One year after having five players taken in the 2011 NFL Draft, including two in the first round, a number of former Badgers are embarking on a three-month job interview that will culminate in late April. The 2012 draft will be held April 26-28 and, for a number of familiar names to UW fans, the "Path to the Draft" has already started.
Some of the seniors from the 2011 Wisconsin squad that have NFL scouts talking are QB Russell Wilson, OL Kevin Zeitler, WR Nick Toon, FB Bradie Ewing and FS Aaron Henry. With junior center Peter Konz forgoing his senior season to put his name into the draft, there's a good chance that as many as seven or eight Badgers will hear their name called in late April.
As the former UW players train for the draft, they are spread all over the country, in Florida, Arizona, California and even Milwaukee and Madison. Over the course of the next three weeks, we will try to catch up with as many of them as possible to keep tabs on their progress.
There are a number of important dates between now and late April. Some of them are below:
NFL Draft (New York City) April 26-28 NFL Network and ESPN
This weekend, senior defensive captains Henry and DT Patrick Butrym have the chance to show off for scouts. Henry will be playing in the East-West Shrine Game while Butrym takes part in the NFLPA Collegiate All-Star Game.
Those two games are a prelude to the Senior Bowl. A school-record six Badgers will play in that game and take part in a week's worth of practices in front of NFL scouts. The UW players include Ewing, P Brad Nortman, Toon, Wilson, LS Kyle Wojta and Zeitler.
The "main event" of the NFL draft prep is the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine on Feb. 22-28 in Indianapolis. The NFL released its initial invite list, which does not include underclassmen and is not a final list. Among the Badgers heading to Indy are CB Antonio Fenelus, Nortman, OL Josh Oglesby, Toon and Wilson. More UW players, including Konz, should be added to the invite list later.
If nothing else, this should be an interesting offseason for the Wisconsin seniors. And for Badger fans, if you don't get NFL Network, you should probably find a way to watch it because UW should have a strong presence there for the next couple of months.
For much of the country, Thanksgiving means spending time with family, watching NFL games on TV and eating copious amounts of food. For a number of Wisconsin student-athletes, coaches and staff members, Thanksgiving bore a striking resemblance to "Thursday" on their daily schedules.
That's not to say they didn't celebrate the holiday, just that it may have been in a slightly different fashion than most people are used to.
For the second year in a row, the Badger football team is hosting a football game on Thanksgiving weekend with enormous ramifications on the Big Ten race. Last year, UW pounded Northwestern on its way to earning a share of the Big Ten title. This Saturday, Wisconsin and Penn State meet to determine the Leaders Division representative in the inaugural Big Ten Football Championship game.
Because of that, the Badgers had a regular practice on Thursday, although a little earlier in the day. The early start time allowed those players who live locally (more than 50 players on the roster from Wisconsin) to get home for a quick Thanksgiving meal. For those not so fortunate or those choosing to spend it with their other "family," the team dined at Samba, an all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse in downtown Madison. Hopefully they ordered some extra beef for the evening.
As you can see from the photos, the men's basketball team also ate as a team today. The Badgers are in Hoffman Estates, Ill., getting ready to play Bradley on Friday in the Chicago Invitational Challenge. After practicing at the Sears Centre, UW headed back to the team hotel for a little turkey and stuffing. It may not be as exotic as the Thanksgiving meal we had in South Padre Island in 2006 but I'm sure there was plenty of good food for the guys tonight.
The women's basketball team is also on the road, albeit a little further from Madison than Chicago. After playing at BYU on Wednesday, the Badgers are in Boulder, Colo., as they prepare to take on Montana State on Friday in the Colorado Omni Classic. They also practiced earlier in the day and had a team "feast" at the hotel. As you can see from the photo below, it looks like a good time was had by all. In addition to the video above, check out some other WBB players talking about what they're thankful for.
Both UW hockey teams are at home this weekend, as is the volleyball team. Like the football team, the men's hockey team let players who live close enough go home for a quick meal after practice. Some guys tagged along to eat with their buddies while the rest of the squad ate as a team at the Coliseum.
With six UW teams in action this weekend, their Thanksgiving traditions may have been put on hold. However, Badger fans everywhere are hoping to be thankful for some victories once the weekend comes to a close.
On Oct. 16, 2010, the Badgers rolled up 184 rushing yards against a rush defense ranked fourth in the country, toppling No. 1 Ohio State, 31-18. Montee Ball never left the sideline.
In the two weeks prior, a loss at Michigan State and a home win against Minnesota, Ball carried a total of five times for 16 yards.
