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Lucas at Large: 'Interview' wins starting job for O'Brien


Danny O'Brien didn't bring a written resume to his job interview, a 16-practice Q&A on the X's and O's. But his play on the field, even his presence in the huddle, spoke to his 17 starts at Maryland. That game experience shaped him and helped him earn the job, the quarterback job at Wisconsin.

There were other factors, too, not the least of which were O'Brien's "field awareness'' and ''ball security'' the last two weeks. That was the evaluation of tailback Montee Ball, who guesstimated that O'Brien "threw about 350 passes with just two interceptions in all those practices, and that's amazing.''

Once it became official that O'Brien had beaten out Curt Phillips and Joel Stave for the starting assignment in the UW's season opener, Ball said, "I've seen a side in him today (Monday) that I hadn't seen before. His confidence level has shot up and he's taking more of a leadership role.''

Left guard Ryan Groy saw some of those things in O'Brien's make-up  from the very beginning, which extended all the way back to O'Brien's recruiting trip to Madison in late March. "He knew what he was talking about when we talked football,'' recalled Groy, one of his campus hosts.

On the field, Groy said that O'Brien let his actions do the talking and they also spoke loudly to those 17 starts. "I saw a player who had experience,'' Groy observed. "I could tell he wasn't worried in the pocket, he wasn't skittish. He knew his looks and where he was going to go (with the ball).''

Groy added that the competition with Phillips and Stave may have brought out the best in O'Brien. "Competition helps the whole team regardless of what position it is,'' he suggested. "A couple of other places told Danny that he'd come in and start right away.

"Here, they told him, 'You're going to have to fight for the spot.' He knew that coming in. He even asked me what I thought about the other quarterbacks.  I told him the same thing, 'It's going to be a fight.' Now that he's got the spot, I think he's going to bring a little more leadership to the position.''

There are obvious benefits to naming a starter. Besides the receivers who can develop their timing, Groy said, "We can all start jelling together and start getting use to each other. It's different having different quarterbacks in the huddle all the time; different cadences, different ways they say it.''

O'Brien, who has two years of eligibility, was saying the same thing after Monday's practice.

"It's nice, honestly, getting all the No. 1 reps,'' he admitted. " You can get more and more comfortable, not only with the game plan, but with the guys. Every day the chemistry is going to get better and better. It's something I'm used to -- preparing as a starter -- you can't get too good at that.''

Don't expect him to change anything about the way he conducts his business.

"You have to be the same guy every day if you're a quarterback,'' said O'Brien, a Minneapolis native. "You don't want to win the job and, then, all of a sudden, be a different guy in the huddle. I'm the same guy from Day One until now in terms of how I lead, and everything like that.''

Acknowledging that Phillips and Stave pushed him daily in practice, O'Brien said, "I don't think you can take that for granted. You're heading down the wrong road, if you think, 'I'm going to be given the spot.' It's something that me and Coach B (Bret Bielema) talked about before I committed here.

"He told me, 'You're going to have to work for it' and I came in with that mentality, and I'm going to continue with that same mentality. You never want to take things for granted in football.''

Asked how Phillips and Stave have handled the situation since he was appointed the starter, O'Brien said, "Anyone who didn't win (the competition) would be disappointed. But they're great guys and they congratulated me and I said, 'Let's keep working' because you still want to push each other.''

At Maryland, he was named the starting quarterback the fourth game of his redshirt freshman season and he went on to be honored as the 2010 ACC Rookie of the Year. O'Brien went into 2011 as the Terps' starter, lost his job, regained his job, and then broke his arm, ending his season in mid-November.

"I've been in quarterback competitions since my true freshman year, whether it was for the third string spot, the back-up spot, or the starting spot,'' he said. "In terms of pressure, I might not have felt it as much (here) because this is something I'm very used to.

"The great thing about being here now is that it's clean slate. I've been through a lot -- really high and really low at Maryland -- so being here with a new set of guys is really special. That's the way it feels but we have to go out and keep earning it now.''

In the end, how much weight did O'Brien's previous experience in a BCS program carry in the competition with Phillips and Stave? "I think with 17 starts, you kind of get a vibe for how real game situations go and all that kind of thing,'' O'Brien said. "It's something you can't get too good at again.''

Before tweeting his choice, Bielema called O'Brien into his office Sunday and broke the news. "I thanked him for the opportunity,'' O'Brien said, "and I told him that I wasn't going to let him down.''

Lucas at Large: Fredrick catches on at wide receiver

FB_120820_Fredrick_Jordan.jpegOne moment, Wisconsin wide receiver Jordan Fredrick was sprinting down field in a "combative'' -- a special teams drill pitting a kickoff cover man versus a retreating blocker.

 The next moment, Fredrick's heart was racing.

"I was thinking the worst -- a broken leg,'' he said.

You can understand his angst during last Wednesday night's practice at Camp Randall Stadium; especially since Fredrick spent last fall and spring rehabbing after shoulder surgery. Now, he was contemplating another worst case scenario following his collision with fellow wideout Chase Hammond.

"It was a scare,'' said Fredrick, a redshirt freshman from Madison Memorial High School. "I had a guy in high school who had the same thing happen to him in the same area (calf) -- it happened in a summer practice and it was pretty bad -- and it went through my mind.''

Fredrick was helped to the training room. "It was pretty painful,'' he said. "They wanted to give me X-rays because they weren't sure if it was broken or not. I was nervous. With the surgery last year you don't want to miss another year and you're always nervous about having that happen again.''

The X-rays were negative, and Fredrick didn't waste any time getting back on the practice field the very next day; bruised calf and all. There was an urgency to do so; and not only because he didn't want to lose any precious ground in his quest to secure a spot in the rotation at wide receiver.

"I didn't want to be that injury-prone guy that's sitting out practices and missing games throughout my career,'' Fredrick explained. "I was done with that during my redshirt year. So I wanted to come back right away. It (his left calf) was a little tender, but nothing to slow me down.''

