April 29, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon saw the “hit man’’ and wasn’t sure how to react during Saturday’s spring game at Camp Randall. So when the redshirt freshman from Kenosha, Wis., came off the field after the offensive possession, he tapped into James White’s experience as a two-year letterwinner at the position.
“It was a zone left,’’ Gordon said of a running play calling for zone blocking principles by the linemen who are attacking an area. “I asked James, ‘If the line flows and you go there (the hole) and the hit man is sitting there, what do you do? Do you cut up the field? Do you just take the yards?
“He said, ‘Fake like you’re going to go in, and go back out.’ That helped me a lot.’’
Taking the instruction to heart, Gordon wound up rushing 30 times for 159 yards in helping the Cardinal team to a 21-10 victory. In the absence of White, who was nursing an injury, and Montee Ball, who was held out of the scrimmage as a precaution, Gordon showed off some of his skills.
“With guys like Montee and James ahead of me,’’ Gordon said, “as a running back, you can’t do anything but get better competing with those guys. They go hard every play. They work hard every day and that only pushes me and makes me become a better player.’’
Ball has been impressed with what he’s seen out of Gordon throughout the spring.
“He’s really going to help us win this upcoming season,’’ he said.
Gordon, though, didn’t feel like he was making a statement Saturday with his production.
“I guess it was a good experience because you never know what might happen during the season,’’ he said. “Getting those (30) carries, knowing what it’s like, that’s good. I can help prepare myself more mentally just in case that happens
“I think I did well (Saturday). But I’m my hardest critic. I still feel like I have a lot more to do. I really need to get better at pass protection -- at keeping a quarterback off the ground and safe. You just can’t be a runner. You need to block, too. That’s something I have to work on.’’
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Hit Man could have been safety Mike Caputo, a freshman redshirt from Imperial, Pa. (West Allegheny). The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Caputo recorded some of the biggest hits of the spring, including a booming “form’’ tackle on Gordon during a recent practice.
Caputo wrapped up Gordon, lifted him in the air and slammed him to the turf.
“Yeah, he got me real good,’’ Gordon admitted. “I told him I’d get him back.’’
“That’s one thing I like about football,’’ Caputo said, “I like the hitting in general.’’
In less than a year, Gordon and Caputo have developed a bond.
“Since we first walked in, I told Caputo, ‘You’re the guy I’m after,’’’ Gordon said with a grin. “He knows that, too, and we compete. Mike Caputo is playing at a high level; he’s playing really good.’’
“We’re real competitive with each other no matter what it is -- like school, working out, lifting -- we’re at each other’s neck all the time,’’ said Caputo, also grinning. “It’s all fun.’’
Saturday’s scrimmage was special for Caputo since it represented his first “game-like’’ competition since he was injured in the first quarter of his season opener as a high school senior.
“I’ve been hungry for awhile now,’’ Caputo said. “I came here knowing that I was going to redshirt as a freshman, so I lifted, I got bigger, I learned the schemes. I’m ready to play now.’’
Caputo has been getting valuable reps on the No. 2 defense. Like Gordon, he has also been taking advantage of the mentoring from older players, in this case, Shelton Johnson and Dez Southward.
“One of the main things I’m trying to do is get on special teams (next season),’’ Caputo said. “That’s what I really want to do -- show them want I can do -- and still work at safety.’’
Gordon has already shown Caputo something with his competitive zeal to improve.
“Melvin has a lot of drive,’’ he said. “He just wants to get better; he’s always finding ways. You can’t tell him he’s not good enough to do something because that will motivate him to do better.’’
* * *
Wide receiver Isaiah Williams, a redshirt sophomore from Miami, exhibited the type of resiliency Saturday that has characterized many of the developmental players in the UW program over the years.
Williams had a disappointing first half, twice dropping catchable passes on the goal line.
“I should have caught both of those balls,’’ he said. “But I didn’t frame up. I didn’t use the techniques that were taught to me by Coach Z (Zach Azzanni). I didn’t ‘CCT’ the ball and it’s a drop.’’
The CTT acronym stands for Catch, Tuck and Turn.
“I used the same old bad habits I’ve been using in the past,’’ Williams lamented. “I didn’t use the techniques that I had been using since the start of springball. And the results showed.’’
He heard about it at halftime, too.
