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A year ago, UW men's track coach Ed Nuttycombe and women's coach Jim Stintzi were thrown for a loss when their "throwers''  fell short of expectations in the Big Ten outdoor championships.
Both are confident that Dan Block and Taylor Smith have learned something from that experience and will put their painfully acquired knowledge to good use this weekend in the field events.
"It's the proverbial saying,'' Nuttycombe said, "you learn more from trying situations - from tough situations - than you do from other situations. I think that's absolutely the case with Dan.
"It was very uncharacteristic of him to not perform at that big setting (fifth outdoors in the shot put). I don't think there's any way that he will let that happen again. He'll be ready.
"His co-hort in the discus - Alex Thompson - will be ready to go, too. He has really come along and he's a big-time meet type of guy who has done well at international junior settings.
"Hopefully, we'll get a Top Three or Top Four in each one of those events (shot put and discus). That will be a good day. Maybe one or the other does better, and we'll see a surprise in one, or both.''

Stintzi has outlined similar objectives for Taylor Smith and Kelsey Card in those events.   
"I think the last couple of Big Ten meets, we've had throwers that have put a little bit too much pressure on themselves,'' Stintzi said. "Our motto is, 'This meet is no different than any other meet.'
"We can't approach it like it's the end of the world.''
The results this spring have encouraged Stintzi. "One of the things we're seeing is steady improvements in the throws,'' he said. "We're hitting our peak at the right time.''
How might the throws factor into the team competition for the men and women?
"Big at this meet,'' Stintzi said. "As a matter of fact, you don't want to say one area is going to matter more than another - but for both of our teams, it's just the direction that we've gone.
"Throws matter a lot to us. Ironically, everyone in the Big Ten got this idea at the same time and everybody is good at the same time.''
Nuttycombe cited an example.
"If you look at the rankings,'' he said, "I think the Big Ten has the vast majority of the best throwers in the entire western region of the country in the discus. It's super competitive.''
UW assistant coach Dave Astrauskas has seen a developing trend in the talent pool from the standpoint "throwers from the Midwest used to go to the coast, now they're staying in the Big Ten.''

"Last year at the junior championships,'' he went on, "it was dominated by kids who were already in the Big Ten and going to the Big Ten. So it's only going to get better.''

What are Astrauskas' expectations for his throwers in the Big Ten meet?

"I'm just expecting them to do what they've been doing all year and that's to throw well and throw near their competitive average,'' he said. "That's all I'm asking of them.''

Nuttycombe figures if the Badgers can maintain their status quo that they will be in the hunt. "But we have to hit on the events that we're ranked high in,'' he said, "and hope that's enough.''

The shot put and discus would qualify in Nuttycombe's context.

"I think Dan Block is going to throw well in both,'' he said. "He's coming on at the right time.''
BigTenOut_5000_Four_sm.jpgOn the 10th-anniversary of Wisconsin's dramatic, come-from-behind Big Ten men's outdoor track and field championship in Madison, coach Ed Nuttycombe had a snap shot in mind - "I still remember it vividly" he said - that matched a cherished photograph on his office desk at Kellner Hall.

Pictured are Isaiah Festa, Matt Tegenkamp, Josh Spiker and Nick Winkel following the 5,000 meters, the second-to-last track event on the final day of the meet. Because the Badgers trailed first-place Minnesota by 24 points going into the 5K, they almost didn't get a chance to run the race; the story within the story.

"It was very memorable," Nuttycombe said.

It was one of his most memorable Big Ten titles, he confided.

That covers a lot of ground (28 years) and championships (24).

But the final round didn't start out very memorable in the 2002 meet.

The Badgers had an early lead in the 400 relay but had to settle for third after a botched exchange. In the very next event - the 1,500 meters - Spiker was running third behind Michigan's Alan Webb and Indiana's John Jefferson when he stumbled and fell about 30 meters from the finish line. He ended up seventh.

Given this backdrop, Wisconsin looked like a long shot to catch the Gophers, although the Badgers had shown their resiliency the year before. In the 2001 Big Ten outdoor meet in Bloomington, Ind., they rallied past Ohio State, 135-117.5, for the team crown despite winning just two individual titles.

T.J. Nelson won the 110-meter hurdles and automatically qualified for nationals by running the third fastest time (13.49 seconds) in the country, while Festa outdistanced Ohio State's Rob Myers down the stretch to win the 1,500 meters. Festa also took a second and Jason Vanderhoof a third in the 5,000.

Clinching the overall title - the UW's fifth outdoors in seven years - on the strength of Festa and Vanderhoof combining for 14 points in a clutch situation, Nuttycombe said afterward, "Our 5,000- meter guys ran with a lot of heart."

Remember those words because they would resonate again in the very same event at the 2002 Big Ten meet on the McClimon Track; the last time that the UW played host to the outdoor track and field championships in Madison.

All the Badgers needed was a spark, according to Nuttycombe, to help reverse the momentum generated by Minnesota, which had been the only league program outside of Wisconsin to win outdoor titles since 1995. (The Badgers, in fact, were trying to pull off their second three-peat over an eight-year span.)

In order to put some pressure on the Gophers, the 1998 and 1999 team champion, someone had to "step up" and that's exactly what happened with Jon Mungen winning the 110 high hurdles and B.J. Tucker taking second in the 100. Len Herring also produced some valuable points with a second in the triple jump.

The real catalyst, though, was freshman Dan Murray who came out of the pack - fourth place - over the final 200 meters to win the 800. Murray not only set a track record (1:48.2), but posted a provisional NCAA qualifying mark. In the process, he seemed to inspire his teammates.

