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The Voice: Why are we putting blame ahead of the game?

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgDon't know about you, but I am still trying to figure out baseball's infield fly rule, and why some fans might cheer when one of their favorite team's own players is injured.

It sure has been an interesting week in the world of fun and games.

Every now and then, fan behavior becomes the focus of attention, and that certainly has been the case in the last seven days.

During the baseball playoffs last Friday, the Atlanta Braves had runners at first and second with one out. The hitter, Andrelton Simmons, lifted a fly ball to shallow left field. Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma ran out to try and make the play, while outfielder Matt Holliday drifted in to do the same. The ball dropped, but umpire Sam Holbrook declared the infield fly rule, meaning the batter is out, and the runners can advance at their own risk.

Fans were irate and littered the field with bottles, cans and other assorted debris. After nearly 20 minutes, the game resumed. The Cardinals won, while Braves fans left the stadium angry -- and because of the actions of some -- looking foolish.

Then last Sunday, while the struggling Kansas City Chiefs were in the process of losing a low-scoring game to Baltimore, much-maligned quarterback Matt Cassel was injured. While opinions vary, it appeared at least some fans at Arrowhead Stadium were cheering at the sight of Cassel not getting up.

How many fans were cheering is very much open to question, but there were enough to send offensive tackle Eric Winston into a postgame rant.

"When you cheer somebody getting knocked out, I don't care who it is. And it just so happened to be Matt Cassel. It's sickening. It's 100 percent sickening," said Winston. "I've been in some rough times on some rough teams -- I've never been more embarrassed in my life to play football."

Strong stuff.

While Winston has stood by his comments, the following day he did point out that he was not referring to everyone in the stadium. "It might have been 7,000. It might have been 700. It's still too many," Winston told reporters.

No doubt fans in both Atlanta and Kansas City are stinging at the national reaction to the actions of some.

Clearly, and yes, sadly, what happened in those stadiums can happen in any number of cities. While the above examples are from professional sporting events, it seems cases of anger in the stands is becoming more and more evident, even during college games.

Maybe not to the extent of what we have witnessed in the last week, but for some, going to a game is less about enjoyment and more about venting why so-and-so stinks.

It would be irresponsible to claim that fans are the only ones at fault. The media, of which I am a member, has become less about information and more about stirring the pot -- the louder the better.

A common postgame question in the sports talk/message board/Twitter world/blogosphere crowd is "Who's to blame?"   

If we disagree on something, no matter how minor, it is an OUTRAGE!  

All too often, we specialize in overreaction. By "we" I mean media, as well as fans.

No doubt part of this is because of the high salaries of today's pro athletes, and the big bucks pulled in by college coaches. Mega-million-dollar salaries and higher ticket prices can equal increased expectations. But I tend to believe the bigger reason is simple. We have so many avenues to vent, from talk radio, to reader comments in the online editions of newspapers, and of course, through social media.

Everyone has a voice, and it is open season, 24/7/365.

I would like to believe most fans still love the game more than they love to be angry. While not unprecedented, what happened in Atlanta is still the exception to the rule. Kansas City is known as a terrific sports town, especially when it comes to the Chiefs.

So who's to blame? Maybe a lot us, myself included, can start by looking in the mirror.

The Voice: Badgers keep finding time to give back

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgThere is classroom work and study table. There are position meetings, team meetings, video sessions and practices. There is travel, which can include long flights and bus rides.

Then there are the games, with packed arenas, stadiums, and perhaps up to a few million more fans viewing every play.

A college athlete signs up for all of this. So do the coaches.

Yet, at the University of Wisconsin, the 800 or so student-athletes and coaches make time to give back to the community. For the past several years, it was thought to be a safe guess that UW student-athletes donated some 1,500 hours a year to community service projects.

Turns out the number was more than double that.

Last year, Badgers players and coaches engaged in more than 3,600 hours of community service, ranging from hospital visits and trips to schools to promote reading to projects such as Habitat for Humanity.

