Oct. 11, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
Most of Warren Herring’s older teammates probably haven’t forgotten that Herring, a 294-pound nose guard, was recruited as a defense end. But how many, if any, could identify what position on offense he played before getting to Wisconsin in January of 2010?
“Maybe not a lot,” he said with a wry smile, “if you’re not looking online.”
Coming out of Belleville (Ill.) High School -- he’s actually from Fairview Heights, which is just outside of Belleville and about 13 miles from St. Louis -- Herring was ranked by ESPN/Scouts Inc. as the No. 108 defensive end in the country; the position that he was projected to play in college.
Nationally, he was also ranked as the No. 41 tight end.
“I loved playing tight end,” said Herring, a first-team all-conference selection as sophomore. “But personally I thought I was better on defense. I was just doing the best I could at both positions.”
During his prep career, Herring caught 32 passes for 428 yards and five touchdowns. On defense, he also played some middle linebacker and recorded 168 tackles and 23 sacks. In addition, former UW defensive coordinator Dave Doeren liked the way he moved on the basketball court.
Herring verbally committed to the Badgers in 2009 after decommitting from Kansas State. He had offers from Kansas and Stanford, too. The recruiters liked his athleticism and DNA. His mom, Mia, and his dad, Warren, were athletes at Southeast Missouri State. She ran track; he played football.
“My dad would videotape my high school games and we would watch it on Sunday mornings,” Herring said. “To this day, he still does critique me. Whatever sees, he will let me know, and I do take what he says into consideration because he has coached me since I was little.”
He’s not little anymore. In fact, he likes to reference his freshman orientation as a defensive end by noting that was “about 70 pounds ago.” Or so it felt. On signing day, he was listed at 230. By the end of his first spring practice -- he was a mid-year high school graduate -- he had bulked up to 252 pounds.
Herring was the only early enrollment player in his recruiting class. But he was made to feel at home right away. The first day that he was on campus, J.J. Watt gave Herring his phone number and encouraged him to call if there was anything that he needed. Try and find a better mentor.
Finding his niche on defense took a little more time.
“Wherever they would put me, I would have played my butt off,” assured Herring, who was asked if he ever resisted the move from defensive end to nose guard. “No, I’m a big team player; I’ll do anything that it takes for the team. The trenches are the trenches. It’s hard no matter where you go.’
Since the Gary Andersen coaching transition in January, Herring has added about 15 pounds. At 294, he’s the heaviest that he has ever been but he insisted, “It feels good.” In the Badgers’ old 4-3 defensive alignment, he was a tackle. In the 3-4, he’s lining up over the center in the middle of all the gridlock.
“It took some time (to adjust),” said Herring, a redshirt junior. “The game is a lot faster -- guys are a lot closer to the line of scrimmage and the guys inside are a lot stronger usually (than offensive tackles). There’s more of a mental aspect to it because you’re taking on double teams almost every play.”
Wisconsin defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a lined up in the trenches during his playing days at Utah, so he understands the commitment and sacrifices that have to be made by nose guards.
“They don’t have a glamorous job,” he said. “Their job is to eat up the center and the guard on the backside to keep guys like (Chris) Borland, (Conor) O’Neill and (Derek) Landisch free.”
The aforementioned trio are linebackers. Borland and O’Neill are UW’s leading tacklers. In part, they’re getting a chance to make plays because of the unsung, unselfish work of the D-linemen.
“It’s a team sport so these guys understand the deal,” Kauha’aha’a said of his nose guard rotation of senior Beau Allen and Herring. “But when they get a chance to make something happen, then they take full advantage. Beau and Warren are making the most of it with their pass rush.”
Herring leads the Badgers with 4.5 tackles for loss and three quarterback sacks.
“He’s using his athleticism,” said Kauha’aha’a, “and his quickness has been a big help for him.”
Besides executing pass rushing techniques, and it’s a significant point of emphasis during every practice, Herring said, “You have to have a good determination.”
“It’s effort,” Herring said. “It’s a lot of effort. That’s the one thing that Coach Chad (Kauha’aha’a) and Coach Andersen preach every day. It’s one of the things that I’ve grown into as well.
“As a young guy, you don’t really understand you have to go hard every down. You don’t really understand how important it is. Every down is key and you’re trying to be as consistent as possible.”
In film study, Kauha’aha’a is always harping on running to the football, he pointed out.
“After the ball is thrown or run, no matter how far you’re into the (offensive) backfield, no matter how deep down field the ball is, you have to run after the ball,” Herring said.
“You never know when there’s an opportunity for a cutback (by the runner) or an opportunity for you to force a fumble or pick up a fumble.”
