March 22, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- On the heels of what UW coach Bret Bielema described as "six months of the most insane time in my life without a real break'' the Badgers will open spring practice Thursday with something old (momentum from a Rose Bowl) and something new (six assistants) but Bielema is anything but blue.
"I'm as excited as I've ever been,'' said the 42-year-old newlywed.
After winning at least 10 games for the third consecutive season - to go along with back-to-back Big Ten titles and trips to Pasadena - Bielema can't wait to see how the pieces to the puzzle will begin to fall into place both on and off the field with key personnel and a retooled coaching staff.
After winning at least 10 games for the third consecutive season -- to go along with back-to-back Big Ten titles and trips to Pasadena -- Bielema can't wait to see how the pieces to the puzzle will begin to fall into place both on and off the field with key personnel and a retooled coaching staff.
"What's our number one priority this spring?'' he said repeating an oft-heard question. "The biggest thing, with the transition that we've had on our staff, is to be able to get the new coaches locked-in about the way we do things; the way we start and the way we finish every drill and practice.
"We want to get the `Wisconsin way' established.''
Bielema couldn't be happier with his mix of coaches especially "since we've been locked-in now for eight weeks." Monday, he huddled with the offensive assistants and "we went over the first two practices minute by minute.'' Tuesday, he went over the same things with the defensive staff.
"We talked about all the little things that are huge in figuring out how to win football games down the road,'' said Bielema, whose remaining holdovers are running backs coach Thomas Hammock, now also the recruiting coordinator; and co-defensive coordinators Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash.
Each of his new hires will bring their own personality to the meeting room, and practice field; ranging from Matt Canada (offensive coordinator) to Eddie Faulkner (tight ends) to Mike Markuson (O-line) to Zach Azzanni (wide receivers) to Andy Buh (linebackers) to Ben Strickland (secondary).
How will Bielema manage -- if that's the right word -- the demeanor of his assistants? "I've never encouraged or discouraged a certain kind of coaching,'' he said. "I hire a guy who I think is going to coach in a certain way. Once I've watched him in action, I might give suggestions or input.''
But he stressed, "I'm never going to try and change a guy who has a certain style'' whether vocal or not. He added, "The most important thing this spring is to make sure everybody is on the same page - same verbiage, same language - and get the guys on board with the way we do things every day.''
That, he said, will come "before any X's and O's.''
Since change is inevitable on a coaching staff, particularly after a run of success, Bielema has been afforded an opportunity to break from routine in some cases. "If someone coached in a certain way,'' he said, "I love to hire the exact opposite; someone who changes the room and chemistry.''
There will definitely be some changes in the offensive huddle this spring with the departures of quarterback Russell Wilson, wide receiver Nick Toon, fullback Bradie Ewing, tight end Jake Byrne, center Peter Konz, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Josh Oglesby.
The returning quarterbacks, Joe Brennan and Joel Stave, will get so much media attention that by the time the spring game is played -- April 28 at Camp Randall Stadium -- there's a very good chance that everyone will know the correct pronunciation of Stave (STAH-vee), a walk-on freshman.
"They've made some nice progress since the fall to where they are today as far as their physical development,'' Bielema said of Stave and Brennan, a redshirt freshman and Wilson's backup. "I'm anxious to watch those guys this spring to see where they are at.''
Curt Phillips, who's still battling to overcome three ACL surgeries on his right knee, has been cleared medically to take part in most of the non-contact throwing drills. "But he's going to be limited,'' Bielema said. "As the spring evolves, we'll get him a little more in team situations.''
Record-setting tailback Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist, will get his share of practice reps. "But I don't know how many times he will get tackled this spring,'' Bielema admitted.
"James White will be limited on a pitch count as well. I really want to see Jeff Lewis and Melvin Gordon.''
He also really wants to see who's going to take charge on the right side of his offensive line. The Badgers will be anchored by left tackle Ricky Wagner, left guard Ryan Groy and center Travis Frederick. Bielema said Robbie Havenstein "would be the odds-on favorite in the fall'' to start at right tackle.
But he won't do much this spring after shoulder surgery. Dallas Lewallen is recovering from an injury, too. Casey Dehn and Robert Burge will share turns at guard, Tyler Marz will start out at right tackle. Joining the interior mix will be freshman Dan Voltz and Kyle Costigan, a converted D-lineman.
"Jacob Pedersen is a guy who has stepped to the forefront,'' Bielema said of his sophomore tight end. "He will be working as an H-back, someone who moves around. On the line of scrimmage we'll have Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson. Austin Traylor and Austin Maly have a chance to be special.''
Jared Abbrederis will be the leading returning wideout. "But Abby will be limited; nothing though that will prevent him from practicing in the spring,'' said Bielema, who has received good reports on how both Jeff Duckworth and Kenzel Doe have attacked the out-of-season conditioning program.
"We pushed back the start of spring ball so we could give our players a full eight weeks (in the weight room),'' Bielema said. "You normally make your biggest gains during the summer conditioning phase. What we've tried to do here is squeeze another summer into winter.''
On defense, the Badgers will seek some answers in the secondary. Marcus Cromartie, Shelton Johnson, Dez Southward and Peniel Jean have experience. "But we have to replace two quality guys,'' he said of Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus, "that made a lot of plays for us over the years.''
Devin Smith, a former starter, took an injury redshirt in 2011 and will not practice this spring. Bielema wants to get a look at Michael Caputo and Michael Trotter among "the new guys on the scene.'' That also holds true at linebacker. "I'm really excited to see some of the younger players,'' he said.
Mike Taylor and Chris Borland are the mainstays, the fixtures. They finished 1-2 among Big Ten tacklers. Everybody knows what they can do. "Mike won't participate in the spring, "Bielema said. "Chris will be involved, but I don't know how much full-time stuff that he will do.''
Bielema is not about to take any risks in March and April, especially with proven commodities. "There are guys across the board that you have to be really smart with,'' he said. "These are guys who have already proved that they can play winning football.''
Derek Landisch, Derek Watt, Jacob Keefer, A.J. Fenton and Cody Byers are some of the linebackers that will get chances to show what they can do on the practice field. "It's a good mix,'' Bielema pointed out, "and it should provide some good information.''
Bielema already knows that David Gilbert can be one of the top defensive ends in the Big Ten. But he will be eased back into contact after taking an injury redshirt. Up front, the Badgers must replace the steady contributions of Patrick Butrym (53 career games) and Louis Nzegwu (48 games).
Ethan Hemer, Brendan Kelly, Pat Muldoon, Jordan Kohout, Beau Allen and Tyler Dippel have gained meaningful playing time in the rotation, while a healthy Konrad Zagzebski could be an X-factor. "I don't know if I've ever seen a guy change so much from one year to the next,'' Bielema said.
Special teams will reflect more changes than any other position group. Gone are punter Brad Nortman, placekicker Philip Welch and snapper Kyle Wojta. The spring auditions will revolve around Drew Meyer, Kyle French and James McGuire, respectively, for these assignments.
Bielema understands that spring practice will not answer all of the questions. It's really not intended for that. But it's a good starting point to ingrain the "Wisconsin way'' into the thinking of everyone, new and old alike, whether it's the players or his assistants.
"From the outside world looking in,'' Bielema said, "there are a lot people who believe when you have success it breeds complacency. Here at Wisconsin, we breed the desire to go to higher levels. We become very greedy. We want to achieve more and more.''