Heading into a road game with No. 12 Iowa, Ball's last significant action had come in the fourth quarter of a 70-3 win over Austin Peay. But in the second quarter of the Iowa game, with the Badgers trailing 6-3, freshman sensation James White went down with a knee injury.
On his first play from scrimmage, a 3rd-and-12 from the Iowa 21-yard line, Ball took a shovel pass from Scott Tolzien and scampered 14 yards for a key first down. On the next play, Tolzien hit Bradie Ewing for a TD to put the Badgers back on top.
Starter John Clay continued to get most of the reps at tailback but Ball was called upon at key times. None bigger than the Badgers' final drive. He caught a fourth-down pass to help keep the drive alive, but his biggest play was an 8-yard run that punctuated the drive and gave the Badgers the lead. Seemingly carrying the entire Iowa defense on his back, Ball has first hit around the 5-yard line but just kept churning and reaching, finally stretching his arm across the goal line with 1:06 left in the game.
Since that point, Ball has been on one of the most remarkable runs (pun not intended) in Badger history. He ran for at least 127 yards in each of the final five games of 2010, including 132 against the No. 3 rush defense in the country, TCU, in the Rose Bowl. He also scored 14 TDs in those five games.
In 2011, Ball has reached an even higher standard. He leads the NCAA with 30 total TDs. He is just the fifth player in FBS history to score at least 30 touchdowns in a season and has a shot to reach the NCAA record of 39 set by Barry Sanders in 1988. Ball has already broken the Wisconsin and Big Ten records for touchdowns in a season and is averaging a touchdown every 8.0 times he touches the ball.
Ball is averaging 133.3 yards per game and ranks second in the country with 1,466 yards on the ground (just two yards behind the NCAA leader). He is even better during Big Ten play, averaging 158.0 yards per game. That's the best average for any RB in one of the six BCS conferences during league play.
Instead of "MoneyBall" Montee's nickname should probably be "Mr. November." In the last three weeks Ball has run for 613 yards, an average of 204.3 per game. In four November games last season, he averaged 161.3 yards.
Ball has also raised his game against the top competition. In three games against teams ranked among the top 16 in the country in total defense (Michigan State, Ohio State and Illinois), he has averaged 141.3 rushing yards, 159.0 all-purpose yards and scored seven touchdowns (four rushing, three receiving).
An added dimension this season for Ball has been his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He ranks fourth on UW with 233 receiving yards and has caught five TD passes. His total of 1,699 rushing and receiving yards ranks third in the country among RBs.
As the season winds down and the national and conference award races heat up, the names that continually pop up on the national scene are Ball, Richardson (Alabama), James (Oregon) and Wilson (Virginia Tech). Within the Big Ten, Nebraska's Rex Burkhead and Iowa's Marcus Coker are having great years as well.
And with the Heisman Trophy race wide open, "MoneyBall" seems to be playing his way into that conversation as well.
Average Rank of Defenses Faced (FBS Only - Total Defense)
-- Matt Barkley, USC
Games left: #63 Oregon, #87 UCLA
-- Russell Wilson, Wisconsin
Games left: #9 Illinois, #8 Penn State
-- Kellen Moore, Boise State
Games left: #105 Wyoming, #117 New Mexico
-- Landry Jones, Oklahoma
Games left: #110 Baylor, #91 Iowa State, #101 Oklahoma State
-- Andrew Luck, Stanford
Games left: #16 California, #36 Notre Dame
-- Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State
Games left: #91 Iowa State, #46 Oklahoma
-- Robert Griffin III, Baylor
Games left: #46 Oklahoma, #113 Texas Tech, #14 Texas
-- Case Keenum, Houston
Games left: #33 SMU and #79 Tulsa
It started with a bang. On national TV, the opening night of the college football season, Russell Wilson burst onto the national scene by doing just about everything right in his Badger debut, a 51-17 win over UNLV. The buzz was instantaneous.
He showed up on the front pages of ESPN.com, SI.com and Yahoo.com, among others. Wilson and the Badgers breezed through the rest of the non-conference schedule, UW's offense putting up huge numbers with Wilson directing it all.
At the beginning of October, the Badgers were 4-0, ranked seventh in the country and Wilson and his unique story were making national headlines. The eyes of the college football world descended upon Madison that first weekend of October for No. 8 Nebraska's first-ever Big Ten game. ESPN College GameDay was there and the game was on primetime on ABC.