The 2011 season had to seem like it was in slow motion to Fredrick, particularly after he got off to such a fast start during the first week of training camp. UW coach Bret Bielema was so encouraged by his early showing that he singled out Fredrick as a potential contributor as a true freshman.

"I didn't even know playing was an option that first year,'' admitted Fredrick, an all-state receiver and all-city linebacker as a senior at Memorial.  "I just came in trying to play my game and hopefully it would go well for me. And it ended up going pretty well in the beginning.''

Not unexpectedly, he wound up hitting a wall, like most freshmen. "That last week of camp was pretty rough on me -- just mentally,'' said Fredrick, who also missed some practice time because of a sinus infection. "I wasn't mature enough to handle it all.''

The Badgers decided to redshirt Fredrick, and he went to work on the scout team simulating opposing receivers for the No. 1 defense. But his effectiveness was limited because of shoulder pain. In mid-October, he had surgery to repair two tears in his labrum, one of which may have existed for years.

Looking back on his freshman season, Fredrick said, "It was a perfect experience for me; almost getting a shot to play and it not working out in the end; the decision to redshirt; the time I got on the scout team; and then that surgery. I got pretty much every perspective there is.''

In meetings, Fredrick became a good listener, and observer. "I was watching a lot of film, and doing a lot of cut-ups with the receivers who were playing that week,'' he said.

But there was also a negative to his inactivity which carried through spring practice. "You don't ever want to be sidelined ever again after that,'' he said. "So there's a lot more drive since then.''

Since he had never been injured to this extent, Fredrick relied on UW trainer Mike Moll and others to guide him through the more challenging stages of rehab. The support group included his girlfriend and his mom and dad, Andree and Craig, a former UW tight end in the early '80s.

"I got back faster,'' Jordan Fredrick said, "and almost stronger than ever.''

At Memorial, he possessed multiple strengths as a receiver, linebacker and defensive back. During his prep career, he had 113 catches for 1,216 yards and 15 TDs plus 163 tackles and 14 interceptions.

"My real passion was DB,'' said Fredrick, the Big 8 Conference Defensive Back of the Year as a junior. "Obviously, though, I'm not a college-level DB with quickness and all that stuff. But in high school I loved sitting back there and going up for balls and competing with wideouts.''

In making the jump to the collegiate level, Fredrick was given the option of playing on offense or defense. His response was swift and from the heart. "I always loved wideout,'' he said.

But there has been an adjustment period; which is still ongoing for UW's young receivers.

"It takes a lot more effort here (Wisconsin),'' he said. "You have to run all the time. In high school, to be honest, maybe if it was a run play, you'd take some off -- because a lot of high school players go both ways (offense and defense).

"At wideout here, you can't slow down at all. The game is obviously a lot faster and the DBs are a lot quicker, so you have to go 100 percent every play, all the time. If you give that effort, you will keep getting better every day, and you will get better in every aspect.''

When his players are on the field, first-year UW receivers coach Zach Azzanni is constantly reminding them to be violent. "That's always being sudden, always being violent with your hands and body movement,'' Fredrick said. "Everything you do in this game has to be violent, sudden.''

CTT is something else that has become ingrained: Catch, Tuck, Turn.

"A lot of guys want to catch, turn and tuck,'' Fredrick said. "When we watch on film, that's where we get a lot of our drops, myself included. Before you get to the tuck, you want to turn up field. It happens all the time.''

Azzanni's teaching points and high energy drills have clearly won over Fredrick. "I love it for sure,'' he said. "He doesn't let you slow down, which is great. His expectations are high.''

So are Fredrick's -- especially since that starting job opposite Jared Abbrederis is still open.

"I'm just trying to take advantage of that opportunity right now,'' he said.

Lucas at Large: Burge, Costigan battle it out at right guard

In January, Kyle Costigan and Robert Burge each found themselves in Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema's office at different times for different reasons.

Costigan was summoned there to talk about moving from defensive tackle to offensive guard.

Burge went there to quit the team. He had grown tired of playing football.

"I really didn't want to do it anymore,'' said Burge, a fifth-year senior from Holmen, Wis.

Bielema's response?

"He told me to give it a couple of days,'' he said.

How difficult was it for him to even broach the topic of quitting with Bielema?

"It was on some levels,'' he said. "On some levels, it wasn't. I had already made up my mind.''

Less than 48 hours later, Burge had a change of heart.

"Something just clicked,'' he said. "I wanted to do it again within that couple of days grace period that he gave me. It just clicked back on for me, so I decided to come back.''

FB_120818_Burge_Robert.jpegBurge is most grateful today that didn't leave the team seven months ago. Costigan is grateful, too, for the opportunity to compete for a starting assignment at right guard ... with Burge, no less.

"In January, when Coach B called me up to his office,'' Costigan remembered, "it was not like he forced me (to make the switch) or anything. He asked if it would be something that would interest me.''

Why not? Costigan had been recruited out of Muskego High School to play on the offensive line.

That's where his UW career started as a freshman redshirt during the 2010 season. In early September, he was even named the offensive scout team player of the week for the UNLV game.

But the Badgers were thin at defensive tackle, so Costigan moved to that side of the ball. In late November, he was honored as the defensive scout team player of the week for the Michigan game.

A year ago, Costigan was in the defensive tackle rotation and appeared in three games -- he had two tackles against Northern Illinois -- before suffering a foot injury that ended his season in September.

So what sold him on making the switch back to offense last January?

"Coach said it would help the team,'' he recalled. "Obviously, I said, 'Yes' to helping the team.''

Costigan and Burge have been engaged in one of the more competitive position battles in training camp. There has been an ebb and flow on who takes the most reps with the No. 1 offense.

On most days, it has been Burge. On Friday, it was Costigan.

Factoring into the guard competition has been Burge's versatility to play tackle. Thus, he offers depth chart value and insurance as a backup to starting right tackle Rob Havenstein.

"No matter what happens, we're making each other better,'' Costigan said. "Even though we're competing, he's still really friendly and helpful when I mess up with the mental aspect of the game.