“Coach B (Bret Bielema) jumped down my throat, Coach Z did as well,’’ he said. “They told me that I’ve got to get it together. I’ve got to catch the ball. I’ve got to do what I’ve to do.
“From there, I couldn’t let my teammates down.’’
He didn’t. In the second half, he was the best receiver on the field. He finished with five catches.
“After that first catch, I got rolling,’’ he said, adding that he went to school on that first half. “There were two touchdowns that I could have had -- points that we could have had on the board.
“Those are the little things that make the difference between winning and losing games.’’
Montee Ball singled out Williams for his stick-to-itiveness.
“That was extremely encouraging,’’ Ball said. “The one thing that it all comes down to his heart -- that he really cares about the game and he’s trying to help this team win.’’
* * *
During the rapid-fire field goal kicking segment of Saturday’s scrimmage, Kyle French converted on 8 of 10 attempts. Last fall, subbing for the injured Philip Welch, he got his first taste of competition.
“I wasn’t expecting to play much at all,’’ said French. “I was expecting to get in for a couple of kicks here and there but definitely not to start the first four games of the season.
“What helped me the most was being able to go out there and think, ’There are 80,000 people, all right, it’s no big deal anymore.’ The ‘wow’ factor kind of got pushed out of the way.’’
French went 3-for-3 inside the 30; his only two field goal misses were from 50 yards.
“This spring, my main thing was making sure I stayed healthy,’’ said French, who also converted 26-of-27 extra points in 2011. “As far as my field goals, it was working on the consistency of my steps.
“I kind of shortened my steps trying to cut out a lot of the error that could happen with longer steps. I’ve been working on that a lot and I’ve definitely seen a lot of improvement with my accuracy.’’
UW assistant coach Charlie Partridge has been pleased with French’s progress.
“There’s nothing like kicking (in a game), as much as you trying creating it (in practice), it’s different when you’re kicking in front of 80,000 at Camp Randall,’’ Partridge said.
Besides the graduation loss of Welch, the Badgers must replace punter Brad Nortman, who also served as the holder on placements, and snapper, Kyle Wojta.
Drew Meyer has taken over as the punter and holder, while James McGuire is the snapper.
“If the operation is perfect,’’ Partridge said, “Kyle can hit the ball as well as anybody but we have to make sure all three mesh next August; all three are accountable for that.’’
When French was asked how it was going, he said, “It’s going.’’
In other words, they need work.
“We’re up and down,’’ French said. “We’ll definitely be fine come fall. It’s just a thing where you have to get a comfort level. We’ll have one day where we’re perfect and there are no problems.
“Then we’ll have some days where there are snap and hold issues and kick issues as well.’’
Waunakee placekicker Jack Russell, an incoming freshman, is expected to push French in training camp. Partridge said that Russell is already a strong candidate to compete for the kickoffs.
“I haven’t seen him (Russell) in person, but from what I hear he’s a great kicker,’’ said French, a redshirt sophomore from Menomonee Falls. “I’m definitely looking forward to the competition.
“I’d rather have more competition than just be the main guy or the only guy.
“I never want to feel content with where I’m at.’’
That will not be an issue for Meyer, either. Contentment, that is. He averaged less than 40 yards during Saturday’s scrimmage. Partridge wants to see much more consistency out of his punting.
“He’s off and on; he’s inconsistent,’’ Partridge said. “There are times where he hits the ball as well as anybody. There are times when it’s not pretty. We need to get him consistent by August.’’
Meyer sounded ready to accept that challenge after tweaking his techniques.
“I’ve got from three steps to two steps because there’s more consistency and less room for errors,’’ said Meyer, a redshirt freshman walk-on from Hartland, Wis.
“It was hard to sit and watch (last fall).
“But you know your time is coming and you try to learn as much as much as you can from the guys above you. It was great learning from Brad (Nortman). He was just a great example in general.’’
The Badgers were so explosive on offense that they limited Nortman’s role.
But nobody appreciates a clutch punt more than Partridge.
“The punt is the first play on defense,’’ Partridge said. “Field position is the name of the game.’’
Doing his homework, Meyer can name a lot of former punters, like Kevin Stemke, who have had success at Wisconsin. As a senior, in fact, he won the Stemke Award that goes to the state’s top kicker.
“The past history (of punters) is phenomenal,’’ he said. “I’m looking to continue the legacy.’’