Spring is officially here on the calendar, but the Wisconsin Badgers football program has been at this spring football thing for a few weeks now.
As the Badgers football program continues its march towards the April 21st spring football game, how are things going in Madison? With spring break in the mix now is a great time to assess the players we should be watching the rest of the way.
We’ll start with the offensive side of the ball, where injuries have given plenty of opportunity on the offensive line. There’s also plenty of passes to be caught and a running back battle that appears to be heating up.
So, let’s look at the five players who are making the biggest impact in Wisconsin Badgers spring football.
Tyler Biadsaz, C/OG
With Jon Dieter out this spring, Wisconsin has shifted around the offensive line a bit through the first week or two of practice. Center Michael Deiter has slid out to left guard in the first group and that means redshirt freshman Tyler Biadsaz is taking over at center.
Given the relative youth on the offensive line and Deiter’s ability to play multiple positions, Biadsaz’s spring performance will go a long way in telling us just how deep the offensive line really is. The good news is that he seems to be more than holding his own against a veteran defensive line. It also means that Brett Connors can begin to specialize a bit more. This, after a year of being listed as the backup at four of five offensive line positions on the depth chart.
Let’s see how Biadsaz handles the pads popping and more contact as spring goes on, but for now it appears UW has a capable backup in place should Deiter be needed elsewhere on the line.
Alex Hornibrook, Quarterback
Some believed there would be at least a token competition at quarterback this spring. Instead, head coach Paul Chryst pulled a small surprise and named Hornibrook the starter before a single spring practice happened.
All indications so far tell us that was the right choice by the head coach. Most reports out of spring ball tell us that Hornibrook has been accurate, smart with the football and most importantly, confident.
That confidence took a hit as last season wore on, likely because Hornibrook continued to take hits physically as well. He also seems to have responded well to not having to look over his shoulder at competition, unlike last year.
“I would say the biggest thing is probably there’s not a lot of attention surrounding it,” Hornibrook said, via the Wisconsin State Journal. “It’s not a big, blown-up story. It’s just football, and that’s all we have to worry about.”
Perhaps Hornibrook wasn’t fully ready last year, but it appears that this is his offense now and he’s an unquestioned leader for this group. Let’s see if he steps up after a good baseline in his freshman season. Early reports say that he has, but that was largely without the pads on.
Chris James, Running Back
Wisconsin has a near 30-year tradition of churning out quality running backs, near assembly line-like I dare say. However, that assembly line felt like it was slowing down over the last few seasons.
For once, running back was a curious and wide-open position heading in to spring football. It appears it may be back to quality depth and production though and that is in large part due to Pitt transfer Chris James.
While sitting out last season, James worked on sculpting his body and has led to him surprisingly coming out as the No. 1 running back ahead of redshirt sophomore Bradrick Shaw. Reports out of camp have James looking real good in the run and pass game and that seems to be the difference between the two backs right now.
Coaches have said they plan to use both backs frequently in 2017, and this spring will be Badgers fans’ first look at him. If the hype from practice can be publicly seen when a game-like atmosphere happens, James may well give a boost to this offense in a way most didn’t expect this year.
George Rushing, Wide Receiver
This is a name most in the Wisconsin Badger fanbase has been waiting to see break out during his first three years in the program. He was one of the most intriguing names in the 2014 recruiting class and even saw the field in his true freshman season.
However, that hype and hope hasn’t exactly turned in to massive production at a position that has been in need of someone to step up. Rushing comes in to this season having played in 37 games, grabbing just seven receptions for 40 yards.
But, as his senior season comes upon us, it appears he’s finally getting things to click. If there’s an early leader for most improved and most productive in the passing game, Rushing is that guy. He’s routinely the one getting behind defenses and helping to stretch the field in 7-on-7 drills.
Zander Neuville, Tight End
If there is one position that UW is the most loaded at on offense, look no further than at tight end. Starter Troy Fumagalli is one of the most important players to this offense, while backup Kyle Penniston was impressive in his first season last year.
Now it appears there is a third option emerging in Zander Neuville. The former linebacker has become a matchup nightmare as well, and he had two receptions for 38 yards in the opening practice of spring. He followed that up with two catches for 31 yards in the next practice.
He also has become a natural blocker, and with both Fumagalli and Penniston being bigger weapons split out away from the line, this could be a huge help to the Badgers offense in 2017. Look for Neuville to get on the field more than most would have expected this season.