"He has a positive attitude about everything.''

After Tuesday's practice, Burge was asked about his walk-on status.

"It's been pretty tough on my family taking out loans and I know I have a bunch of (student) loans,'' he said. "It would be nice to get a scholarship, but whatever comes is whatever comes.

"I have to live with it. I'm not expecting anything.''

That same night, Bielema announced to the team that Burge was going on scholarship.

"I didn't believe it at first, 'Did he just call my name?''' Burge recounted. "I started smiling and I almost teared up, almost, I came that close. It was awesome. I really didn't expect it.''

Since the start of camp, Burge expected to get pushed by Costigan. "Kyle is very gifted physically,'' he said, "and that's pushed me to work harder and change my style of play.''

Change how? "Be a bit more mean, I guess,'' he said.

Does that mean be more aggressive? "More aggressive, yes,'' he answered.

Has he been too laid-back at times? "I would say that,'' Burge admitted.

That may have been a byproduct of being a career backup, he conceded.

"I've always had guys like Kevin (Zeitler) or Ricky (Wagner) in front of me,'' he noted.

FB_120818_Burge_Robert_2.jpegThat all changed in the spring. "I knew I had a shot after Kevin was gone,'' Burge said of Zeitler, a first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. "I knew that I would have that opportunity (to play).''

That entailed a mental adjustment. "I've definitely been more aggressive,'' he said.

As such, the 6-foot-7, 320-pound Burge has tried to "play stronger and with a lower pad level.''

That can be problematic for someone his height, especially at guard. But he has an understanding of leverage thanks to the eight years that he spent training in Tae Kwon Do.

When he was 16, he gave it up to concentrate on playing high school sports.

"I was a red belt, one belt away from a black belt,'' he said. "I just couldn't push it to get the black belt. But the karate has helped me a lot with my coordination and striking ability.''

That discipline may have also helped Burge deal with some adversity last season. As one of the blockers in the protective shield in front of punter Brad Nortman, he had a couple of costly breakdowns.

"I just kind of put it behind me,'' Burge said of the memory of blocked punts in losses at Michigan State and Ohio State. "It's something that happened and something I learned from.''

Knowing now that he could have an impact as a potential starter on the offensive line, Burge has tried to learn as much as possible from his more experienced teammates like center Travis Frederick.

"I know Travis has always given me tips that have helped me out a lot,'' he said.

But, then, so has Wagner whenever he has lined up at tackle.

What about the difference in playing guard or tackle?

"You've got to be more physical on the inside because there are a lot bigger and stronger guys,'' Burge said. "On the outside, you've got to use more finesse and move your feet a little better.''

During the offseason, once he re-committed to playing football, Burge reshaped his body.

"I started to eat better, not as many pizzas and sodas; I ate a lot more fruit and vegetables,'' he said. "I know Coach B has said that I looked like I had slimmed down, but I kept the same weight on.''

There's no question that Burge has waited a long time for this opportunity to be a contributor.

"I just have to keep playing like I've been playing,'' he said. "I've had one or two middle-of-the road days. Most of the rest of the day, I've been pretty on. So has Kyle. We've been competing well.''

How has Frederick tried to facilitate an easier transition for Burge and/or Costigan?

"When I give my adjustment calls, I make sure they know where they're going,'' Frederick said. "Just because they're switching in and out (at right guard), you're not getting as much time together; you're not getting as used to each other.

"I try to give them as much as I can as far as the (pre-snap) adjustments instead of assuming they know  -- a lot of times they will -- but just because of the continuity issues I want to give them the best opportunity that they can have.''

Frederick has not appreciably changed his game to accommodate one over the other, either.

"It's very similar between the two of them,'' he said of Costigan and Burge. "We've switched around so much that you get used to playing with everybody. It gets to the point sometimes when you don't know who's playing next to you, if you don't get a peek at him.''

Frederick, though, has not forgotten Costigan from his days as a defensive tackle.

"That's something I don't miss,'' Frederick said. "He's probably one of the strongest, if not the strongest, player on the team. I'm glad to have him on our side of the ball instead of banging heads with him all the time.''

Costigan's experience as a defensive lineman has already been put to good use.

"What I personally hated going against, I can use as an advantage now,'' he said. "I can see the changes in their stance by how much weight they're putting on their hand. I know all the nuances of defensive line play and I have an easier time seeing that stuff.''

Does he play on offense with the aggressive mentality of a player on defense?

"I'd definitely say that I have that tenacity,'' Costigan said. "But it gets me into some rough places sometimes. I'll be pass-protecting and I'll want to lunge at that guy but I have to be patient. I have the mindset that I want to attack. But if you lunge, that's a defensive lineman's dream.''

Costigan is candid about his strengths and weaknesses. "I feel like I'm a good run blocker,'' he said, "and I'm having the most trouble in pass protection. It's something I've never done before. I've never backed up from a person. That's taking some getting used to, but that's improved a lot.''

To hone his rough edges, Costigan has watched a lot of film on Zeitler. "I want to mimic what he does,'' he said.  "I want to play like he plays. But he's such an animal. It's hard to mimic a first round draft pick. He played the position for four years here. I can't copy everything right off the bat.''

In addition to the advice that he has received from Zeitler, Costigan has gotten some pointers from former UW center Peter Konz, who was very good at pulling and leading interference on sweeps.

That's part of his new job description. Although he wrestled just one year in high school, Costigan has also been able to incorporate some of those lessons into the type of player he is today.

"Wrestling is still probably one of the hardest things I've ever done, and it has helped so much with my leverage and body position, '' he said, adding that the goal on the mat translates nicely to his goal on every snap. "Get inside (your opponent) and make somebody weak even if they may be strong.''

Until further notice, the Badgers are counting on strength in numbers at right guard.

That would be No. 54, Costigan; and No. 64, Burge.

Lucas at Large: Watt embracing move to fullback


Derek Watt couldn't wait to break the news to his older brother last Sunday. But there was one hang-up. He couldn't get a hold of J.J. Watt. "He's probably busy rehabbing his elbow,'' Derek said.