"It's really remarkable, with all of their busy schedules, with classes, practices, games and so on, that they make the time to do all of this," UW Associate Athletic Director for External Relations Justin Doherty said.

Yet they do it eagerly.

"Our student-athletes are just amazing with the kids," says Doherty. "The hospital visits, with reading. They have become kids themselves again."

Now the process of connecting with UW Athletics is easier. The department recently launched a new platform called "Badgers Give Back." The goal is to better serve fans and the Madison community.

Organizations can make a request online via the "Badgers Give Back" page at UWBadgers.com.

"It (the request) goes through compliance," explains Doherty. "It goes through our community relations coordinator (Kayla Gross). The process is easy now. We feel good about it, and we feel good that we can communicate what we do."

Coaches spend countless hours trying to figure out how to win the next game. Nobody understands that any better than UW Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez. Yet, he knows the importance of reaching out to the community, and he wants every team on campus to embrace the concept.

"We've tried to take this to our players. We have to give back, too," Alvarez said. "It is not just about our fans giving to us. It is about us giving back to the community. All of our student-athletes buy into that. We know we are an important part of this city, and we want to make sure we give back."

And they have. And they will continue to give back.

In recent years, certain stories have gained a fair amount of attention, such as former Badgers quarterback Scott Tolzien's relationship with a young man who has battled cancer.

While he played basketball at Wisconsin, Michael Flowers also became friends with a young man going through a rough stretch.

Those are just two examples of countless stories where a fan can see a student-athlete away from the athletic arena.

I can tell you from personal experience that the athletes and the coaches enjoy using their platform accordingly, and often are very touched by the people they meet.

During the games it is easy to get excited when the Badgers win, or frustrated win they lose. But it is good to know that there is a lot more to UW student-athletes than where their teams are in the conference standings or national polls.

With the "Badgers Give Back" initiative, it now is a more efficient process for those efforts to continue.

The Voice: Following NFL Badgers an enjoyable challenge

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgGood to see that Russell Wilson wasted little time before he got involved in one of the more controversial plays in NFL history.

There's just something about Mary, as in Hail Mary, that will always be a part of this state.

If nothing else, the former Badgers quarterback showed his usual coolness under fire, and the last-second throw was where it needed to be, giving Golden Tate a chance (push-off or not).

While that was a stand-alone Monday night game, I have become addicted to a channel called NFL Red Zone, which on Sundays in the fall takes the viewer from game to game. The big sales pitch is the Red Zone channel will show every touchdown. It is great for fantasy players and anyone else who just likes to keep tabs on what's going in the league.

I am not one of those fantasy players, but for me the Red Zone channel helps me watch all those former Badgers making an impact in today's NFL.

Last Sunday I watched J.J. Watt come up with a big sack of Peyton Manning. In his second year, Watt is becoming a force. In last week's edition of Sports Illustrated, longtime NFL writer Peter King noted that he thinks by the end of the year, Watt will be the league's best 3-4 defensive end.

Owen Daniels isn't half bad, either. A teammate of Watt's in Houston, Daniels scored a big fourth-quarter TD against Denver. But I can't pull too hard for the Texans because Jim Leonhard is a Bronco. Right now his primary role is as a punt returner, but I will not dismiss his chances of working his way into the Denver secondary.

Before Monday night's game with the Packers, the channel allowed me to watch Seattle's first two games, including Wilson's regular-season debut, when he nearly led the Seahawks to victory at Arizona. It is fun to watch the not-quite 5-foot-11 quarterback continue to impress, if not amaze, the doubters with his play-making ability. I also get a kick out of watching John Moffitt and Chris Maragos.

It is much the same with Kevin Zeitler and Chris Pressley of the Cincinnati Bengals, and Joe Thomas with Cleveland. Then there is O'Brien Schofield with the surprising Cardinals, DeAndre Levy with Detroit, Matt Shaughnessy with the Raiders and Brad Nortman with the Carolina Panthers.

While I felt badly for Travis Beckum when he was hurt in the Super Bowl, I had to smile knowing his Giants won it all, and the one-time Badgers tight end had earned a championship ring.