But the math still didn't add up.

Minnesota had the team lead - 135-110.5 - over Wisconsin.

Going into the 5,000-meters, Nuttycombe admitted, "We considered pulling some of the better guys out of the race to save their legs for nationals. We didn't want to extend them if there was no need to, and we told them that."

Nuttycombe and Jerry Schumacher, then the cross country and distance coach, merely attempted to paint a realistic picture for their 5K racers.

"After we told them what we were considering," Nuttycombe said, "they go, 'No way. We're not going to let you do that.'"

What followed was another reality check from Nuttycombe.

"Guys, we've got to do almost the impossible (to catch Minnesota)."

They responded by asking, "What do we need to do?"

Nuttycombe's answer?

"We need to go one, two, three, four in the 5,000."

Their response?

"Coach, we're going to do it."

Festa and Tegenkamp went out and finished one-two in the 5,000, while Spiker was fourth and Winkel was fifth. That was close enough to fulfilling Nuttycombe's challenge, and good enough to pick up 27 points in the event.

Then it came down to the final event, the 4 x 400-meter relay. Minnesota was the top seed and Nuttycombe instructed his runners, "If you can't win, you can't allow more than one team between us and them (the Gophs)."

Actually, the Badgers could have finished lower than third and still won the meet but Nuttycombe was determined to pull out all stops in motivating his relay team: Jvontai Hanserd, Ricardo Rodriguez, Gustin Smith and Jabari Pride.

It worked.

"We chased Minnesota around the track," Nuttycombe recounted fondly.

The Badgers finished second in the relay, and won the outdoor title.

"It was very memorable, not only for winning," Nuttycombe said.

But it was memorable, he observed, for not throwing in the towel on the 5,000 meters; memorable for not underestimating Festa, Tegenkamp, Spiker and Winkel; memorable for not denying them an opportunity to race.

Nuttycombe is reminded of that moment every day. "There's that picture right on my desk - one of my favorite pictures - of those four guys with their arms around each other right after the finish," he said. "That was awesome."

A 10-year anniversary worth celebrating this weekend in Madison.
A spring football intrasquad game often takes on the appearance of a "futures" game - similar in some respects to what is staged during the All-Star break by Major League Baseball.
Instead of a collection of minor league all-stars, you are treated to a number of freshmen - from the recruiting class of 2011 - that redshirted last fall and functioned in anonymity on the scout team.
Some of these redshirts carried higher profiles into spring practice than others, most notably quarterback Joel Stave and tailback Melvin Gordon, who was coming off a medical redshirt.
Stave and Gordon distinguished themselves in last Saturday's scrimmage at Camp Randall.

Two other redshirts are less recognizable but distinguishable by their football DNA.
No. 41, Jesse Hayes, is the son of Jay Hayes, a former UW assistant under Barry Alvarez and the defensive line coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.
No. 99, James Adeyanju, is the brother of Victor Adeyanju, the former Indiana Hoosiers defensive end and fourth-round pick of the St. Louis Rams.

Both are defensive ends. Neither is quite ready for prime-time.

"Two springs from now," said UW coach Bret Bielema, "I can see them being dominant players."

Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge could see them contributing sooner than later.

"I would not put them in the top three or four defensive ends right now," Partridge said. "But if they have a great summer and they come into training camp at a high level, they could climb into it."

If you were to grade that position group this spring, Partridge pointed out, you would have to give it an "incomplete" because of the absence of David Gilbert, who's recovering from foot injuries.

"We know what David can do and bring," Bielema said.

Gilbert can bring pressure; he can be one of the better edge rushers in the Big Ten.

"I'm also excited about Brendan Kelly," Bielema added.

After Gilbert was injured last season, Kelly took over at defensive end opposite Louis Nzegwu.

Kelly got eight starts and Pat Muldoon got two.

Gilbert, Kelly and Muldoon are UW's top three defensive ends.

"There's a separation after them," Partridge admitted.

Konrad Zagzebski, a redshirt sophomore, has yet to rise to that level because of injuries.

However, he has drawn some attention to himself with his jersey number, No. 74.

That once belonged to UW rush end Tom Burke, an All-American.

While not in that class - few are - Zagzebski has made a favorable impression.

Based on what he showed this spring, Partridge said, "Zags continues to get better."
That also holds true for Hayes and Adeyanju.
"I was really excited about the progress that they made in the last week of spring ball," Partridge said. "Without question, they are a ways off. But they're getting better and learning the game.
"There's so much fundamentally that you have to be good at to play at this level. There's just a lot that goes into being a full-time defensive player; mentally and certainly physically."
Bielema has gotten a glimpse of what they can do, and he likes their promise.
From a technical standpoint, Bielema said, "Jesse (Hayes) keeps his play-side hand and leg free as good as anyone I've ever seen. He's very athletic."

Very undersized, too, though he's getting bigger. Hayes reported at 220 pounds.

"When I came in, I looked like a receiver," he conceded.

Hayes has gotten his weight up to 250 pounds. He'd like to play at 260 or 265.

Adeyanju is also carrying around 250 after putting on 20 pounds since last August.

"I want to retain my speed and quickness while I build muscle," he said.

Lining up opposite Ricky Wagner and Josh Oglesby was an education for Adeyanju.

"It made me so much better," he said. "I really appreciated going against those guys."

While on the scout teams, Hayes not only learned from battling the offensive tackles, but he learned from watching former UW quarterback Russell Wilson handle his business, on and off the field.

"I liked the way he carried himself," he said. "He was someone to look up to."