Wilson responded with probably his best game up to that point, starting with his opening pass when he sidestepped an unblocked Jared Crick and uncorked a 21-yard completion to Jared Abbrederis to convert a third down. He finished the game 14-of-20 for 255 yards and two TDs while also running for 32 yards and another score as the Badgers rolled to a 48-17 win.
The next week, Wilson was at or near the top of every Heisman Watch. RussellManiaXVI was launched and picking up steam. A bye week was followed by a rout of Indiana, in which Wilson CAUGHT a TD pass that made all the highlight shows. Things were good, especially with two primetime showcase games on the horizon.
But RussellMania hit an unexpected bump. Things started out well enough, as the Badgers dominated the first quarter and jumped out to 14-0 lead at Michigan State. A disastrous second quarter put the Badgers in a hole, one that Wilson nearly pulled them out of. Down 31-17 with less than 10 minutes left in the game, he ran for a TD and threw for another as UW tied the game with 1:26 left. I think we all remember what happened next.
The next week, at Ohio State, a familiar script played out. Wisconsin jumped out to a first-half lead, Ohio State dominated the third quarter and Wilson led a furious comeback. This time, he threw two TD passes and added a 2-point conversion in the final four minutes to give the Badgers a 3-point lead. Once again, I think we all know how the game ended.
His fourth quarter numbers in those two games: 10-of-19 for 173 yards, three TDs and one interception (pass efficiency of 170.7). That pass efficiency would rank fifth in the country (ahead of Luck, Weeden, Jones and Barkley). Add to that a rushing TD and a completed two-point conversion pass.
As you can guess, the two losses not only dropped the Badgers down the national polls but also derailed RussellMania. Fair or not, many of the national awards, chief among them the Heisman Trophy, have a lot to do with which teams win games. I've been around long enough to understand that. I also know that if we had held on to win the Ohio State game, Wilson would have been hailed for leading an unbelievable comeback and been talked about with all the other frontrunners.
And that's the reason for this blog. I realize that this year's quarterback class is one of the best in recent years. Each week it seems a new QB pushes himself into the national spotlight with an outstanding performance.
After 11 weeks, though, it seems as though a group has separated itself at the top. The QBs who are most often discussed are Wilson, Andrew Luck (Stanford), Kellen Moore (Boise State), Landry Jones (Oklahoma), Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State), Case Keenum (Houston), Matt Barkley (USC) and Robert Griffin III (Baylor). It's a terrific QB class and is seems as though each on has "won" the Heisman at some point or another this year.
The thing that I think separates Wilson from the others is his efficiency. He ranks 81st in the country in pass attempts. While the other seven QBs mentioned above all throw the ball at least 31 times a game, Wilson is averaging 21.8 pass attempts per game. So in order to be successful, the emphasis at Wisconsin is placed on efficiency at the QB position. And Wilson has taken the word to a whole different level this season.
He leads the country and is on pace to break the NCAA record in pass efficiency. With yesterday's performance at Minnesota, that number is at an other-worldly 201.6. He is also on pace to break the NCAA records for yards per attempt and yards per play. His yards per completion are also the best in the nation and nearly a full yard better than Keenum, who is second. Wilson is on pace to become only the fourth QB in Big Ten history to throw at least 30 TD passes in a season despite only attempting 21.8 passes a game.
The quality of defenses Russell has faced also measures up favorably against the other QBs. Wisconsin has played five teams that are ranked among the top 70 in total defense. That's compared to just one for Baylor, two for Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Houston (none higher than 57), and three for Boise State and Stanford (none ranked higher than 49). USC and Barkley have also faced five teams among the top 70.
There's still two games left and for the Badgers and that means facing two defenses ranked in the national top 10. My hope is that the folks who vote for the national awards take all the numbers (wins and losses included) into consideration and let the season play out before leaving Wilson off any ballot he may be deserving of.
Now that it is over, I'm glad we were able to participate. If you had asked my thoughts in the middle of August, I may have been singing a different tune. And especially after I saw an advance copy of the show yesterday, I think it's one of the coolest things I've been a part of in my 13 years at UW.
Wednesday at 6 p.m. CT, Depth Chart: Wisconsin debuts on ESPN. It offers fans an inside look at the Badgers' Fall Camp, focusing on the QB position. With the focus on the QBs, obviously a lot of the show revolves around Russell Wilson.
It offers a great look at Wilson's progress at learning the offense and fitting in with his new teammates. It also touches on the injury to Jon Budmayr and how that impacts the No. 2 QB, in this case, redshirt freshman Joe Brennan.
ESPN has released a number of trailers for the show, which we have below. If you can't catch it tonight on ESPN, it will re-air tonight at 10 p.m. CT on ESPNU, Thursday at 5 a.m. CT on ESPNU and Friday at 9 a.m. on ESPNU. So set your DVRs!
