hillary, who primarily played as the nickel back last season, will slide over to the other starting cornerback spot opposite Shelton.
For the two safety positions, junior Michael Caputo will return as a starter after a brief stint at linebacker earlier this spring. The battle for the final safety spot will come between redshirt freshmen Leo Musso and redshirt junior Peniel Jean. It won’t happen on Saturday in the Spring game, but if A.J. Jordan switches back over to safety for fall practices, he will be in the mix for the final safety spot as well.
For Saturday’s game, and in all of spring practices, sophomore Jack Russell and freshmen Andrew Endicott have been battling for the starting kicking job. Russell assumed field goal duties last season, while the stronger leg of Endicott worked kickoffs. Both have been neck-and-neck throughout spring with neither doing anything to set themselves apart from one another.
In last Saturday’s scrimmage, both Kenzel Doe and Reggie Love returned punts. Doe is expected to handle kick return duties this season.