In the end, the Badgers don't have to accelerate the learning curve with Hayes and Adeyanju.

They can afford to be patient, and wait.

"I don't know how much they will help us," Bielema said, "especially with David coming back."

But he wouldn't rule them out, either; he never rules out anyone if they can show they can play.

And they will both get that chance in training camp. "All it takes is hard work,'' Hayes said.
Massey_Whitney_WIU041012_WEB.jpgThere have been mornings when UW softball coach Yvette Healy has arrived to work at Camp Randall Stadium only to find some of her players working out in the weight room or running stairs.

To see them working overtime on their own -- to see them doing all the little things that are important to stability and success -- is a sign to Healy that her second-year program is arriving.

"It's great to see softball starting to take a lead from what women's hockey has done and some of the other great programs here have done as far as putting in all that extra work,'' Healy said.

"Some players thought they were working hard and didn't really know what it feels like to work hard at a BCS-level program, so they've kicked it into gear.

"It's a culture thing. You don't want it to be just one or two kids who are taking it seriously and are emotionally invested. You want it to be everybody -- but we're getting there.

"We still have some who are in the phase where the light bulb is turning on. We'll arrive as a program when our entire roster, from top to bottom, has that sense of urgency for 12 months.''

The Badgers have made positive strides in that direction on the diamond by playing themselves into contention for a Big Ten championship and an NCAA tournament bid.

"It's exciting in the month of May for this program to be in the hunt (for a league title),'' Healy said. "That we're in the conversation is already a huge step for the program.''

Especially when you consider the company that they're keeping; the Badgers are within striking distance of first-place Michigan in the Big Ten standings.

On being in such rarified air -- with the Wolverines here for a doubleheader Saturday and a single game Sunday -- Healy has instructed her players to "embrace it, enjoy it; we're the underdogs.''

Perspective is not lacking.

"We just talked to the players about how Michigan has everything to lose here,'' she noted.
Wisconsin has never beaten Michigan in Madison.

"They've got all the history, they've got all the Big Ten championships,'' Healy said of the No. 23-ranked Wolverines, the NCAA champion in 2005. "They're a Goliath in the softball world.

"We realize that we're going against the best at the toughest time of the year. Still, we're excited to play them at home in front of all our fans on a big stage when it counts.''

Healy is undaunted by the challenge of facing Michigan and Nebraska on back-to-back weekends, even though the Badgers must travel to Lincoln, where the Cornhuskers are 13-0 this season.

"As a staff, it's exactly what we want,'' she said. "A lot of people would like to face some of the teams that are struggling. But you want to face the best if you really want to build a program.''

The first stage in the building process took place last season and extended to the off-season.
"We had some tough meetings with some players at the end of last year,'' Healy said. "They needed to make huge strides in terms of getting stronger, working harder and putting more time in.''

Among those players, Healy said, was Whitney Massey.

"That kid has made more strides than anyone,'' she said proudly of Massey's improvement. "She's done a nice job hitting out of the three hole and bringing a solid, left-handed bat to the line-up.''

Another player who has "stepped up her game'' has been Michelle Mueller.

"For as strong as she is, she didn't have any power numbers last year,'' Healy said. "But you could tell she was in the batting cage all summer. She's got a baseball family and she's a cage rat.''

Not unlike a "gym rat.'' There have been others who have responded in like fashion.

"You watch them play,'' Healy said, "and you know that they have lived it (softball) all summer long and all winter long; they've been in the weight room and in the cages and it's starting to show.''

Healy didn't pull any punches in her end-of-the-year meetings with individuals.

"Young players sometimes think you're just there to say all the nice things and cheer for them,'' she said. "But we have to be some of the most honest people in their lives.

"We tell them, 'Here's what you're doing well, here's where you're not cutting it. This is the expectation.' They really took it well. We kept it positive. Reality hurts some time; the truth hurts.''

Healy resisted the "no pain, no gain'' cliché, but she made her point.

So has her team so far this season. But an exclamation point is still missing.

"Beating a Top-25 team is the next step that you have to take,'' Healy said.

Lucas at Large: Konz happy to become a 'Dirty Bird'


Leave it to Peter Konz --a "big media buff'' by his own admission -- to give everyone a good sound bite and quote during his introductory teleconference Friday with the Atlanta Falcons media.

On being drafted in the second round (No. 55 overall) by the Falcons, Konz confided, "Well, little do people know this, but I was never a Packers fan growing up.''

Konz grew up in Neenah, which is less than 40 miles from Green Bay.

"When the Falcons were in the Super Bowl,'' he said, "I was doing the Dirty Bird.''

There's a very good chance that Konz punctuated that statement with his vintage laugh.

The "Dirty Bird'' reference was to the 1998 Falcons and the arm-flapping celebration that defined their Super Bowl team. Running back Jamal Anderson was credited as the choreographer.

When Konz was asked if he was disappointed to fall into the second round of the draft, he said, "It doesn't matter where I fell to because I love the team that picked me.''

Many mock drafts had Konz going late in the first round. While he was generally listed as the top center available, some teams projected him as a guard. That included the Falcons.

"I can't emphasize enough how important it is Konz can play both guard and center,'' said Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff. "We have him listed as a guard-center.''

During his pro workout day in Madison, Konz underlined the value of versatility.

"Some teams had me snap -- some teams had me in a right-handed or a left-handed stance to get a feel for it (guard),'' Konz said. "In the NFL, they have seven spots (on the offensive line):

"Five for starters, one for an inside player, one for a tackle.''