Based on his development from last spring to this fall, and most recently with more and more game snaps, Kauha’aha’a said, “He has made some big improvements and he’s coming into his own as a nose guard. In the spring we saw that he was capable of doing the things that he’s doing now.”
One of the many things that Kauha’aha’a likes about Herring is his personality.
“I love his carefree attitude,” he said. “He’s loose, he likes to have fun. But when it’s time for business, he gets serious. I just like the energy that he brings.”
Herring has made a conscientious attempt to free himself of burdens and over-thinking.
“One of the biggest things for me was to learn how to play more comfortable without worrying about outside things,” he said. “When you’re young, you think, ‘Oh, man, my dad is watching. Or a lot of people are watching.’ And you don’t want to mess up and make that mistake to get taken off the field.
“As you get older, you understand that you just have to go on to the next play. Just being comfortable in my position I’ve learned to tone out the “I messed up, what is the coach thinking?’ and I’ve just kept moving forward … I’m a grizzled vet now.”
Yet, he’s still young enough, and spry enough, to bust some moves. Last spring, he won all of his one-on-one matchups with teammates when Andersen pitted the Badgers against each other in dance contests. Doing the splits earned him points with the judges. Immediately after the video got out, Herring fielded a lot of calls from family members.
“They all said, ‘I didn’t know you could do that,”’ related Herring, who playfully couldn’t resist adding “There are a lot of things people don’t know about me. I’m talented.”
• • • •
Recognizing keys is always critical for linebackers.
Recognizing quarterbacks will be one of the keys against Northwestern.
While preparing for Kain Colter (No. 2) and Trevor Siemian (No. 13), who make up the QB tagteam for the Wildcats, Ethan Armstrong had no trouble recognizing Siemian on the UW scout team this week.
No. 13 was Thad Armstrong, a walk-on quarterback and his younger brother.
Ethan Armstrong is a fifth-year senior and Thad Armstrong is a redshirt freshman.
“We’ve been competitive growing up (in Ottawa, Ill.) and it’s a chance for us to keep that going here,” Ethan Armstrong said. “But he doesn’t like to throw interceptions to me; he gets a little upset.”
Brothers being brothers, he also mentioned how “it’s good for us to get out there and beat up on each other a little bit” during practices. Ethan is 6-2, 232; Thad is 6-5, 195.
Connor Senger is 5-11, 170. But don’t tell him that he’s too short, or too small, to play quarterback. Senger, a freshman from Milwaukee Pius, has been simulating Colter (6-0, 200).
“He has done a great job,” Ethan Armstrong said. “Obviously, he’s faster than all of the rest of our quarterbacks so he gives us a better look when it’s a run (on the read option).
“He also makes the throws. He does what he’s asked to do and he’s everything you would want in a scout team quarterback. He’s got a little savvy to him; he’s not afraid to stick it in there.”
Leading up to the Ohio State game, Senger simulated Braxton Miller for the No. 1 defense. That made it all the more interesting for Senger while watching the Buckeyes and Wildcats play last Saturday because he knew that he would be drawing the assignment of simulating Colter this week.
“I usually will take a look at him (the opposing QB) on Sunday night,” he said, “to kind of figure out what I need to do going into Monday -- whether it’s certain tendencies or whether he leaves the pocket to the left or the right and how he motions a guy, whether it’s with a foot or a hand.”
In time, Senger is hoping to earn the opportunity to be himself, Conor Senger, not Kain Colter, not someone else. So why Wisconsin? He could have gone to Eastern Illinois, Southern Illinois or Northern Iowa. He even considered playing football and baseball for either UW-Whitewater or UW-Oshkosh.
“I just felt this was the place to be -- I always wanted to be a Badger,” said Senger, who was encouraged to follow his heart by former UW tailback Brian Calhoun, then a Pius assistant coach. “I want to coach football when I’m done and there’s not a better mind to learn from than Coach (Andy) Ludwig.
“My goal was to come in and run the scout team because I realized it’s the best way to get the most potential reps and show the (coaching) staff what I can do. It’s a big jump (from high school) so the advantage I have is going against one of the best defenses in the country (in practice).”
Senger is somewhat of an anomaly in a program that takes such great pride in its downhill running game and its play-action series. The fact that he has been able to simulate spread quarterbacks has been a bonus in getting ready for Arizona State, Ohio State and now Northwestern.
“We have certain periods in practice,” he said of his scout team assignment, “where we’ll pick up it little bit and try to give the defense a no-huddle, up-tempo pace; a no-mercy, pedal-to-the-metal pace so that they have to get the (defensive) call from the sidelines and go.”
In studying Northwestern’s characteristics, most notably how Colter and Siemian are utilized, Senger observed, “They support one another, No. 2 and No. 13; they’ve bought into the system and they respect what the coaching staff is doing with them. They don’t miss a beat; it’s in and out, get it and go.”
