While the snow may be blanketing the ground and the temperatures may be closer to zero than 70 — the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers spring football camp is here.
For the Wisconsin Badgers, the focus has to turn to how to take this program to the next level. UW ended last season by beating Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl. However, it was arguably one win in the Big Ten championship game away from getting to the College Football Playoff.
Can a team with some missing parts and more youth bring Paul Chryst his first Big Ten championship? Let’s look at what must happen this spring for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Spring Football Starting Date: March 14
Spring Football Game: April 21
Key Players Lost: T.J. Watt, OLB; Vince Biegel, OLB; Ryan Ramczyk, LT; Sojourn Shelton, CB
Key Players Returning: Alex Hornibrook, QB; Jazz Peavy, WR; Jon Dietzen, LG; David Edwards, LT; Bradrick Shaw, RB; Chikwe Obasih, DE; Olive Sagapolu, NG; T.J. Edwards, ILB; D’Cota Dixon, S; Derrick Tindal, CB
Offensive To-Do List:
— Find O-Line Continuity: UW’s youth movement will continue this offseason, but with left tackle Ryan Ramczyk taking off to the NFL a year early it also means another offseason of transition. We got a glimpse of what the O-Line could look like as redshirt sophomore David Edwards was named the starter prior to practice on Tuesday.
That means a battle between Edwards and Bay Port (Green Bay, Wis.) product Cole Van Lanen is likely to not really be a battle. Additionally, it appears Patrick Kasl is going to move to the right side with the first-team offense.
Let’s not forget that former starting right tackle Jacob Maxwell won’t be back until fall and starting left guard Jon Dietzen will miss this spring. Given the close competition between Dietzen and Micah Kapoi this past season that could be worth watching.
If the first practice is any indication, there also appears to be some strategy being employed on the offensive line as it was Tyler Biadasz at center and Michael Dieter sliding out to left guard. Look for this spring to be about getting experience for young players and for the coaching staff to figure out who truly makes up the best five offensive linemen to be on the field this fall.
— Who is the No. 1 Running Back: Nothing goes hand-in-hand with a good offensive line battle than a battle of motivated running backs behind them. That’s exactly what the Wisconsin Badger have on their hands this spring with both Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale graduated. As Chryst named starters on Monday, sophomore Bradrick Shaw wasn’t on the first line like many thought would be the given.
Instead it appears there’s been a real battle brewing between Pitt transfer Chris James and him. James apparently looked the part in the first practice of the spring (as much as a running back can without pads or live tackling happening).
There’s no question that Wisconsin needs a running back that can take over as the focal point and establishing that this spring will be vital. So, if you want an old-fashioned position battle, it appears that running back will be a good spot to start looking at.
— Is There a Second WR Option?: Of all the stories to take away from the 2016 season, one of the most underrated was that of wide receiver Jazz Peavy. The unheralded junior stepped up big time last season and goes in to his senior season as the unquestioned No. 1 wide receiver for Alex Hornibrook (who was named the starter before spring ball started).
That’s well and good, but UW needs to be a passing offense that can rely on more than just targeting Peavy and tight end Tory Fumagalli. Opponents will be hip to the gameplan unlike most of last season.
So, who will step up to the be the other quality option alongside Peavy? Early indications are that sophomore Quintez Cephus will do just that. He finished last season with just four receptions for 94 yards, but was clearly coming on as a strong target as the season went on.
Wisconsin will also give hard looks to the likes of fellow sophomore A.J. Taylor, who may be most suited for a slot role, and senior George Rushing. If anyone doesn’t step up, that is on them because the reps will certainly be there this spring.
Defensive To-Do List:
— Figure Out the Safety Position: New defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will have a lot on his plate, taking over for the departed Justin Wilcox as a first-time defensive coordinator. Perhaps his most important decisions will come at a position he is very familiar with — safety.
With Leo Musso graduated there is a big opening next to the D’Cota Dixon, who was named third-team All-Big Ten last season. It appears Leonhard’s preference is to take last season’s nickel back, Natrell Jamerson, and move him to safety. A lot of that has to do with the impressive scout team performance of Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson. Will that experiment work or will former 4-star recruit Arrington Farrar finally live up to the potential he had coming in to college?
Dixon was a revelation for UW last season, but there also needs to be some depth worked on thanks to graduation of Musso. Young names like Seth Currens, Patrick Johnson and Eric Burrell were all highly sought after players in high school. Can they be the ones to add the needed depth?
— What to Make of Inside Linebacker: Few coaches are going to complain when they have a gluttony of quality players to choose from at any position. That appears to be the case at inside linebacker, but will this spring give the Badgers coaching staff any clarity to a group of four players that have all started and played huge roles for the team?
Some of that clarity will come as both Jack Cichy (shoulder) and Chris Orr (knee) will be limited in terms of contact practice this spring. However, that still leaves Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards as starters back at the position. Edwards was a non-participant and in a walking boot for the first practice and Connelly wasn’t out there either.
That left up-and-comer Nick Thomas and former inside linebacker, turned safety, turned cornerback, turned back to inside linebacker, Leon Jacobs, as the only experienced players out on the field for the first day. Can anything really be settled at the position with all that going on?
— Figure Out a Rotation at Outside Linebacker: Sure, it would be great to know who the starters will be at outside linebacker. That just isn’t realistic though, especially given just how deep the position is and how little you are going to know from just 15 practices.
It should be no surprise that both Zack Baun and Garrett Dooley got the first-team reps today. After all, both did get starts in place of injured outside linebackers last season. However, the coaching staff is high on JUCO transfer Andrew Van Ginkel and sophomore Alabama transfer Christian Bell.
Oh, and don’t forget players like Keldric Preston, Noah Burks and Griffin Grady. Burks and Grady were impressive behind the scenes last year as redshirt freshmen and Preston figured out how best to make use of his long frame and athleticism by slimming down and getting in to looking like a linebacker more than a defensive end.
There are so many pieces to the puzzle at outside linebacker that the coaching staff has to thinking it wise to just find a group of four or five guys that will make up the main rotation next year and see who wins the starting roles this fall.