As for where Konz believes that he can play, he said, "Anywhere I can help the team.''

Another correct answer.

"He can pull, he can trap, he's a very athletic center,'' said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. "Durability is a concern with the longer NFL season. Can he hold up physically down the road?''

Konz believes that he can. "I'm one of those players, even if I'm not 100 percent, I'm not going to baby it (the injury),'' he said. "I'm going to play and I'm going to work through it to help the team.''

Jon Gruden is definitely convinced that Konz can help the Falcons.

"He's a screen center,'' he said. "You love to have a center who can get out on screens and can pull to block some of these second-level linebackers. He has great playing range.

"Strength and durability is the issue, but the Falcons needed a young center. (Todd) McClure has been there a long time; he's 35-years old. He (Konz) will have a nice mentor.''

McClure, a free agent, just resigned with the Falcons.

"Peter Konz,'' Gruden concluded, "nice prospect.''

Lucas at Large: Wilson wins over Seahawks, works on critics

FB_120428_Wilson_Russell.jpgBefore the Seattle Seahawks selected Wisconsin's Russell Wilson in the third round of the National Football League draft Friday night, the debate -- on whether a quarterback under 6 feet tall can be successful at the pro level -- raged between Mel Kiper and Jon Gruden on the ESPN set.

This was not the first time that Kiper, the network's draft analyst since 1984, and Gruden, the former NFL head coach, had engaged each other on the topic. But what made it unique during Friday's telecast was the fact that Wilson had given ESPN access to his viewing party in Washington, D.C.

So while Kiper and Gruden were trading verbal punches -- ESPN's Chris Berman and Todd McShay also joined the fray --Wilson was shown on camera from time to time with wife Ashton, younger sister Anna, older brother Harry, mother Tammy and some family friends.

Before the Seahawks even went on the clock in the second round with the 75th selection overall, Kiper advanced his "If only he were just a little taller'' platform. Making one concession on Wilson's listed height -- "We'll push him to 5-11'' -- he still conceded, "I know Jon you get aggravated (with me).''

Kiper then qualified Wilson as a "test case'' for all quarterbacks under 6 feet tall -- or in that 5-11 range -- that will follow him into the NFL over the next 10 years. "If he can't make it,'' said Kiper, allowing that Wilson would get a chance to be a starter, "nobody can at that particular height.''

Berman jumped in and noted that Wilson took the Badgers to the Rose Bowl.

"He has a lot of 'it', though, doesn't he Jon?'' Berman posed to Gruden.

Gruden began morphing into Chucky, his alter-ego, and challenged Kiper.

"What do you want him to do?'' pleaded Gruden. "He's done it in two different offenses (at North Carolina State and Wisconsin). You probably downgraded Ray Lewis (6-1), didn't you? And Wes Welker (5-9). You probably downgraded (Darren) Sproles (5-6) and Maurice Jones-Drew (5-7).

"You discriminate against guys who aren't 6-feet tall -- guys like me.

"Russell Wilson is going to go (in the draft) and he's going to go real quick,'' Gruden predicted, "and he's going to be one of those guys who defies the odds because the difference between Drew Brees and Michael Vick and Russell Wilson, size-wise, is that much ...''

Holding up his right hand, there was an inch separation between his index finger and thumb.

"That's what you're talking about Mel,'' he said of the size differential between the 5-11 Wilson and Brees and Vick, both of whom are listed at 6-foot. "You're starting to aggravate me again.''

Countered Kiper, "Jon, 28 of the 32 starting quarterbacks (in the NFL) are 6-2 or taller.''

Nobody under 6 feet is starting in the league right now, he added.

Enter McShay who has taken on the co-draft guru role with Kiper for ESPN.

"I do think his accuracy dips a little bit when he's in the pocket compared to when he's rolling out,'' he said of Wilson. "But I never scouted a quarterback who's under 6 feet tall who can see the field and do the things that he can do.''

McShay admitted that he had Wilson projected for the sixth or seventh round when he began watching him. "I didn't give him a chance,'' he said. "(But) I kept watching him and watching him and I got to know him a little bit and I got to talk to people around him.

"This guy has everything you look for in the quarterback position. To me, he is the test case; he shows that somebody his size can get it done. I truly believe at some point in time we're going to be talking about Russell Wilson as a starter in the NFL.''

Kiper then felt obligated to defend himself.

"I'm not picking on Russell Wilson; I'm a fan of Russell Wilson,'' he emphasized. "On a scale of 1 to 10 -- character-wise -- he's a 15. Jon, I said it yesterday, if he was 6-2, he'd be a top-10 pick.''

Berman name-dropped Doug Flutie into the discussion.

McShay said, "It's going to take him being Drew Brees. He's going to have to do every single thing that Drew Brees does; all the little things (because) there are limitations.''

Throughout this heated exchange between analysts, the camera was on Wilson.

"I think he wants to jump through the TV and strangle you right now,'' McShay said to Kiper.

Wilson, who had a whimsical look on his face, picked up the TV remote.

"He just muted you, Mel,'' McShay bellowed.

Kiper then presented his summation to the jury.

"If he's good enough to make it, he will open up the door (to other QBs under 6 feet),'' Kiper said. "I think we'd all agree on one thing, he will have to beat the odds.''

Berman interjected that "the odds are beatable'' before Gruden responded with his closing argument.
"This kid can play,'' he said. "He's going to prove it to you (pointing at Kiper). He's going to prove it to you (pointing at McShay). He's going to prove it to everybody. You just wait and see.''

ESPN finally got around to interviewing Wilson.

