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As the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart, the backup to the backup, Scott Tolzien didn't take any snaps for the San Francisco 49ers. But he still feels good about his ongoing pro football education.
"For starters, I get to go against the No. 1 defense in the NFL week-in and week-out,'' said Tolzien, the former Wisconsin quarterback, who runs the 49ers' scout team in practice.
"I remember when I first got here, I thought, 'Am I the worst football player around? Or, what's the deal?' It didn't take long to figure out that our defense is extremely good.''
It's one of the reasons why the 49ers are playing in Super Bowl XLVII against the Baltimore Ravens. Another reason has been the dramatic emergence of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Tolzien started the season as the backup to Kaepernick, who was the backup to Alex Smith. But after Smith suffered a concussion, Kaepernick took over as the starter and Smith is now the top reserve.
"I've learned a lot from just being the third guy,'' Tolzien admitted. "What I thought was really cool was that none of this quote-unquote controversy changed the dynamic in our quarterback room.
"It was still business as usual. Both guys, especially Alex, were so professional about it. I know it didn't change the way Alex prepared on a week-to-week basis. That included helping me and Colin.''
Regarding Kaepernick's rapid development, Tolzien said, "We all knew he had the physical tools. You saw that in practice. But the way he's done it on game days is extremely impressive.
"He's still a young quarterback yet he doesn't make the young guy mistakes. Even more than that, he's not just managing the game, he's making plays.''
Tolzien felt all along that Kaepernick "went into this thing extremely confident and once he was able to put a few games together, he can outwardly express that and take command of the huddle.''
Along with Washington's Robert Griffin III and Seattle's Russell Wilson, the dynamic Kaepernick has been at the forefront of introducing an innovative way to attack NFL defenses with the zone read.
"They took the league by storm this year,'' Tolzien opined. "In my mind, one of the top storylines has been what this offensive scheme has done to the league and how it has transformed it.''
But does it have staying power? Or is it a trend? Tolzien wasn't sure.
"I'm curious as anyone else,'' he said. "Right now, nobody has an answer. It creates a lot of one-on-one situations. All it takes is for one guy to be off on his gap responsibilities, and it's a house call.''
There has been no denying the impact of the dual-threat quarterback, for now, at least. But what about the new wave at the position? That includes RG3, Wilson and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck.
"I still don't think people understand how ridiculous that is to step into NFL huddle at that age and take over like they have,'' Tolzien said. "That's so uncommon. Yet they've made it look so easy.''
Tolzien, who led the Badgers to the 2010 Big Ten title, can derive satisfaction not only from the overall team results but in how the defense reacts to each individual opponent from week to week.
Leading up to the Super Bowl, he has simulated the tendencies of Baltimore's Joe Flacco and provided a picture of the Ravens offensively and "concepts that they're running'' with Flacco.
"Over the course of the season,'' Tolzien said, "if you take one piece from each guy (opposing QB), you can have a few more things in your own arsenal to draw from at the end of the season.
"I basically try to treat Wednesday and Thursdays as my game days. What it all boils down to is that you're preparing each week as the starter, whether you're third string or first string.
"You'd be cheating yourself -- you'd be cheating your team -- if you weren't doing that. A majority of my focus is on our own scheme. That's one of the fun parts of the gig.''
On Super Bowl Sunday, he will be "trying to live or play vicariously through the starter and provide an extra set of eyes for adjustments that can be made during timeouts and between series.''
The mere fact that he's on the roster of Super Bowl team has been pretty overwhelming.
"This last week has been crazy, but it also has been awesome,'' Tolzien said. "It's kind of like the same feeling when you win the Big Ten and you find out that you're going to the Rose Bowl.
"Now to actually have those two things happen, it's surreal. I'm so fortunate, and so thankful, and I want to make sure I don't ever take any of this for granted.''
Although he has been inactive more than he has been active, dressing for just three games during the regular season, Tolzien has treated his apprenticeship with urgency.
"You realize at this level that a lot of it is on you,'' Tolzien said. "If you're not good enough, they're going to find the next guy. That's pretty powerful right there.
"You'd better find a way to get better each week otherwise you're not going to last. There's another crop of guys coming into this league after the draft and they're looking to take your job.
"It will be like that every year until I establish myself in this league -- until I get playing time and prove that I can do it. I'm fine with that. Bottom line: you have to be hungry to get better.''
By all accounts, Tolzien is famished. "It's pretty simple, I want to be a starter (in the NFL),'' he said. "That hasn't changed since when I picked up a football when I was 10 years old.''
To this end, he has been taking advantage of his teachers: Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh, a former NFL signalcaller, and San Francisco quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, the brother of Pitt coach Paul Chryst.
"(Harbaugh) played over a decade in the league,'' Tolzien said, "so there's merit in the things that he points out to you, whether it's a defensive scheme or a fundamental of the position.