There are others of course, but you get the idea. For a program that supposedly doesn't land very many Parade All-Americans, the Badgers sure have a lot of guys in the NFL.

Yes, I make every effort to set aside three hours to catch the Packers. You can't live in this state nearly half of your life and not get caught up in the rich tradition of the franchise. The fact that it is such as well-run operation makes it even more fun.

However, being a fan of the game in general, it is my own Sunday tradition to keep an eye on those former Badger standouts that are making a mark at the next level.

Considering there are some two dozen Badgers getting NFL paychecks, keeping up with them is a challenge, but it sure makes Sundays more enjoyable.

The Voice: Early struggles point to open Big Ten race

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgAt this early stage of the college football season, it appears to be a familiar story at the top of the rankings. The SEC is well represented, with four or five other teams still jockeying for position. Otherwise, it looks as though there will be some wide open races for conference championships.

That includes the Big Ten.

For now, this proud, tradition-rich league will have to put up with criticism from various pundits and fans across America. So far, the conference has not performed well in the bigger stage games. Fair or unfair, the jabs go with the territory.

However, it is fair to suggest that this is a league where several of the better programs are in transition, from new head coaches at Penn State and Ohio State, to new starting quarterbacks and wide receivers at Wisconsin and Michigan State.

The process of change can be painful at times, and three of the four above mentioned teams already have a loss. The fourth, Ohio State, while unbeaten, seems to be far from a finished product.

In the meantime, everyone just keeps working to get better. Including the Badgers, who last Saturday extended their home winning streak to 18 games.

No, it wasn't pretty, but no apologizes are needed either. Utah State has made a habit of taking BCS teams to the very end, and last weekend was no exception.

The game reminded me of the 1997 season, when the Badgers needed a late touchdown to beat Boise State 28-24. This was before Boise State became the national name it is today. Badgers quarterback Mike Samuel somehow avoided what would have been a game-sealing sack and converted a game-saving fourth-down play that led to the clinching score.

In college football, sometimes looking pretty can be important. Other times, it can be overrated. Right now for the Badgers, scoring one more point than the other guy is pretty enough.

They have company.

Take a look at Stanford. The Cardinal is coming off an emotionally charged victory against USC, a team many tabbed as a BCS favorite. The seven-point win against the Trojans is not the tightest game Stanford has played this season. So far, the closest call was against San Jose State. The Cardinal won that game 20-17. Not very pretty, but I would guess the good folks in Palo Alto said thank you very much and moved on.

Remember Oklahoma State, a team that last fall was on the cusp of playing for the national title? Like the Badgers, the Cowboys are 2-1. Unlike the Badgers, the one loss was a beat down, 59-38 at Arizona. I am guessing fans in Stillwater prefer winning ugly to losing ugly.

At the moment, the national stage shows a fairly clear separation between the national title contenders and the rest of the pack.

The Big Ten shows a much different picture. Each week, opinions vary on who is the best team. There is talent, but everyone shows a flaw or two. It will be interesting to see which team can make the most improvement in the shortest amount of time. In what is shaping up to be an up-for-grabs conference title chase, little if anything will be easy.

Something tells me that several teams in this league have their best work ahead of them. If I am right, the image of the league could change for the better sooner than later.

More importantly, it would lead to one crazy and entertaining season of Big Ten football.

The Voice: Badgers don't have to wait for chance to improve

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgNo matter what you think of the onside kick replay reversal, and I have an idea what many of you believe, perhaps the best line on the subject comes from Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema, who told reporters on Monday that the Badgers "never should have put ourselves in that position."

So, after further review, it is time to move on.

These are interesting and challenging days for Wisconsin football. There is a coaching change at offensive line. That is the big news of the week, and it certainly is understandable.

There also is another good opponent coming to town. It is becoming more and more clear that the non-conference schedule is more difficult than most expected.

Which sets up quite the contrast in perceived intangibles Saturday night.