Probably, since J.J. has been sidelined with a dislocated elbow since early August. The former Wisconsin defensive end is expected to miss the entire preseason with the Houston Texans.

"We'll get in touch,'' Derek promised.

At the time, he was also planning on reaching out to Bradie Ewing, the former UW fullback who blew out his knee in a preseason game with the Atlanta Falcons last week. Ewing has been lost for the year.

"Bradie was one amazing fullback and one amazing person,'' Watt said, "and he changed the outlook for a lot of guys on this team. He was a huge leader and we were pretty good friends.''

Ewing has become an even bigger resource for Watt since last Sunday. That's when Watt agreed to make the move from linebacker to fullback on the suggestion of Badgers head coach Bret Bielema.

"He (Bielema) told me that he thought it would be best for the team and in my best interests,'' said Watt, a redshirt freshman from Pewaukee. "He said that I could take my time to think about it.

"But I didn't want to wait too long. We're already pretty far into camp right now, so I'm already a little behind. They're working on getting me a playbook so I can be ready for practice.''

In high school, Watt was a running back in a Wing-T offense.

"I was a wingback, but I also played some tailback, which is kind of a fullback in the Wing-T,'' he said. "I got a little taste of blocking once in awhile. It's going to be a little different here.''

Before he could answer whether he has missed running the ball, he was advised that he wouldn't be getting the rock here anyway, never mind. "I was just going to say that,'' Watt chuckled.

But, if everything falls into place, he wouldn't rule out contributing in other facets of the position. "Hopefully I'll be able to get out on some routes and catch some passes in the flat,'' he said.

That was the case last season for Ewing, who finished the year without a single carry but had 20 catches for an average of 12.3 yards per grab.

Last fall, Watt and Jake Keefer, another redshirt freshman, were taking most of the reps at linebacker on the scout team. Keefer is now wearing No. 93 and practicing with the defensive line.

"They're trying to experiment with guys in new places, especially during camp,'' Watt said. "I'm just one of those guys. Coach B has said that he's going to put guys in position to get on the field.

"I feel like if I do things the right way I can make it happen.''

At linebacker, Watt and Marcus Trotter were competing for time behind Chris Borland.

"I was splitting reps with Marcus and I wasn't getting as many reps as some of the other guys,'' Watt said. "I was watching a lot of film and taking mental reps when Chris and Marcus were in there.

"It was just the way the chips fell. I'm going to try and embrace playing fullback.''

Bielema is optimistic about Watt making a successful transition to offense, which would be a nice twist to the storyline since J.J. Watt came to Wisconsin as a tight end before moving to D-end.

"I used to hear all the time when I was a young coach,'' Bielema said, "that every fullback should play linebacker and every linebacker should play fullback.

"That's just an old-school way of thinking and it's not necessarily true. But just from watching him, Derek might be a better offensive player ... I just think he's wired in that way.''

Bielema cited the example of former Iowa linebacker-slash-tight end Dallas Clark.

"I'm not drawing any comparisons,'' cautioned Bielema, qualifying his remarks. "But when I was a linebacker coach, Dallas was a linebacker for me for two years and I couldn't get him on the field.

"He moves to tight end and becomes the highest paid tight end in the NFL (with the Indianapolis Colts) because he just fit better offensively. Hopefully that same thing holds true for Derek.''

The 224-pound Watt isn't sure whether he will be asked to add weight, or take it off. A teammate kidded that he was in good shape for the move since he has a fullback number, No. 34.

"Right now with the switch,'' Watt said, "I'm trying to learn everything I can at fullback and I'm also trying to get on the field with special teams to make an immediate impact. That's my main goal.''

Lucas at Large: Armstrong returns looking to make a leap

FB_120813_Armstrong_Ethan.jpgMedia days can be monotonous for players because of the repetitive nature of the questioning.

Mostly it's a harmless fluff-and- flash (bulb) exercise; one lost hour out of the day -- unless you're Wisconsin linebacker Ethan Armstrong, who was actually looking forward to Sunday's media day at Camp Randall Stadium from the perspective of "I was sure hoping I would see'' another one.

"I don't want to take anything for granted,'' he said.

That's because the last time the Badgers played a home game -- Nov. 26, 2011 against Penn State -- Armstrong was taken off the field in an ambulance after being injured while covering a second-quarter kickoff. The worst-case scenario was that he had dislocated both hips, so there was added precaution. But it wasn't as bad as it initially looked, he said; only a partial dislocation of his right hip.


"It was probably scarier for my parents than it was for me,'' Armstrong said. "They weren't at the game, so they had to watch it on TV. I'm sure it was a frightening experience. I don't really remember all that I was thinking (during the ambulance ride to the hospital). I was just really disappointed and hoping my teammates would continue to play well and get that victory.''

That was the good news: the Badgers closed out the regular season by crushing Penn State, 45-7, and advancing to the inaugural Big Ten championship game. The bad news was that Armstrong's season was over. Some might have viewed his college football career in the same light. Addressing the number of people who likely counted him out, he said, "There was probably more than I want to know.''

That's why his presence at Sunday's media day was so meaningful. "I love the game, I love this place, I love playing here -- I couldn't ever see myself doing anything else,'' said Armstrong, a redshirt junior from Ottawa, Ill., who's battling to be the No. 3 linebacker on defense alongside Mike Taylor and Chris Borland. In this sense, Armstrong said that he has to prove to himself that "I can do it, that I can come back and be the same player and play at the same level that I was before the injury.''

Armstrong had surgery on one hip in December, and the other hip in January.

"Physically, I'm as healthy as I'm going to get,'' he said.

Before he could continue, he was interrupted and asked, "What does that mean?''

You're as healthy as you're going to get?

"It means I'm feeling good,'' said Armstrong, who missed spring practice while he was recovering from surgery. "I'm full-go, I'm 100 percent. Obviously, there's going to be a little soreness, a little bit of tightness from day to day. But it's about maintaining and staying as healthy as I can.''