"It's not just coachspeak. He sees the game through our lens and that has been extremely helpful. I'm just so happy to work with both guys. They're first-class individuals and awesome coaches.
"Geep is the more talkative version of Paul (who was Tolzien's offensive coordinator at Wisconsin). They have the same humor and personality. You're just going to hear more out of Geep.''
As it was, Tolzien heard from Smith after the Badgers hired Gary Andersen as their new head coach in December.
Smith and Andersen were at Utah at the same time.
"Right away, he goes, 'That's an awesome hire,''' Tolzien said. "He told me he's just one of the most genuine people that you'll ever come across, just a normal guy.''
Not unlike Tolzien.
Perhaps there have been UW teams with more overall talent. Maybe this group needed an additional playmaker or two. But anyone who paid any attention would never question the heart and genuine class of this team. To me, that is what made it special.
Early in the season, or probably even before the season, there was reason to wonder why Montee Ball returned for his senior year. An assault before training camp. Early struggles in general with the offense. An injury in the game against UTEP. There were plenty of reasons to second-guess Ball's decision to come back.
I think now we can say it worked out pretty well for the Doak Walker Award winner. Yep, by staying in school, the NCAA's career touchdown leader may have outsmarted us all.
It would be difficult for many of us to even try to imagine what Curt Phillips has gone through. With multiple knee surgeries, who would have blamed him for giving up the game?
I think now we can say it worked out well for the fifth-year senior. He started the final five games, and was able to live a dream by playing in the Rose Bowl, and playing well.
There are many other stories of players who overcame injuries, such as right guard Kyle Costigan. He was not going to let a "little" thing -- like a dislocated kneecap -- keep him off the field very long.
The return to health of cornerback Devin Smith was a big step for a secondary that turned out to be very solid. The improvement of Marcus Cromartie was fun to watch, and the play of safety Dez Southward should have everyone excited for next season.
The defensive line returns next fall, led by tackles Ethan Hemer and Beau Allen. The linebacking corps will miss Mike Taylor, an all-day tough and talented player who helped recruit a Hall of Fame coach back to the sideline.
To say the least, the 2012 Wisconsin Badgers had a few obstacles. Down-to-the-wire games that got away. An in-season change with an assistant. Then, a change with the head coach following a stunning performance in the conference championship game.
While Bret Bielema's decision to leave for Arkansas was quite a jolt, the chance to watch Barry Alvarez back on the field was a treat for players and fans alike.
"I had a blast," said Alvarez shortly after the game. So did the players, both past and present. Watching Alvarez lead his team out of the tunnel one more time in Pasadena is a snapshot I will keep in my mind forever.
To those who are leaving, the coaches and especially the senior players, I say thank you and wish you great success in the future.
To those who are returning, your future looks promising. New coach Gary Andersen and his staff are eager to get to know you better. While the result on New Year's Day was not what you hoped, my guess is the new boss liked much of what he witnessed in the last couple of weeks.
Hopefully there is a Rose Bowl title in your future. But until then, being the three-time Big Ten champs isn't all that bad.
The fourth episode of "Path to Pasadena" takes you along for the Badgers' final run-up to the 99th Rose Bowl Game, from practice to the Lawry's Beef Bowl to their pep rally at LA Live.
The Badgers put in their penultimate practice for the Rose Bowl on Sunday, but not before being energized by thousands of fans who have descended on Los Angeles for the game.
Prior to heading back to The Home Depot Center for drills, the team made an appearance at LA Live for a special Rose Bowl Pep Rally. Around 3,000 UW fans showed up for the event, which included a performance from the UW Marching Band and remarks from special guests like UW-Madison Chancellor David Ward and Badgers legend Ron Dayne.
The biggest cheer, however, came when the team emerged from the Staples Center onto a balcony overlooking the plaza at LA Live, tossing T-shirts and autographed footballs into the crowd. Following some words from interim head coach Barry Alvarez, defensive captains Chris Borland, Shelton Johnson and Mike Taylor spoke to the fans, as did Travis Frederick, Curt Phillips, and finally, Montee Ball.
For Alvarez, the event followed one last media availability leading up to game day, a morning press conference for both head coaches at the Rose Bowl media hotel in downtown L.A.
Monday's schedule has the Badgers heading to Pasadena to take a team photo outside the Rose Bowl, followed by one final practice session and a screening of the movie "Jack Reacher."
A rainy morning in Los Angeles made it an easy decision for the Wisconsin coaching staff to call of practice for the day, but the inclement weather brought with it a silver lining.
The Badgers called an audible and held a walk-through at the team hotel instead of busing to The Home Depot Center for what was scheduled to be a quick 12-period practice. Interim head coach Barry Alvarez told the team that the staff's focus for Saturday was aimed at mental preparation anyway, so the hotel walk-through fit in well with the schedule.