On one side is Utah State, a team riding high after last Friday's victory against in-state rival Utah. Through the first two games of the season, dynamic sophomore quarterback Chuckie Keeton has completed 77 percent of his passes. When the Aggies choose, the offense is up-tempo and features a little bit of everything.

Add to that an aggressive defense and a special teams unit that scored a touchdown on a blocked punt against the Utes, and you probably have the ingredients for a confident bunch coming to Madison this weekend.

On the other side is Wisconsin. The Badgers are in search of answers to fix an ailing offense. It probably was unrealistic to assume they could continue to put up the historic numbers of the past couple of years, but no doubt even neutral observers were surprised at what happened last weekend in Corvallis.

First, give some credit to Oregon State. It is a proud program with a proven head coach who is determined to get his own program back to its winning ways.

Second, maybe we should take a step back and understand there are three new primary starters on the offensive line (I say primary because Ryan Groy did have four starts last year, but gone are Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby). The wide receiving corps is very young, and became younger when Jared Abbrederis was injured in the second quarter last Saturday.

Beyond the adjustment to a new offensive line coach, it seems logical to suggest that the lack of established threats outside can result in an opposing defense to focus even more on the running game.

Hopefully sooner than later, those young guns can become established threats.

One more thing to consider before jumping off the ledge: While those of us in the media can spend a lot of time writing and talking about what is wrong these days, and while some fans do the same, a team just moves ahead.

An easy reference is the 1999 Badgers, which lost at Cincinnati, then dropped the Big Ten opener the following week to Michigan. At that point Wisconsin was 2-2 overall, 0-1 in the conference. It never lost again.

An easier reference is last year, after back-to-back setbacks to Michigan State and Ohio State. If I remember correctly, things improved a bit after those two games.

Yes, sometimes teams are unable to get back on track, and the above examples are different teams in different years. But perhaps the lesson isn't so much for the Badgers themselves, but for those of us who follow them.

I am not even close to being smart enough to know how this season will unfold, but I would like to believe there are plenty of folks out there who are open-minded enough to give this team a chance to fix what needs fixing.

The Badgers will have that next opportunity beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday evening.

The Voice: Road trip offers opportunity for Badgers

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgAs much as I enjoy a home game at Camp Randall Stadium, it is always interesting to see a team hit the road for the first time. Prior to Big Ten play last year, the Badgers' only trip outside of Madison was a "road neutral" game at Soldier Field in Chicago against Northern Illinois.

This week figures to be a little different.

It seems the folks at Oregon State are billing this Saturday's tussle as the biggest non-conference game ever played in Corvallis.

"I think it's an opinion, but it's arguable," Beavers coach Mike Riley told reporters. The Corvallis Gazette-Times quotes Riley as saying "I'd take them (UW as the best team) over anyone else who has come in here."

So much for Bucky playing the "no respect" card.

Reser Stadium is the home of Oregon State football. It seats 45,674 fans. Not the biggest stadium, but my guess is it can get plenty loud in there.

It might be safe to assume that the crowd will be ready for a showcase game, with hopes of an upset that could spark a program that is not all that far removed from being very good.

The last two seasons have been a struggle for Oregon State. Last year in Madison, the Badgers trounced OSU 35-0.

However, in recent years, Coach Riley has had a couple of teams on the brink of winning the league title and earning a trip to the Rose Bowl. While few folks out west are expecting a run to the Pac-12 championship, many believe the Beavers will be much improved.

Quarterback Sean Mannion gained a ton of experience last fall, and entering his sophomore season, he knows he has one of the league's top targets in Markus Wheaton (73 receptions for 986 yards in 2011).

A year's experience should help the defense, as well, led by sophomore defensive end Scott Crichton, who is on the Lombardi Award watch list. Cornerback Jordan Poyer also is a big-time player. Last year he had four interceptions. In his career he has returned two picks for touchdowns, and in 2011 returned a punt 85 yards for a score against UCLA.

Since I don't play, it is easy to say this -- I'm hoping for a loud house on Saturday afternoon. After this week, the next road game is the conference opener at Nebraska. At night. You think it might be a tad noisy in Lincoln?

Might as well get a preview of coming attractions, right?