Armstrong is 21. Does he ever feel like he's 61 when he gets up in the morning?

"As long as I wake up with the right mindset I'm good to go,'' he said, smiling.

That's a pretty refreshing attitude which he also applies to his walk-on status.

"That's probably been harder on my folks than me,'' he said. "They've given me a great opportunity -- the chance to come here and play -- and they've been amazing to me. They've done nothing but support me since Day One, so it's been harder on them to pay tuition, especially out of state tuition.

"But they haven't said anything about it. They want me to do what I want to do.''

Having endured so many setbacks -- including shoulder and finger surgery -- Armstrong just wants to prove that he can be a steady contributor. "I've tried to stay as positive as I could, but it has been tough, any injury is,'' he said, adding that at least he knows what to expect from rehab; a kind of "been there, done that'' mentality.

"You know the kind of hurdles you're going to have to jump and the trials that you're going to face coming back from it,'' he said.

When he has played, he has been productive.

"But I have a lot to prove; I have to prove that I can be that guy, that starter,'' said Armstrong, noting that he has to prove his worthiness to his coaches and teammates. "Frankly, I have to prove to the whole Wisconsin nation that I'm good enough to play with those guys, good enough to be a scholarship athlete and good enough to earn my way on this team.''

Armstrong is so gung-ho about getting back to work that he's excited by the prospect of two-a-days practice, normally the bane of every player. "That's just because I want to be here so bad,'' Armstrong said. "It's not as much of a grind as everyone says ... (for me) it's definitely making sure that my body can keep up with what my mind and my heart wants it to do.''

Lucas at Large: Taylor and Wagner let their play do the talking


CHICAGO -- Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor knows that someone is "watching.'' But that doesn't mean he's losing sleep over showing up on the preseason watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, the Lombardi Award and the Lott IMPACT Trophy.

He's not tossing and turning, either, over his name somehow being left off the Butkus Award list, which is 51 deep and includes Badgers teammate Chris Borland.

"Some people made a big deal out of it, but I don't think it's a big deal at all; it has nothing to do with football at all,'' said Taylor, the pragmatic senior from Ashwaubenon, Wis., and the leading tackler in the Big Ten last season. "All I can control is what I do on the field and helping the team win.''

Only two players in college football had more tackles than Taylor in 2011: Boston College's Luke Kuechly, a first-round NFL draft pick of the Carolina Panthers, had 191; and Tulsa's Curnelius Arnick had 159. Taylor had 150, seven more than Borland. Moreover, Ohio State's Etienne Sabino started only five games last year, two in the Big Ten, and finished with 62 tackles, yet Sabino is on the 2012 Butkus list.

Go figure. Taylor isn't about to try.

Overall, the Badgers have eight different players on preseason watch lists, ranging from wide receiver Jared Abbrederis on the Biletnikoff Award list to tailback James White on the Doak Walker Award list. Center Travis Frederick is on three lists, while left tackle Ricky Wagner is on the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award lists.

Abbrederis and Wagner are both former walk-ons from Wisconsin high schools.

"It's an honor to be on some of those watch lists,'' said Wagner, a 6-foot-6, 322-pound senior from West Allis (Nathan Hale). "But I really can't be focusing on that during the year. If I start thinking like I have to win the Outland, I don't think I'll have a good year.''

You can understand why Wagner might think that way since his UW predecessors at left tackle -- Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi -- each won the Outland Trophy. "They're great resources to have, obviously,'' Wagner said. "You can go to the tape room at any time and watch these great players.''

Wagner wasn't limiting his "great players'' reference to just Thomas and Carimi -- citing the positive influences of Kevin Zeitler, Peter Konz, John Moffitt and Bill Nagy, among others.  A couple of years ago, when NFL players were locked out of training camp, Thomas did much of his training in Madison and left quite an impression on Wagner.  "It was great talking to a legend like Joe,'' he said.

It went beyond hero worship, though, because Wagner listened and learned from Thomas. "I really respect Joe's workmanlike mentality,'' he said. "You have to think about what you're doing as a job -- even in college -- and you've got to go to work every day, take care of business and go home.''

Carimi impacted Wagner in a different way. And it wasn't so much about the way he trained during the off-season as much as it was about the way he gained an edge on opponents on the playing field.  

"I like Gabe's physical aspect,'' Wagner said. "He had an attitude on the field; he got really mean. That was something I really respected about Gabe. And I've got to improve on that.''

Wagner is among the most soft-spoken players on the team. That's his demeanor. This is not to suggest that he never loses his temper; never shows a mean streak. But he is understated compared to more demonstrative teammates. "I've not been a very vocal guy; I lead more by example,'' he said.

The Badgers took three players to Big Ten Media Days and Wagner was one of them, joining Taylor and tailback Montee Ball. While conceding "it takes awhile for me to get comfortable'' speaking to outsiders, Wagner also said the Chicago exposure "was kind of a unique experience.''

Regarding shouldering more responsibilities as a team leader, Wagner said, "I try to work hard on the field and show the younger guys how to practice. I never take practice for granted because that's where games are won.

"If something needs to be said, I'll step up and say something.''

That has been Taylor's approach. "I want to be a leader and I see myself as a leader,'' Taylor said. "Just because maybe I don't talk as much as I should -- or talk as much as people think I should -- it doesn't mean that I don't lead by example. When I do say something, it comes from the heart.''

Taylor would rather talk with his pads, an old school cliché that's still true today.

"I've played sports my whole life and I was never really a big talker,'' said Taylor. "But my teammates would see the way I conducted myself and they would follow. You don't have to talk to get other people motivated. You can be a leader by just doing things the right way.''

Apparently that's not good enough for the Butkus watch list. Nine players from the Big Ten made the cut, but Taylor, the league's defensive player of the week three times last season, is snubbed.

Guess he will just have to play his way on to the list, which would be his preference anyway.