Colter, a senior from Denver, poses a triple-threat as a thrower (he was 12-of-12 for 98 yards against Ohio State), as a runner (he had eight carries and one rushing touchdown) and as a slot receiver (he caught a nine-yard pass from Siemian to open the scoring for the Wildcats).
Like everyone else who has seen Colter impose his will on defenses, Senger has taken notice of Colter’s “ability to scramble and make plays when things are breaking down in the pocket.”
Senger cited Northwestern’s recognition of isolating “speed in space” from the perspective “of doing a great job of understanding that he’s a playmaker and getting the ball in his hands.”
The last time the Wildcats and Badgers played -- Nov. 27, 2010 -- Colter was a true freshman and a backup quarterback who was appearing in only his second career game as a collegian. He completed just one of his three pass attempts; the one was to linebacker Mike Taylor in Wisconsin’s 70-23 rout.
Colter was otherwise 0-for-3 in his first exposure to Camp Randall Stadium. At Big Ten Media Days this summer, Colter said, “We really want to redeem ourselves for that poor performance. I’ll have a little bit more of a say in this game than I did the last one.”
• • • •
Jacob Pedersen made three tackles on special teams against Northwestern in that 2010 game -- during which Venric Mark returned nine kickoffs for 273 yards, including a 94-yard TD return. Pedersen didn’t have any catches; Mark didn’t have any carries from scrimmage. Both will have big roles Saturday.
“That was back in the 12-Ped days,” Pedersen said, reflecting on a formation that called for “12” personnel. The tight ends were Pedersen and Lance Kendricks, who had four catches for 80 yards in the last meeting with Northwestern. Back then, most of Pedersen’s snaps came on special teams.
Kendricks finished that season as the UW’s leading receiver with 43 receptions. Pedersen got his baptism as a redshirt freshman -- he wound up catching eight passes and scoring two TDs -- which set him up for a sophomore year in which he posted career highs in catches (30) and touchdowns (8).
That raised everyone’s expectations. As a junior, he nearly matched those pass-receiving numbers though he had half as many scores. Through the first three games this season, he had eight receptions. He was then injured in the first half against Purdue and he didn’t play at Ohio State.
Pedersen said it was only the second time that he missed a game because of injury “since I started playing Pop Warner football in the fourth grade.” The first time was at Menominee (Mich.) High School. “Knowing you can’t help your team is not a good feeling,” he said.
It could have been worse.
Pedersen injured his knee while blocking for tailback Melvin Gordon. A would-be tackler spun off Gordon and fell on the inside of Pedersen’s leg. “I was pretty fortunate in that I saw it coming and I was able to get my leg off the ground a little bit,” he said. “It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.”
Pedersen was able to run off the field and “I stayed positive” even when some people told him afterward that “they thought I blew out my knee when they saw it happen. I told myself it was only going to be a little knee sprain and that’s what it ended up being.”
There was a faint hope that Pedersen might be back for Ohio State. But he didn’t practice all week and he felt it was in the best interests of the team to put healthy bodies on the field. Sam Arneson took advantage of the increased playing time by catching three passes and scoring a touchdown.
“Sam has all the intangibles you want in a tight end,” Pedersen said. “He’s got the size, he’s got the speed, he’s got the great hands, he can block and he can be utilized in different positions. As long as he believes that he can, he’s going to become a great player.
“I saw his (touchdown) grab and I was so pumped. When he got hit, I was just looking for the ball because I thought there was no way that he hung on to that. But it was one of the better catches I’ve ever seen for him to be able to hold on to the ball and make that play.”
Some felt Ohio State safety Christian Bryant led with the crown of his helmet, which could have resulted in a flag for targeting. Nothing was called. “I popped up pretty quick before I realized how hard he had hit me,” Arneson said. “I thought it could have been (penalty).”
In retrospect, Arneson agreed that the catch bolstered his confidence.
“I’ve always known what I can do,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to see it happen in a game.”
Now that he’s back, Pedersen wants to start making it happen more at game speed, too.
“I have to see my production increase if we want to be successful,” Pedersen said. “We can’t rely on Joel Stave going all the time to Abby. Eventually they’re going to start triple-teaming him.”
For the record, Jared Abbrederis has 33 receptions; 18 more than the next closest receiver, who just happens to be a running back, James White. The next closest wide receiver is Jordan Fredrick with 6.
Pedersen has been crunching other numbers in his head: the losses in one-possession games.
“We have to start pulling some of these games out,” he said. “It falls on us; we can’t make mistakes in big games. If we want to become that marque program, we have to start winning some.”