Given the type of year UW's teams had it's not surprising to find them prominently among the nominees. In addition to the Suzy Favor Award for the best female student-athlete, and the Jesse Owens Award for the best male student-athlete, there are nine other categories on the show.
Wisconsin student-athletes, coaches or teams are among the three nominees in six of those categories. That is tied with Michigan for the most. Below is the complete list of awards and nominees. Which ones do the Badgers deserve?
The complete schedule of the 2011-12 bowl games has been announced. The bowl season will begin with the New Mexico Bowl (MWC vs. Pac-12) on Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. and conclude with the Allstate BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 9 at 7:30 p.m. from the Superdome in New Orleans.
There are 35 total bowl games this season, including 12 in which the Badgers are eligible to play. Since they don't plan on snapping their nine-year bowl streak this season, those games, dates and times are listed below. Any guesses as to UW's location come late December/early January?
Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano has made news recently with a revolutionary proposal to eliminate kickoffs from college football. One of Schiano's players, Eric LeGrand, was paralyzed last season while covering a kickoff vs. Army.
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, who oversaw special teams early in his head coaching career and still has a hand in it, has long been in favor of reducing the injury risk on kickoffs.
"I do think there are some things we can do to try and limit the amount of full-speed collisions we subject our players to on kickoffs," Bielema said, "whether it's moving the kickoff up to the 35-yard line, which the NFL has done and would lead to more touchbacks and maybe some safety concepts that the NFL has introduced, a lot of which we implemented into the college game last year."
While the onside kick has gained attention as being a potentially dangerous play with more teams moving towards a set up where the first wave of players simply tries to take out the first line of defenders, essentially freeing up their back line to go after the ball, Bielema is more concerned with a full kickoff.
"In an onside kick, you're dealing with 10-yard sprints," Bielema said. "It's the 30- or 40-yard sprints when you've got a full head of steam and the opportunity to blindside somebody that really concern me. Watching the hockey game last night, you can see the consequences when someone is caught off guard with a violent hit they aren't expecting. I think in all sports everyone is looking to reduce the risks in high-speed collisions."
Some have compared eliminating kickoffs to eliminating the center jump after made baskets in the early years of basketball. Men's basketball coach Bo Ryan pointed out that the reason for the center jump because in the early years, the peach baskets that were used had a bottom, so the ball needed to be fished out of the basket before being put back in play.
According to Ryan, the women's physical instruction teacher at Springfield College was the first to suggest taking the bottom out of the basket, thereby eliminating the need for the center jump after each made basket.
Head coach Bret Bielema is surrounded by inspiration. His mother is a 22-year breast cancer survivor. His secretary Lisa Powell is a survivor as well. And this week, he was literally surrounded.
Bielema and head men's basketball coach Bo Ryan were the honorary starters for the Madison Race for the Cure, which drew an estimated 14,000 participants at the Alliant Energy Center on Saturday morning.
"I've got a mother that's a 22-year breast cancer survivor so any opportunity to work with Susan G. Komen has been very special for me," Bielema said. "I've grown to appreciate the people of Madison and all the people that support this cause. To see close to 14,000 people out there on Saturday was wonderful."
After spending much of Thursday and Friday together for the Badger Days event in Wisconsin Dells, including golfing in the same foursome on Friday, Bielema and Ryan have seen a lot of each other recently.
"What made it especially entertaining was spending most of the morning in a truck with Bo Ryan," Bielema said.
Following the race, Bielema moved into the survivors' tents to mingle with the participants.
"I was actually in the survivors' tent at the end of the race and hugged probably between 100-200 survivors and got to congratulate them, making it a very special event."
"The event is once again sold out," Bielema said. "Every year we've done it we've increased the numbers. This year we're up to about 300. It's a great way for us to raise awareness of breast cancer but also educate women about football. It's a football 101 class that will give them some insight into our program and what we think is important."
An auction accompanied Sunday night's dinner, during which a pair of seats behind the Badger bench for the Marquette game fetched more than $11,000. Among the celebrities in attendance were ESPN's Erin Andrews, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and former Indiana coach and current ESPN men's basketball commentator Bobby Knight.
Sophomore linebacker Chris Borland, who is coming off a 2010 season that saw him play in only two games due to shoulder injuries, accompanied the UW coaches to Tuesday's Badger Days event in Green Bay.
Borland talked to Matt Lepay about his health, starting summer workouts and the team's outlook for 2011.