This week the Badgers get to test the old saying about how teams can make a big jump from the first game to the second. The mistakes from the opener were well-documented -- from a choppy offense to a defense that had costly breakdowns in the second half.

However, both sides were able to close the deal. The defense, with pressure from Warren Herring and a deflected pass from Ethan Hemer, stopped Northern Iowa on a critical fourth-and-1. Then the offense ran out the clock.

A work of art? Not really, but the Badgers will take it and learn some valuable lessons.

What they learn will come in handy as they make their first road trip of the season to face an opponent eager to show the college football world that it can roll with the big boys.

The Voice: Six set to join elite group in Hall of Fame

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgThis Friday evening, the University of Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame will add six new members -- Jim Haluska, Jim Haines, Lawrence Johnson, Karen Lunda, Cory Raymer and Dick Bennett.

In Varsity magazine a couple of weeks ago, Mike Lucas took us down memory lane with Raymer, the All-America center who helped the Badgers to their first-ever Rose Bowl victory, as well as with Coach Bennett, who no doubt is best known for leading the Badgers on the magical run to the 2000 Final Four.

In addition to being a great player, Raymer was a reporter's dream. Maybe the best way to describe Cory Raymer is by saying he was John Moffitt before we ever heard of John Moffitt. During a media day, some photographers were gathering players for various photos. Raymer emerged from the tunnel and heard his name. The center responded "I answer to anything with 'dumb' in front of it."  

Raymer was dumb like a fox.

The media loved Bennett, as well. He liked to tell fans that he could show Barry Alvarez's football team how to pass, while Coach Alvarez's boys could teach the basketball squad how to run.

But never confuse their sense of humor with their competitive nature. No doubt the desire to maximize his or her potential is what drove each member in the Class of 2012.

Wrestler Jim Haines overcame a knee injury and competed in the 1976 Olympic Summer Games. The following season at Wisconsin, Haines became an NCAA champion by beating Big Ten rival Mike McArthur of Minnesota.

Former coach Duane Kleven says Haines had a combination of toughness and smarts that made him extra special, referring to him as a "mental giant."  When his wrestling days were done, Haines became a coach -- of girls' softball at Pepin High School. He led his team to two state titles.

With this year marking the 40th anniversary of Title IX, one could make a strong argument that Karen Lunda is one of the more important athletes in UW history. Lunda lettered both in field hockey and soccer. While attending Madison West High School, she also played tennis, softball and competed in speed skating.

After starring in field hockey in her first three years at UW, the school dropped the program, so she turned her attention to the new varsity sport on campus, soccer.

In 1981, Lunda became the first Badger women's soccer All-American. More than three decades later, she remains the UW single-season leader in goals (22), assists (18) and total points (62). Her coach, Craig Webb, believes if Karen Lunda played soccer today, she would be an Olympic gold medalist.

Lawrence Johnson also was a two-sport athlete. A Big Ten champion in four events in track, Johnson was an All-America defensive back for the Badgers in 1978. His coaches said he played man coverage better than anyone on the team, and opposing coaches must have agreed. Johnson's interception total was modest, in large part because quarterbacks would tend not to test him.

Johnson also likes to tell the story of how, in his freshman year, there was a 100-yard dash after a practice. Before the race, his new football teammates must have had little if any knowledge of Johnson's speed. Halfway through the race, they found out. Simply put, Lawrence Johnson was more than a track star who could play football, or vice-versa. He simply was a star in both sports.

Today, Badger football fans are well aware of transfer quarterbacks, but the story might not be as new as you think.

In 1950, Jim Haluska enrolled at Michigan. In time, he decided that Ann Arbor was not for him, so the Racine native returned to his home state. In 1952, he went from being the fifth-string quarterback to the starter. A few months later, Haluska led the league in completion percentage, and the Badgers were Rose Bowl-bound for the first time in school history.

Each inductee should be very proud to be a UW Athletic Hall of Famer. That elite group grows to 190 members. What already is a good "team" is about to get even better.