Lucas at Large: Hedstrom hopes to show some medal in London


- Badgers in the Olympics

Despite her All-America status and championship pedigree -- a couple of Intercollegiate Rowing Association national titles as a member of the Wisconsin lightweight women's varsity eight boat  -- Kristin Hedstrom wasn't sure if the Olympics would ever be in her immediate or distant future. "It wasn't something that was always on my radar,'' she confided.

Four years ago, the UW grad went looking for answers.

"I trained really hard that first year just to see where I stacked up against everyone else in the country because I really didn't have a good idea,'' said Hedstrom, who had previously been on a couple of under-23 teams. "After that year, I ended up making the senior team and that's when it started becoming a reality for me. It was like, 'OK, maybe this is a possible, maybe I can do this.'''

Armed with that conviction, Hedstrom began taking all the necessary steps to become an Olympian. Along with her partner in the lightweight double sculls, Julie Nichols, there was an undeniable urgency in late May when they arrived at the World Rowing Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland. The reward for finishing among the top four was a trip to London and the 2012 Summer Games.

"When we crossed the finish line, we didn't actually know what place we had gotten because it was such a close race,'' Hedstrom said. "So we had to wait two or three minutes -- it felt like an eternity -- for the results to come up on this big Jumbotron. When they did finally come up, and we saw that we had gotten fourth by .09 seconds, there was a lot of excitement and a little disbelief.

"We had to keep saying to ourselves, 'Oh, my gosh, we're going to the Olympics, we're going to the Olympics.' We had to remind each other that this was actually happening. It just didn't seem real.''

In becoming the 13th women's rower from Wisconsin to compete in the Olympics -- the first in a lightweight event -- the 26-year-old Hedstrom, who lives and trains out of Oakland, Calif., has heard from a number of former UW athletes. Not only have they offered encouragement to Hedstrom, but they have shared some of their competitive experiences at various levels of rowing.

"There's just so much pride that comes with racing internationally as a Badger,'' said Hedstrom. "You learned how to be tough and how to work hard when you were at the UW and to carry that to the international level is something really special and something that we take a lot of pride in. Knowing that you come from a program like Wisconsin kind of gives you an edge, I want to say.''

After making Team USA, she received an e-mail from a former UW rower who exhorted her "to get your claws out and race like a Badger.'' Others reminded her "to absorb the moment and remember what it's like to take part in the Olympics because it's such a special time.'' Throughout her development as an elite rower, Hedstrom has managed to keep everything in context, including her formative years.

"It takes a lot of perseverance and dedication to make it happen,'' said Hedstrom, a native of Concord, Mass., who spent her freshman year at Georgetown University before transferring to Wisconsin. "I definitely had high expectations when I came here and they were met in every way.''

Reflecting on her first impression of the UW rowing environment, she said, "Everyone worked really hard and they were really smart about how they worked. More than anything else, they were just a really tough team. You kind of need that toughness when you row at Wisconsin.

"There are so many days over the winter when you're training indoors and then in the spring, there are so many days when it's freezing cold outside and you have to get out there and practice, regardless of the weather and how early it is.

"When I arrived here, the girls on the team were ready to do whatever they needed to do to win. That definitely fit in with what I wanted from a team, so it was a great fit from the start.''

At heart, she will be racing as "Badger'' in London accounting for her high expectations. "Our event is so very competitive,'' she said, "but we're right in there with everybody else.''

Medaling is now on her radar.

Lucas at Large: Perseverance pays for James brothers in London


- Badgers in the Olympics

Perseverance is one of the common threads running through the nearly identical bios of Ross and Grant James, the 24-year-old twins from DeKalb, Ill., who are representing the Wisconsin men's rowing program in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Each has their own definition and application for the persistency that it takes to adhere to a course of action; in this case the course is 2,000 meters.

"Like most sports at this level to get to this point, you really have had to go through your share of training and competitions,'' Grant said. "The guys who persevere over others are the ones who have the commitment and just keep going at it; no matter what happens. All the hard work -- all the ups and downs -- help get a boat together, especially when you have eight guys together.''

Although they row from different sides in an eight-man boat -- Grant from the starboard side and Ross on the port side -- they're generally on the same page in terms of what it takes to be successful, on the water and off.  In 2008, they got their first taste of success on a big stage when Wisconsin's varsity eight boat outdueled No. 1 Washington for the national championship.

"Perseverance,'' said Ross, who's about four minutes younger than Grant, "is important with rowing because you have to show up every day and put in the miles. It's a lot of tough work and you often have to put aside gratification for a long time -- for maybe just one race at the end of the year. You could say that you have to persevere to get to the finish line.''

Their steadfast commitment to rowing, not to mention each other, is why they're competing for the U.S. Olympic team today in London; a journey which is the culmination of seven years of training and preparation, dating to their freshman year at the UW when they were introduced to the sport. They both were recruited by Badgers coach Chris Clark out of an orientation line; a time-honored tradition.

"It was the kind of thing where we were interested in trying something new,'' Ross said. "So you show up at the boathouse the first day with the other 130 freshmen who got talked into showing up. We just felt it was something worth trying and we're the kind of people who stick with stuff, so we kept doing it, we kept showing up. It was never easy but we won a few races and it was pretty cool.''

Cool but complicated because time management is of the essence.

"On top of the class work, studying and homework, you're going to two practices a day,'' said Ross. "It's not just the time you put in the boat house. It's the time it takes to get there, and the time it takes to cook the gross amount of food that you have to eat to stay alive. And there's the extra sleep that you try not to lose when studying or rowing because you're wearing yourself out more each day.''

The sacrifices add up. "You give up late nights or going out -- what normal college kids do,'' said Grant. "They can go out and have fun, but you have to go to bed early because you have practice in the morning. All your free time is spent studying and when you graduate, when your other classmates are going off and getting jobs, you keep training, you keep rowing full-time.''

To survive is to persevere. "Guys who make it this far are the ones who really want to be here; they've really got their hearts set on it,'' Grant said. "It's not easy coming out of college with no money and more training. But when you get the chance to go to the world championships, then the Olympics, when you finally make that boat, you say, 'That was worth it.'''