"It was a remarkable experience,'' he said of the phone call that he received from Seattle coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, who formerly worked for the Green Bay Packers.

"It was an unbelievable moment for me. I've been waiting for this my whole entire life. The Lord is so good -- to have my family here with me -- I know my dad is watching (Russell Wilson's father, Harrison, passed away in June of 2010).''

Former UW quarterback Darrell Bevell, who led the Badgers to a Big Ten title in 1993 and the Rose Bowl, is the offensive coordinator in Seattle. Based on his conversations, Wilson said that he knew that the Seahawks were serious about him.

"I knew it would be a great place for me to play,'' he said.

Although the Seahawks signed free agent Matt Flynn (the former Packer) and still have Tarvaris Jackson on their roster, Gruden was of the opinion that it was a good fit for Wilson because Seattle runs a West Coast offense similar to what Wilson operated during his four years at NC State.

"Coach Gruden, as you know, it's a great offense to be in,'' said Wilson, who appeared on ESPN's Gruden's QB Camp series. "But I want to know it all. Like we talked about being on a quest for knowledge; I'm definitely going to be on that quest and I can't wait to learn.

"I have to get there (Seattle) and learn the playbook as quick as possible and just dive into it and try to be a great teammate and a great lockeroom guy, and just work my butt off.''

Reflecting on his Badger experience, Wilson said, "I went to an unbelievable place in the University of Wisconsin and had a tremendous coach in Bret Bielema and had a great offensive coordinator in Paul Chryst ...

"I got there (Madison) July 1; pretty much everyone was away on Fourth of July weekend. I called a player's only meeting on July 7 and brought all the guys together. I told them about my life. I told them about my situation from going to NC State and why I wanted to go to Wisconsin.''

Wilson also told his new UW teammates "how I was there to compete and how I was there to win and I think the guys really fed off of that and really understood that I was there to do everything I could to be the best player that I could be ...''

Kiper eventually got around to addressing the question du jour to Wilson, "What do you say to doubters and skeptics who say anyone under 6 feet can't be a starter in the NFL?''

"The main thing,'' Wilson replied, "is this has been my perspective my whole life. My height doesn't define my skill set. I know I'm 5-11, but I can play tall in the pocket. I can make accurate throws. I can deliver the ball on time. I can be great on third down and be great in the red zone.

"One thing I can control is my work ethic. I can also control my knowledge of the game -- how I study and how I get into the film room and how I just try to learn as much as I possibly can to give me that much more of an advantage .. I'm so fired up to be a Seattle Seahawk. I can't wait to play.''

McShay spoke for many, maybe even Kiper, when he concluded, "He wins you over.''

Lucas at Large: Zeitler left lasting impression on Bengals

FB_120427_Zeitler_Kevin.jpgWisconsin right guard Kevin Zeitler made a point of shaking everybody's hand after his April 4 workout at the McClain Facility. More than a dozen NFL teams were represented, including the Cincinnati Bengals, who sent their veteran offensive line coach, Paul Alexander, to evaluate Zeitler.

The 52-year-old Alexander, who also carries the title of assistant head coach (to Marvin Lewis), has been with the Bengals for nearly two decades. Alexander is no stranger to the Big Ten brand of hard-nosed football. He served as a grad assistant under Bo Schembechler and Joe Paterno.

You can understand why he would like what he saw out of Zeitler, a throwback, who doesn't have any frills to his old-school game or his blue-collar personality. That was the statement that Zeitler was trying to make when he personally thanked each of the coaches who had traveled to Madison.

"I was always told that you want to make a good impression with your handshake,'' said Zeitler, explaining his vice-like grip that had strangers counting their fingers when they were eventually able to pull away from him. "But I'm not trying to break anybody's hand.''

At least that was not his intent. "I try to have a nice firm handshake -- hoping that I will impress people -- hoping that they will remember me,'' said Zeitler, adding that he wants to send out this message, "I'm here to play or something like that.''

When asked if he felt like there were any questions that he still had to answer for all of these NFL teams that were working him out, he paused to collect his thoughts and then said, "Can I be a first rounder, I guess? That would be the question. So I'm trying to prove that I'm a high pick.''

Zeitler admitted that he had no idea where he might land in the draft. He wasn't even sure who really liked him. "Sometimes it's the people who don't talk to you who draft you,'' he said. "It's going to be a nice surprise for me whenever I do get taken. I'll be happy no matter where it is.''

Zeitler is very happy today after being a first round draft pick (No. 27 overall) of the Cincinnati Bengals. Before the selection was announced, Jon Gruden took the ESPN audience inside Cincinnati's war room; suggesting the coaching staff was deciding between Zeitler and Georgia's Cordy Glenn.

The Bengals had to address a pressing need at offensive guard, Gruden said.

Someone, after all, has to block the likes of Baltimore's nose masher Haloti Ngata, he added.

That someone turned out to be Zeitler.

After ESPN host Chris Berman complimented Gruden for foreshadowing the selection, Gruden countered, "I don't know anything about the draft process. I do know that Kevin Zeitler is another Wisconsin Badger that can come off the ball and do some things athletically.

"He can play in a zone scheme. He's an athletic puller. He can find his target. He can redirect. At the end of the day, he can thump you. I think the Bengals knew that the Ravens were looking at Zeitler later in this round (at No. 29) to replace Ben Grubbs (a free agent).

"We already talked about the lack of guards on the Bengals football team,'' Gruden went on. "(Quarterback) Andy Dalton needs firm protection, so he can step up in the pocket. Zeitler is a good athlete. He's not an elite athlete. But he's an every down wrecking machine that works to finish.''

ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper noted that the Chicago Bears drafted a "mauler'' in former UW offensive tackle Gabe Carimi in the first round of the 2011 draft. "That's what Kevin Zeitler is -- a true mauler,'' said Kiper. "He's powerful in the upper body and he will battle ...''

Scratch and claw were the words that Kiper used to describe Zeitler's competitiveness.

"He gets the most out of his talent,'' he continued. "He's not real athletic. But I'll tell you what, he played at a very high level and there were a lot of teams late in the first round that wanted him to be a part of their offensive line.''

Zeitler was one of two first round picks for the Bengals; the other was Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis said, "Both players have opportunities to start and work their way into the lineup. We drafted both of them to play.''

This is only the second time in franchise history that the Bengals have drafted an offensive guard in the first round. In 1984, they took North Carolina's Brian Blados with the 28th selection overall. Cincinnati does have some history with hard-nosed Badgers, though, most notably Tim Krumrie.

In addition to Krumrie, who spent many memorable seasons as a nose guard and defensive line coach in Cincinnati, the current Bengals staff features Jay Hayes, a former UW assistant under Barry Alvarez, whose son, Jesse, is a freshman defensive end with the Badgers.

Zeitler should feel right at home, too, in the company of a couple of his new Cincinnati teammates: defensive tackle Nick Hayden and fullback Chris Pressley. Both are former Badgers. In the end, Zeitler obviously made a lasting impression on his new position coach, Alexander.

"When we went to work him out in Wisconsin,'' Alexander recalled, "we called him and he came down and met us at the car ... he's a wonderful guy. He's as good as guy as there is, and he's a good player. I think when you get a chance to take a guy like that; he helps your whole team, not just his spot.

"He's a great program guy, team guy. He's the type of guy if you went fishing at the lake all day, some guys after an hour; you want to throw them in the water. But this guy is more along the line that you can just sit out there all day with him.

"He's going to work like that in terms of football.''

Lucas at Large: Buckinghams a showcase for Badgers' best


- Buckinghams Winners  |  Watch the Show

Wisconsin men's cross country coach Mick Byrne generously described his musical tastes with the confession that "I'm all over the place.''

Byrne has downloaded everything from Real Estate to Bon Iver, from The Cure to Coldplay, from Bruce Springsteen to Eric Hutchinson, from Adele to Mumford & Sons.

Byrne is likely to add to his list after hearing "The Big Shady Trees'' (pictured above) perform Monday night during the fourth annual Buckinghams at the Overture Center.

Elliot Krause was on drums, Zach Mellon was on guitar and Will Ottow was the vocalist for a cover version of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy.''

What was the genesis for the group's name, The Big Shady Trees?

"We're all tall and slim,'' Krause reasoned.

Krause, Mellon and Ottow all run for Byrne and the Badgers. How crazy is that?

"We do have a lot of musical talent on the team,'' Byrne volunteered. "When we go on trips, the guys will sometimes bring guitars and they're singing all the time. It's hilarious.''

Funny thing is, they know when it's time to get down to work -- on the track and in the classroom.

Last November, the Badgers won a national championship in men's cross country, the fifth in school history and first since 2005.

Monday night at the Buckinghams, the highest cumulative GPA team awards went to men's and women's cross country.

"We sit down before the season and as a team determine what goals we would like to set,'' said Caitlin Comfort, a senior from Peoria. "Highest GPA is one of them, and we take a lot of pride in it.''

Elliot Krause, a senior from Appleton, pointed out that athletes are frequently stereotyped -- stigmas are unfairly but routinely attached -- and this type of academic recognition helps dispel myths.

It definitely starts, too, at the top with Byrne.

"Mick's general philosophy is that the whole college experience isn't just about running,'' said Krause, a two-time Academic All-American. "But he doesn't baby us through the process.

"You have to take the initiative and do things yourself.''

Byrne's approach promotes the development of study habits and discipline, Krause said. "He's developing you as a person so when you leave college you can be successful,'' he added.

In February, Byrne's Badgers were cited as the Scholar Team of the Year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.

"When I came here four years ago,'' Byrne said, "one of the challenges that I threw out to the guys was, 'Look, we have to work harder in the classroom.'

"I felt like they weren't putting their best foot forward and I chose to keep on their case about it. We encouraged them and we kicked them in the butt when they needed to be kicked in the butt.

"The end result has been that they've gotten a little bit better every semester.''

The Badgers finished the cross country season with a team grade-point average of 3.08.

"It's not acceptable for them to be below 3.00,'' Byrne said. "That's the least we can ask from them. It's a high standard (academically), but our athletes compete at a high standard.

"If they can do that on the track -- or in cross country -- why can't they do that in the classroom? It certainly starts with me and what my expectations are. But it also comes from the older kids.''

Krause acknowledged the necessity for that kind of accountability and leadership.

"The younger guys, especially the freshmen are always looking up to the older guys,'' he said, "and when they see them taking care of business, on and off the track, that sets a good example.

"It's like, 'These guys are getting it done in the classroom. That's what is expected of me.'''

Comfort was one of the Performance Award winners Monday night. These student-athletes are nominated by their advisors or learning specialists for their academic work and improvement.

"When you come in as a freshman everything is totally new to you,'' Comfort said. "So it's really about getting your feet on the ground and realizing what you're here for.

"Ultimately, you're here to get a degree and obviously athletics comes after that. But it's also about making sacrifices; staying in on the weekends to get homework done.

"It's about coming back to your dorm or your apartment right after practice is over and working on homework. It's about waking up an hour or two early to study some more before a test.