Lucas at Large: With help, Knox finds his way to Madison


- Related: Varsity Magazine - The QB Question

A funny thing happened to Chase Knox on his way to New York City, Columbia University and the Ivy League -- fate and a couple of former NFL quarterbacks intervened on his behalf.

As a result, Knox -- the "other'' California quarterback; the one not named Bart Houston, whose arrival has been delayed due to injury -- ended up in Madison and on the UW roster for training camp.

"Everything just fell into place,'' said Knox, a freshman from San Diego.

Little did he know that when he got to camp that sophomore quarterback Joe Brennan, the backup to Russell Wilson last season, would be seeking to transfer to another school.

That has elevated Knox to No. 4 on the depth chart behind Danny O'Brien, Curt Phillips and Joel Stave -- in no particular order since the rotation has yet to be determined among the top three.

In the meantime, Knox has summarily assumed the role of scout team quarterback.

"He's a great fit, a great kid, and he has done a great job,'' gushed Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada. "He's an unbelievably intelligent football player.

"Everything that has been installed, he knows front to back. He can get on the board and teach it to you right now. He knows the system, he knows the signals, he knows everything. He's a special kid.''

Knox also knows what the Badgers want out of him, for now.

"I want to play some day,'' he said. "But I want to come in and work as hard as I can every day and continue to learn from all of these guys, master the offense and do whatever I have to do.''

So how did he wind up at Wisconsin?

Some Pac-12 schools -- Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona State -- had expressed mild interest during the recruiting process. But nobody was willing to make a strong commitment.

Knox settled on Columbia, an FCS program, because "I just wanted a strong Ivy League school.''

That was before he crossed paths with Canada and UW linebackers coach Andy Buh.

"Coach Buh initiated it all,'' Knox said.

Buh, a California native (Escondido), still has many contacts in the state from his previous coaching stops at San Diego State, Fresno State and Stanford.

"So we were doing some recruiting, we were out there looking,'' Canada said of their recruiting foray into Southern California, "and we talked to a couple of people about our situation.''

The word got out to people like San Diego-based quarterback guru George Whitfield. In turn, Buh and Canada heard nothing but good things about Knox from a variety of sources.

"We then had a couple of guys call on his behalf,'' Canada said. "And that carries a lot of weight when a guy in the Hall of Fame calls you. Steve Young and Jeff Garcia were the two calls.''

Young, a member of the college football and pro football halls of fame, was the MVP of the NFL in 1992 and 1994 and the MVP of Super Bowl XXIX. Garcia was a four-time Pro Bowler.

Both felt Knox should not be overlooked because he might be undersized. He's listed at 6-1.

Beyond that, Canada said, "Their point was, 'Here's a great person and intelligent football player and we think he deserves a shot.''' Buh, Canada and UW coach Bret Bielema agreed.

"He has come in here,'' Canada said, "and he has not disappointed.''

As fate would have it, Knox is now playing in Madison after playing for Madison.

Knox played two years at Madison High School in San Diego.

His transfer from Brophy Prep in Phoenix, Ariz., to Madison High became quite a controversy.

The California Interscholastic Federation, at one point, ruled that Knox had made an "invalid chance of residency'' and forced Madison High to forfeit all 11 victories in which Knox had played.

That included the 2010 Division IV San Diego section championship game at Qualcomm Stadium.

Knox completed 20-of-32 passes for a career-high 385 yards and three touchdowns in leading Madison to a 40-14 win over Valley Center in that title game.

After Knox was declared retroactively ineligible, the Knox family fought back by suing the CIF and winning the case, which restored Knox's eligibility and all the victories to Madison High.

"I wanted the wins for the team,'' Knox said. "For me personally I just wanted to play my senior year, which wasn't going to happen if that (the lawsuit) didn't go through, so obviously that was huge.

"It just taught me to put things that are unimportant behind you and it taught me focus. That whole season I had to focus on things that I could control and not the things that I couldn't.''

While Knox has been toiling as a scout team quarterback against UW's No. 1 defense in training camp, Canada has been in the process of evaluating O'Brien, Phillips and Stave for the No. 1 job.