In this vein, Clark has played a valuable role in grooming the Brothers James. "He knows what needs to be done to really pick out those guys who never have rowed a stroke in their life,'' said Grant. "In a couple of years, he puts them in a spot where they can be elite athletes. I give him all the credit for developing us in the early years and getting us started on the road where we are now.''

Addressing what Clark may have initially seen in each of the 6-foot-5, 190-pound twins, Ross said, "He likes that we're tall -- almost gangly -- and our ability to be really long through the water. We're just a lever pulling an oar and the longer you can be, the better. We have a little bit of skill, enough to be able to move a boat pretty well and over the years we've developed the power to back that up.''

Olympics sports are routinely overshadowed on most college campuses. But laboring in the shadows of football and basketball and hockey was never an issue for the twins. "We never looked at it as having to compare ourselves with them,'' Ross said. "We like football. We like going to the games.  Of course that has funded all of our adventures, so we couldn't complain too much.''

Rationalizing further, he said, "We always tried to work hard, speak softly and carry a big stick. (Or oar, it was suggested to James, who ignored the play on words). We'd wear our letter jackets and bike around campus. People would perk up to see if we were a football player or not. We didn't mind too much.''

The fact that they have kept the streak alive -- UW rowers have now taken part in 12 consecutive Olympic Games -- is a source of tremendous pride for Ross and Grant James. "That's pretty special,'' Ross said, "especially because it's a program that takes guys like us - who didn't know anything about rowing -- and turns them into elite athletes. That's kind of a neat aspect to Wisconsin rowing.''

Competition fuels the twins. When they were still in their teens, on their way to becoming Eagle Scouts, they got invited to an indoor shooting range and, after firing a few rounds, the instructor asked them back with the promise to teach them how to shoot.  Fast learners, they went on to become a part of the Illinois state team and they each won a national championship in high-power rifle marksmanship.

"It's more of a mental, coordination sport; there's not any physical aspect to it,'' Grant said of their endeavors on the range. "But the focus needed to repeat over and over again with your shooting carries over in some ways to the same kind of focus to detail in rowing.''

Right now, Grant is pushing Ross to be the best rower in the Olympic boat.

Right now, Ross is pushing Grant to be the best rower in the Olympic boat.

You get the idea, right now, don't you?

"We're exceptionally competitive,'' Ross said. "We're twins; we have a lot of similar experiences, so basically everything is a competition. Rowing lends us to be competitive. When you're always running with somebody who's very similar physically, whoever wins on that day is usually just the guy who wanted it more. That's something that has always pushed us, which is good.''

While Grant acknowledged the obvious -- "Our whole lives, it has always been like, 'Who's the better twin?'' he said -- the focus is on something else in London. "This is everything we've been training for,'' he said. "Our goal is to get a medal, and I don't think we'll be satisfied if we don't.''

Lucas at Large: By any name, Ball is center of attention


CHICAGO -- Resplendent in a purple shirt, purple vest and purple bow tie, Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball wasn't necessarily trying to make a fashion statement here Thursday at the Big Ten football media assembly; nor was he showing his solidarity for Northwestern with his color selection and coordination.

It just looked that way, much to his dismay.

"No matter which color I picked, it was going to be somebody else's,'' he said.

Originally he was planning on going with a scarlet shirt. But he decided that matching scarlet with his grey suit -- Ohio State colors -- would have constituted more of a wardrobe malfunction. So he went with the purple and the bow tie, a personal first.

"I looked at it (a bow tie) and I said, 'Why not try it?''' he explained.

That might also be the best explanation for his name change.

Ball would prefer to be Mon-TAY instead of Mon-TEE.

"That's the actual pronunciation of my name,'' he pointed out.

Ball revealed his preference prior to last year's Heisman Trophy ceremonies in New York City.

But he backed off it then, and he didn't make a big deal out of it.

As far as he's concerned, it still isn't a big deal.

"I guess some reporters asked how I wanted to be called and I was thinking to myself since that's my actual name, let's go with Mon-TAY,'' he said.

None of his teammates have gotten into the habit yet of calling him Mon-TAY.

"But my girlfriend calls me Mon-TAY and now so do all of her friends,'' Ball said.

What does his mom call him?

"Junior,'' he said.

That eliminates any potential for some household confusion since he was named after his dad, Montee, Sr. That aside, there's no issue with calling him a Heisman finalist since he was one last season. Plus, he also ranks as one of one this season's Heisman frontrunners, since he's the leading returning vote-getter.

ESPN's Desmond Howard, who won the 1991 Heisman at Michigan, fielded some questions on Ball here Thursday. What's the best advice he could give to Ball going into his senior year?

"Take it game by game and don't pay attention to the hype,'' Howard said. "I think the best thing for Montee is that he went through it last year, so he kind of understands what the hype is all about.''

Howard has a high regard for Ball's make-up.

"His mentality is what has made him who he is today -- just the fact that he lost the weight and came back in better shape because he wanted to be the best he could be,'' he said. "That's what starts to separate good and great players, the mentality; not just the physical attributes but where you are mentally.''

During the morning media session, Ball got the chance to do a radio interview with another former Heisman winner, Ohio State's Eddie George, who won the award in 1995. "That was neat, that was shocking,'' Ball said. "Just looking at him and listening to him, I was thinking about all the things that he's done. It was incredible to be around him.''

Ball has tried to keep his own Heisman candidacy in perspective.

"It feels great being one of the leading candidates for the Heisman,'' he said. "But I'm just really looking forward to having another great season with the team because without the team's success I'm not going to be there (in the Heisman running).

"So I just have to make sure we practice hard and play hard and win our games so I can get my own personal goals; but most importantly we can win another Big Ten championship.''

Is there more pressure given the Heisman expectations?

"Actually, no,'' said Ball who paused and admitted, "Yeah to be honest there's a little bit (of pressure). But it's nothing that I'm too worried about because I know what I'm capable of doing if I stay healthy.

"I know I have the right mindset to go out there and practice as hard as I can and play as hard as I can. That's the only things that I can control.''

