MADISON - On the same day the Wisconsin basketball team exited the NCAA Tournament in heartbreaking fashion, the football team kicked off its spring camp.
It’s been a tumultuous offseason for head coach Bret Bielema and company, as the Badgers had to replace six assistant coaches — a majority of which were on offense, as running backs coach Thomas Hammock was the only offensive assistant coach to stay at Wisconsin despite multiple offers from elsewhere.
Regardless of any offseason business, Bielema was just happy that his team could finally start spring camp.
“I was very excited to get to today, practice no. 1 — seemed like it took forever to come,” Bielema said. “Obviously there’s been a huge transition with six new coaches, but today, I’m very excited.
“I’m not ready to crown us champions yet, but I really am excited about the way they practiced. The communication, the details of lining up and playing football were really good out there today for a first practice. There just wasn’t a lot of mental busts or breaks at really any position.”
In the spring, the Badgers will be without several players due to injury with linebackers Mike Taylor (various) and Ethan Armstrong (hip) and tackle Rob Havenstein (shoulder) recovering from their respective postseason surgeries.
Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis continues to nurse a foot injury, and quarterback Jon Budmayr perpetually has issues with his throwing arm. Bielema said Budmayr is seeing specialists this week to hopefully get his issues figured out.
Defensive end David Gilbert (ankle) and cornerback Devin Smith (foot, groin) continue to heal from their own season-ending injuries. The coaches are hoping Abbrederis, Jacob Pedersen (groin), Smith, and Gilbert will be able to participate in the second half of camp or later.
Senior quarterback Curt Phillips threw Thursday, but he will be limited to non-contact drills throughout spring. Sophomore wide receiver Marquis Mason is 100 percent ready physically, but Bielema said he’s at about 90 percent because they have to get him prepared mentally.
The Badgers also lost defensive back Frank Tamakloe – a three-star safety from Maryland that former defensive back coach Kerry Cooks recruited. Tamakloe was considered a huge recruit for UW because it started opening up recruiting roads to the East Coast. In two seasons at UW, however, Tamakloe has played in just eight games.
"Football is just not where it needs to be for him right now," Bielema said. "It's one of the sad days of my coaching profession, because you really want a kid to stay with it, but just for him and his situation it's best for him to move on."
Defensive lineman Eriks Briedis to undisclosed reasons this offseason. Briedis could return in the fall, “on his own,” as Bielema puts it, but the Badgers did welcome back offensive lineman Casey Dehn in mid-February.
"(Dehn) is on a path that he knows he's got to stay on for him to be here," Bielema said, “and be a part of what we want to do moving forward.”
Welcoming new coaches
With six new coaches on staff, it’s expected that the beginning of practice may be a little rocky, but from what Bielema witnessed the first day of practice, he feels it’s been an almost seamless transition.
“I’m very glad that we pushed back spring ball almost two more weeks just because we needed the coaches to kind of talk through things a little bit more in the meeting room and gave us a little more time to meet with our players before we hit the field than we normally have in the past,” Bielema said. “I think that was good, and we’ve made very good use (of it in) the first practice.”
Key position battles
Despite the coaching carousel in the offseason, the main question on everyone’s mind is the vacancy at quarterback. But with the loss of several key players, position battles abound this spring.
Between replacing Aaron Henry at safety and the likes of Kevin Zeitler, Josh Oglesby and Peter Konz on the offensive line, defensive tackle Patrick Butrym and an opening at linebacker — especially with Taylor and Armstrong out for spring practice — many players will get a chance to vie for some attention from the coaches.
“Quarterback gets attention because they’re all pretty boys so everyone wants to write about them, but I love watching what’s … going on at right guard,” Bielema said. “I love watching the defensive line — you’ve got Jordan Kohout, you’ve got Ethan Hemer, you’ve got Beau Allen — all those guys want to be the starting tackles. Just amongst those three guys there’s great competition … There’s great position battles going on all over the place.”
The quarterback question
The quarterback topic was unavoidable. After a stellar season from transfer Russell Wilson, it’s difficult not to be worried about who will lead Wisconsin’s offense. But Bielema was quite positive about his two young quarterbacks in Joe Brennan and Joel Stave.
“Joey and Joel both looked extremely quick in their decision-making,” Bielema said. “They weren’t busting the huddle; they weren’t busting on alignments. Obviously it was the first practice with coach Canada; I think he really has tried to ease the learning curve of trying to get rid of the football in the throwing game. I think that helps them quite a bit.”
Montee on the ball
With an impressive season — and Heisman campaign to boot — the return of Montee Ball was fully embraced by all of Badger nation. The running back’s energy and experience is already translating into a leading voice.
“He’s not worried about trying to reproduce the same numbers; he’s not doing anything other than to win football games and play his best football,” Bielema said.
“You shouldn’t be talking about energy, I think that’s going to come over time. … After when we get back from spring break when guys are starting to drag a little bit, you’re going to need someone to pick up that huddle. I do see him being able to jump into that role."
Bielema said Kyle Costigan and Joe McNamara switched from the defensive line to the offensive line since Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and Jordan Kohout have established themselves at that position. Both Costigan and McNamara played offensive line in high school.
“Costigan, pound for pound, is probably our strongest player,” said Bielema.
Safety Josh Peprah has been moved to linebacker, and Darius Hillary might move from cornerback to safety.
Bielema said all three early enrollees – Hugs Etienne, Vonte Jackson and Dan Voltz – impressed him with their first workout. While Jackson is limited because of his ACL recovery and Etienne will likely redshirt, Voltz is working at center and right guard and could be in the running for one of the starting spots at either position in the fall.
"Those freshmen didn't really look like high school seniors running around out there," Bielema said. "They're pretty advanced in their skill set."
Benjamin Worgull contributed to this report