"It's about time management and balancing (academics and athletics).''

But you have to know what your priorities are, she emphasized.

"You'll hear everyone say, 'It's all about balancing your time' and there's a reason everyone says it, and that's because it really is the most important thing,'' Krause said.

"But you also have to give yourself a little bit of time to breath and relax every once in awhile. Mick has this thing about overcooked turkey and how it doesn't taste very good.''

That would be a Byrne metaphor on life whereby he's suggesting that the student-athlete can fall prey to the stress or pressure of expectations within the classroom and on the playing field or track.

"Eventually you're going to overcook yourself,'' Krause said.

In this context, the Buckinghams are a breath of fresh air since they represent a celebration of academic excellence and achievement through community service and other vehicles.

Moreover, there is a special bonding component to the event -- rallying all sports on campus.

"Last year, I got the invite and Mick told me that I should go to the Buckinghams,'' Krause said, "and I was real reluctant. I thought it was another formal event that would be real dry and boring.''

Once exposed to what the Buckinghams are all about, he was hooked.

"I love it,'' Comfort said. "You rarely find all the athletes in one venue at one time. So it's kind of nice to see everybody together -- all the different athletes from all the different sports.

"You get to mingle and you get to catch up.

"It's nice to see everyone dressed up and not in athletic gear.''

Byrne has become a big proponent of the Buckinghams.

"I love this, I absolutely love it,'' he said. "It's a got a great feel about it to the point where I've encouraged all of our kids to go.

"It's good to see that there's a reward for doing well in the classroom; a reward for getting involved in the community; a reward for getting involved in leadership programs.

"That's all good and there's a trickle down affect to all of our athletes.''

There are some unique twists to the Buckinghams, like the red carpet leading into the theater.

There's also the innocence and freshness of the performers.

Whether it's women's hockey player Katy Josephs playing the piano and singing "Only Hope'' by Mandy Moore ...

Whether it's women's rower Kendall Schmidt performing an original tap dance routine to "Turn up the Music'' by Chris Brown.

Whether it's women's cross country's Megan Beers singing "Never Alone'' by Barlow Girl ...

Whether it's quarterback Joel Stave playing the piano and singing "Drops of Jupiter'' by Train...

Whether it's women's cross country's Lavinia Jurkiewicz ballroom dancing with her partner to "Rabiosa'' by Shakira ...

Whether it's linebacker A.J. Fenton playing the guitar and softball player Kendall Grimm singing "Firework'' by Katy Perry ...

Whether it's The Big Shady Trees ...

It all works.

"Any opportunity we get as administrators or coaches,'' Byrne said, "to recognize our student-athletes for their achievements is great, and this is a fun way of doing that."

Lucas at Large: New-look Fenton stepping into spotlight


By now, UW linebacker A.J. Fenton has grown accustomed to the double-takes whenever he runs into somebody who hasn't seen him since the end of the first semester.

After the Rose Bowl, he went home to Erie, Pa., and "looked at myself in the mirror.''

It's not what you think.

This was not one of these moments of intense self-reflection and analysis resulting from the Badgers losing to Oregon in Pasadena or an unproductive season personally because of injuries.

Fenton just happened to walk past a mirror one day when he stopped to look at himself.

That spawned this thought, 'Let's do it, let's get rid of it, I had it long enough.''

That was his spontaneous reaction to his shoulder-length hair and beard.

Even though he had been growing it out for three-plus years, he figured, "Why not?''

It was a tough decision, but it was also time for a new look.

"I love it, I think it's awesome,'' Fenton said.

That goes for the haircut and the reaction that he gets all the time to the haircut.

Truth is, Fenton is more focused than ever to get people reacting to his play on the field.

"I've got two years left,'' said Fenton, who will be a redshirt junior in the fall. "I just want to be out there helping the team win. It's a huge spring for me as far as moving forward.''

Fenton has not only lost a good chunk of his hair -- UW head coach Bret Bielema estimated about three pounds worth -- but he has lost some body fat. He was listed at 235 last season.

"During the off-season and winter, I dropped some weight, I'm about 220 now,'' he said. "I wanted to get lighter on my feet and I feel better and more comfortable in my frame.

"I'm running a lot better. It's all kind of clicking; it's kind of coming together.''

Bielema has noticed. Following several practices, he has mentioned Fenton by name. Beyond noting his running ability, he has talked about Fenton's progress and decision to stay at linebacker.

There has been a temptation, Bielema conceded, to move Fenton to fullback; especially since he rushed for over 4,000 career yards and 54 touchdowns as a prep running back and option quarterback.

Shortly after Fenton verbally committed to the Badgers in mid-September of 2008, he rushed for 216 yards and three touchdowns and passed for two scores in McDowell's 49-13 win over Norwin.

Even though he played mostly on offense, he was projected as a college linebacker. Fenton was one of three tendered 'backers in the 2009 recruiting class, joining Chris Borland and Connor O'Neill.

After redshirting as a true freshman, Fenton got some snaps as a rush end in a specialty defensive package after Borland was injured during the 2010 season. Mostly he was on special teams.

FB_120423_Fenton_AJ_2.jpgGoing into the 2011 training camp, Fenton had his sights on competing with Kevin Claxton for a starting assignment at linebacker on the No. 1 defense with Borland and Mike Taylor.

But he wound up missing most of the preseason and the opener with a hamstring injury.

"He (Fenton) had really taken to his coaching pretty well and was on the verge,'' Bielema said. "He's probably our fastest linebacker, so to get him out there would be a huge asset.''