After the offensive and defensive units finished their walk-throughs in adjacent ballrooms at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, the Badgers had the opportunity to host guests from AbilityFirst, an L.A.-area charity aimed at "expanding possibilities" for children and adults with special needs.
The group had originally planned to join the team on the practice field, but the change in venue brought an opportunity for the Badgers to bring their guests into the players' game room and lounge at the hotel.
No one from either side was complaining when a pool table, ping pong and video games were thrown into the mix, as evidenced by junior LB Chris Borland's tweet:
Tom was a pool shark and a ping pong master.I want to make it back next year for a rematch! twitter.com/chrsbrlnd/stat...-- chris r borland (@chrsbrlnd) December 29, 2012
The Badgers' walk-through and time with the guests from AbilityFirst came after the entire squad bused to The L.A. Hotel Downtown for the Rose Bowl's annual media day. Players and coaches spent 30 minutes being interviewed, including some who took time to join an onsite crew from BTN captained by Rick Pizzo, Glen Mason and fromer Badger Brandon Williams.
From takeoff in Madison to touchdown in Los Angeles and beyond, the latest episode of UWBadgers.com's video series "Path to Pasadena" takes you behind the scenes of the Badgers' preparations for the Rose Bowl.
If nothing else, it's worth watching Beau Allen go from searching Disneyland for princesses to telling Darth Vader he's making the switch to the Dark Side.
Also be sure to check out the first two episodes:
For many of Wisconsin's players, the highlight of the week leading up to the Rose Bowl came Friday as the Badgers descended on Lawry's The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills for the annual Lawry's Beef Bowl.
A part of the Rose Bowl since 1957, the event gives both participating teams in The Granddaddy of Them All to have one grand meal.
Over the years, the Beef Bowl has also developed into an unofficial competition between the Rose Bowl opponents. Last year, the Badgers consumed 723 pounds of prime rib to easily defeat Oregon and its total of 612 pounds.
Travis Frederick led the way by putting away what is believed to be a record eight servings of prime rib. That came on the heels of his seven servings in 2011.
Frederick's mark was in danger of falling on Friday once sophomore OL Dallas Lewallen picked up his fork and knife. However, Lewallen's night came to an end after he finished seven servings to match the effort of Stanford freshman OL Joshua Garnett from the Cardinal's appearance at Lawry's on Thursday.
"They couldn't bring the meat out fast enough," said Lewallen, who simply ran out of time to eat before he was forced to return to the team buses in order to make the trip back to the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza.
Not to be outdone, junior DT Beau Allen -- considered by many of his teammates to be a challenger to Frederick's throne going into the event -- drew the duty of making the ceremonial "first cut" of prime rib. Wearing a chef's coat and hat, Allen served the first cut to Badgers interim head coach Barry Alvarez.
Preparations continue on practice field
The Badgers' day began with LB Chris Borland, DT Ethan Hemer, S Shelton Johnson, CB Devin Smith and LB Mike Taylor accompanying defensive coordinator Chris Ash and co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge to a morning media session at The L.A. Hotel Downtown.
After position and special teams meetings, the Badgers returned to the practice field at The Home Depot center and worked for 16 periods. The practice again featured live contact in short scrimmages between the offensive and defensive units.
New head coach Gary Andersen, who takes the helm at UW following the Rose Bowl, was a guest on the sideline for the practice session after arriving from Logan, Utah. His arrival into L.A. came a day later than planned due to winter weather that grounded air travel out of Utah on Thursday.
Andersen met with members of the media following practice and said he hopes to announce the bulk of his coaching staff over the next few days.
Saturday morning is Rose Bowl media day, with the entire Badgers roster set to head to the media hotel downtown for availability with members of the local and national media.
The fun and games of Wednesday's trip to Disneyland behind them, the Badgers got back to work on Thursday by returning to the practice field at The Home Depot Center.
After being relegated to an artificial surface on Wednesday due to wet field conditions, UW drilled for 18 periods on natural grass Thursday to better simulate the turf they'll play on in the Rose Bowl.
Prior to practice, Jared Abbrederis, Montee Ball, Travis Frederick, Curt Phillips and James White accompanied offensive coordinator Matt Canada to the Rose Bowl's media hotel in downtown Los Angeles for a morning press conference.
The biggest news of the day came from Canada, who told reporters that junior QB Joel Stave will be cleared to play for the game. Canada said Stave, who has been recovering from a broken collarbone suffered vs. Michigan State on Oct. 27, will be worked into the game plan in some capacity, while Phillips will be the starting quarterback.
"There's a chance you'll see him out there at times," Canada said of Stave.
That came as news to Stave -- who had yet to be officially cleared for game action -- when reporters questioned him on the development following practice.
"I figured by the way I was practicing without any pain that I'd get cleared sooner or later," he said.
Back to the fun and games, the Badgers' last stop for the day was the Improv in Hollywood to take in a stand-up comedy act. The annual stop has become a favorite of the players over their past two trips to the Rose Bowl,