Ball estimated that about 50 percent of the questions that he received during the television interviews Thursday were about the pronunciation of his first name; the other 50 percent were about his decision to return for his senior year at Wisconsin.

"I was taught to never regret my decisions,'' he said. "I still support the decision that I made and I'm really grateful and happy that I came back because I'm enjoying myself. This is my last year in college football and I'm going to make sure that I have a really great year.''

MBB_practice 032.jpgWhen the NCAA granted college basketball coaches the opportunity for two hours of structured practice time per week during the two-month summer school window, there was the suspicion that some players might go "Iverson" and react to the news like Allen Iverson might have reacted: "We're sitting here talkin' about practice? Not a game, not a game. We're talking about practice, man?"

Wisconsin senior Jared Berggren grinned at the thought of it all.

"Practice?" he confessed, mimicking Iverson's voice inflexion. "That's exactly what I said."

UW junior Josh Gasser had a similar confession.

"My first reaction," he said, "was, 'What are we going to do?'"

We're gonna practice; we're talkin' about two hours of practice each week.

"The summer," Gasser said, "has always been kind of nice for doing your own thing."

But all of that has changed and Berggren and Gasser really aren't complaining.

On the contrary, they both endorse the new NCAA landscape for men's hoops.

Since the start of summer school, the Badgers have been practicing two hours every Tuesday.

"By having it (practice) once a week I think is perfect," Gasser said. "We play in open gym throughout the week but you get a little higher intensity of play now (with the coaches present); this elevates it up a notch. I think it's going to help us individually and as a team."

Without directly mentioning freshmen Sam Dekker and Zak Showalter, he added, "For the younger guys, they'll get to learn more quickly. Coming in the fall, it won't be as big of a shock to them when we start practice. They'll have a better idea of what's going on."

As a true freshman, Gasser started 30 games without the benefit of organized summer practices. In retrospect, he said, "It would have been nice to have from the standpoint of mentally getting used to the rules defensively and to the kinds of sets that we run offensively (at Wisconsin)."

The additional coaching structure is also bound to help a redshirt freshman like George Marshall, who'll be competing for minutes at the point guard position vacated by Jordan Taylor. Last season, Marshall worked exclusively on the scout team; manning up daily against Taylor in practice.

What are the benefits to the two hours of weekly instruction in June and July?

"I think the cohesiveness of the team comes together a little bit sooner," Marshall said. "You get a better feel for the coaches and the coaches get a better feel for you. If there's anything that needs fixing or you need to work on, you know earlier as opposed to waiting until the fall or the season."

Berggren recalled getting a "heads-up" on the changes from the basketball team's strength coach Scott Hettenbach who had to redesign his summer conditioning program since the two hours of practice time are coming out of the eight hours that were previously budgeted for training.

As a result, Hettenbach has put an even greater emphasis on quality over quantity. "With two less hours in the weight room," Gasser said, "we get in and we get out.  It's more high-quality work - fast and intense - and we still get the same amount of stuff done as we had in the past."

During those two hours on the court, Berggren said, "We knew that it was going to be different but we didn't know what to expect coming into it. In talking to the assistants, there was the thought that we would kind of do what we do in the spring and fall and that's more individual work.

"But we've done mostly team stuff - four-on-four; five-on-five - which is good. It's more game-like because you have coaches instructing you. Sometimes you can get into bad habits in open gym. This keeps everyone playing hard and we get to see who's coming along in the summer.

"For the freshmen, they can start getting doses of coaching in their ear; learning what they've got to do without being overwhelmed when we start going six days a week with our real practices. It gives them a taste early-on so they know what to expect and it will definitely speed along the process."

Along with the Tuesday practice, the open gym scrimmages are still critical to player development. "But Wednesdays are completely open now and that's kind of nice," Berggren said. "It's good to get in the gym on your own and get shots up and work on some individual skill stuff."

In this context, each player has his own needs.

"For me, it's the same thing every off-season," said Berggren. "I try to get stronger, quicker, more athletic. I try to get in better shape and I try to put on some muscle and lose some body fat."

Marshall is working "on my leadership and making the right reads" while continuing "to take my game to the next level" by making plays during the practices "and making my teammates better."

Being more of a leader is also on Gasser's radar. "I've played more minutes of game time than anyone on the team," he said, "so even though I'm a junior, I have to show some leadership out there."

As seniors, Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans will be expected to carry more of the burden in terms of their own accountability and leadership, especially with Taylor gone.

"We know that we have to be a little more vocal and take on a bigger leadership role," Berggren said. "We've all done that in our own ways this past spring and throughout the summer.

"It is different because it is our last chance. I've talked to Ryan about it - how this is kind of why we took the redshirt (as freshman). This is what it's all for now. We both recognize that."

There's something that Marshall has recognized, too. "Having leaders who are already established," he said of the UW's upperclassmen, "makes my transition a little easier."

Marshall hasn't forgotten some of the things that Taylor taught him. "He just said always play hard and always listen," he recounted. "My role is to do whatever it takes to help the team win."

Regarding that transition, Berggren observed, "George just needs game experience and these practices are the closest you can really get in the summer. It's better than just playing pick-up games."

The weekly two-hour practices not only keep an open line of communication between the coaches and the players during the summer, but it's another step in the team-building process.

"You can kind of see who's going to fit in where and who's competing for what minutes," Berggren said. "It's good to see guys battling like that already and it's only July."

Is there any chance for burnout with the extra practices? "No, not at all," Gasser said. "If we weren't doing this we'd be in here anyway working on our own game or playing in open gym."

Given the UW's returning personnel, and team strengths, the NCAA changes to the summer calendar couldn't have been more timely. "Guys need to find their roles," Gasser said. "And we've got a lot of guys who can play. We're probably deeper this year than we have been in the past."

Berggren was on the same page. "I think the sky is the limit for this team," he said. "We have four out of five starters coming back and a lot of guys off the bench who are all fighting for playing time. Everyone is hungry and looking to prove something. We have very high goals for ourselves."