Bielema's reference was to the "coaching'' of former linebackers coach Dave Huxtable, now at Pitt. Huxtable had taken over for Dave Doeren. Andy Buh has now taken for Huxtable.

"Coach (Buh) has helped me a lot actually,'' Fenton said. "He's huge into techniques and huge into fundamentals -- and being where we're supposed to be. He's very meticulous.

"Having three different coaches in four years, you get a fresh start with each one. For a guy like me, it has been nice because I've gotten to make a first impression three different times.''

While he has enjoyed contributing on special teams, he doesn't want to be labeled a role player.

"Special teams are good but you definitely don't want to play only on special teams,'' Fenton said. "Everybody who plays on special teams strives to get on the offense or the defense.''

That is why this spring has loomed so large. "Huge,'' Fenton stressed. "This is probably the first time I've been completely healthy -- 100 percent -- for awhile. This is my chance.''

As it is, Fenton will get a second chance to perform in front of an audience Monday at the fourth annual Buckinghams, an event which shines the spotlight on academic excellence and achievement.

As part of the program, student-athletes are also recognized for their entertainment skills. A year ago, Fenton teamed up with Kendall Grimm, a member of the UW softball team.

He played the guitar, and she sang. They're back for more. Fenton and Grimm have collaborated on their version of Katy Perry's song, "Firework.''

"As you grow older, you start to listen to different kinds of music,'' Fenton said. "I've evolved as far as what I've been playing and what I've been listening to.

"I'm not getting into more the rock and roll aspect, more Foo Fighters, things like that. I have an electric guitar but I don't get to play it as much just because of the time aspect (with football).''

On the Buckinghams, he said, "This is a great opportunity to get recognized (academically) while letting people perform and show some talents that they don't usually get to show.''

That performance value will be magnified Saturday when he steps on the Camp Randall stage.

Lucas at Large: 'Good evening' to UW hockey's original voice

Good evening, hockey fans ...

Every journey has a starting point -- and for thousands upon thousands of University of Wisconsin hockey fans, it all started with this simple greeting from the public address announcer at the Dane County Coliseum.

Good evening, hockey fans ...

In the beginning, Phil Mendel's salutation was as much a part of the Badger hockey tradition as the "Sieve" chant and Martha's cowbell -- Martha was the wife of UW's legendary coach Bob Johnson; the bell was a rallying point for the "banshees'' and a  staple of the "Coliseum experience.''

Good evening, hockey fans ...

By his own admission, Mendel was not much of a hockey player, having never laced up the skates for the varsity team at Shorewood High School in Milwaukee, where he was born and raised. But the sport was a passion; as it was with his good friend, John Riley.

"I was practicing pharmacy in the Park Motor Inn,'' reminisced Mendel, a decorated grad from the UW School of Pharmacy, "and John would come in for coffee and we would shoot the breeze.''

One day, Riley came in with the idea of reviving the hockey program at Wisconsin. It would be a collaborative effort, Mendel recalled, with Riley, UW athletic director Ivy Williamson and Blue Line Club founder Fenton Kelsey all taking risks.

The timing was ripe for a hockey rebirth because the school was looking to support another sport after boxing was dropped in 1960 following the death of boxer Charlie Mohr.

Hockey had some history on the Madison campus, dating back to 1922 when the Badgers fielded a team in the Western Intercollegiate Hockey League (WIHL), which also included entries from the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota.

Because of the economic crunch during the Depression, however, Wisconsin was forced to drop hockey as an intercollegiate sport in 1933, even though the Badgers continued to compete for several more years in the WIHL before finally disbanding.

Riley was determined to resurrect the sport. Kelsey provided the key building block: the rink, the Madison Ice Arena, which would later be renamed Hartmeyer Ice Arena and serve as the program's foundation before moving into the Coliseum in 1967.

Looking for someone to handle the PA announcing and the hiring of off-ice officials (goal judges, etc.), Riley turned to Mendel, who agreed to become the first "Voice'' of the Badgers in 1963.

While the nation was still mourning the death of President John Kennedy, UW played its first varsity hockey game since 1935 on Nov. 29, 1963 against St. Mary's College. Despite a loss, it was still a great day for hockey (predating Johnson's hiring in 1966). Riley and Art Thomsen were co-coaches.

Good evening, hockey fans ...

"I don't think I did it that way in the first game; I may have, but I honestly don't remember when I started saying it,'' said Mendel, whose signature ice-breaker gained immense popularity.

"I simply couldn't think of anything more succinct. It's like saying, 'He shoots, he scores.' I don't have a trademark on it. But I thought it was something the fans responded to.

"What more polite salutation can you give?''

As it evolved, the UW band, led by Michael Leckrone, returned the favor.

"When the Zamboni (piloted by the Chief, Bob Marks) left the ice before the opening faceoff,'' Mendel said, "the band used to say, 'Good evening, Phil.'''

On road games, Mendel was a color analyst and sidekick to Bob Miller on the WIBA radio broadcasts of Badgers hockey. (Later, he worked side-by-side with Paul Braun).

Yes, that Bob Miller, by the way, the Hall of Fame play-by-play voice of the Los Angeles Kings since 1973 and the owner of his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Miller and Mendel remained close friends and spoke three and four times a week on the phone.

Last week, the original voice of the Badgers -- Phil Mendel -- was silenced. He was 89.

Mendel was definitely an original, too.

His love of the spoken language was exceeded only by his love of Wisconsin hockey.

No history of this sport is complete nor may it begin without, "Good evening, hockey fans ...''