"Camp is camp, they're up and down,'' Canada said. "Obviously, it's getting closer and closer to that game (the Sept. 1 opener against Northern Iowa) every second that ticks.

"We will continue to evaluate. Each of them has tremendous strengths. Joel Stave is a big-armed guy; Joel is a big-time football player, no question. But he's a freshman who has never played.

"Curt Phillips has played in some games here and he has been around for a long time. He's battling back (from three ACL surgeries) and knocking the rust off.

"Danny O'Brien is new to our program, but he has game experience (17 starts at Maryland). You can see that when he's out there playing.

"As you sit here and watch,'' Canada said, "it's not like you can look out there and say, 'These two guys are good and when that other guy is in there, you can tell (the difference).'

"We've got three guys who are playing pretty well.

"It's not a problem, it's a tremendous opportunity.''

To find one who will start the opener.

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.

The Voice: In the end, we're talking about practice

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIt is probably becoming an annual advisory, but as the Badger football team continues its spring practices leading up to the annual Wisconsin Football Spring Game on April 28, once again I offer the following free advice -- do not get too wound up about what you see, hear or read.

Certainly there are some interesting story lines. Believe it or not, some of them do not include the quarterbacks, but it is dangerous for any Badgers fan to draw conclusions from what you might see on a given day.

In the nearly quarter of a century that I have been around this program, I can't remember one spring game where I walked out of the stadium thinking, "Man, this team looks great!"  It is a practice. If the defense has a good day, fans worry about the offense. If the offense lights up the scoreboard, the defense must be bad, right?

That is not to say the game has been devoid of memorable moments, such as the snow storm during the 1994 spring game. When snowball fights started breaking out on the field, you just knew the day was a little unusual.  The worst moment was in the 2002 scrimmage, when star receiver Lee Evans suffered a season-ending knee injury. The coaches wanted to throw him one deep ball, after which Evans' day would be done. It was, only not in the way anyone intended.

Let us hope nothing close to that happens on the 28th, or ever again in a spring game.

It should be an enjoyable day in Madison, with the 31st-annual Crazylegs Classic starting at 10 a.m., and the spring game getting started at 4 p.m. Consider it a Homecoming in late April.

As for some things to watch during the scrimmage, there appears to be a good battle going on at right guard, where Robert Burge, Casey Dehn and Kyle Costigan are getting turns. Costigan is catching the eyes of many as the sophomore makes the switch back to offense. Offensive line coach Mike Markuson has been doing a fair amount of mixing and matching during drills. With Rob Havenstein recovering from shoulder surgery, Dehn also is getting some run with the first group at right tackle.

A very young group of wide receivers continues to try to make an impression, including Chase Hammond, Marquis Mason, Isaiah Williams, A. J. Jordan and Kenzel Doe. If you watch the spring game, just sit back and see who among them can make a play or two.

You might be fairly familiar with a couple of the running backs, specifically Mr. Ball and Mr. White. But you should also enjoy seeing Melvin Gordon, who has turned in some very good work so far this spring.

Defensively, an encouraging sign has been the gradual return of cornerback Devin Smith. The 2011 season started in promising fashion for the senior, as he played well in the opener against UNLV and was off to an excellent start the next week against Oregon State. Then he broke his foot, ending his season. His return this fall should give the secondary a good lift. In the meantime, Marcus Cromartie gained priceless experience last season, and Peniel Jean is working the other side. A pair of redshirt freshmen, Terrance Floyd and Darius Hillary, show promise as well.

That just scratches the surface of things to watch. Beat reporters Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal and Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel do an excellent job of examining each position group, and no doubt both will continue to do that in the next week and a half.

I encourage you to gather all the information you can, but remember, it's springtime. Yes, the practices matter -- perhaps especially this year with a new-look coaching staff gathering firsthand knowledge of the players, and vice-versa.

Enjoy the day. Hopefully the weather will cooperate, and everyone can have a great time. Just don't let yourself get too excited or concerned about what you see in one scrimmage.