MADISON - For a college football head coach, spring football is a chance to start building depth heading into the next college football season, allowing him to see what pieces fit where and evaluate some of the youth on the roster.
While Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has some positions that need fixing heading into the season, the 42-year-old head coach going into seventh season not only sees a lot of success heading into 2012, but in 2013, as well.
Wisconsin is coming off back-to-back Big Ten championships and consecutive Rose Bowl appearances with a group that is comprised mostly of sophomores and juniors. The Badgers return 41 letterwinners (21 on offense, 19 on defense and one on special teams) from last year’s 10-3 team and lose only 23 letterwinners (10 on offense, nine on defense and four on special teams).
Of Wisconsin’s 26-member 2010 recruiting class, only three players (Beau Allen, Kyle French and James White) have made significant contributions to the team to this point in their tenure. Of the 19 players that enrolled last June of the 2011 recruiting class, one could argue that only Derek Landisch had a significant impact of the five players that decided not to redshirt.
It’s allowed Wisconsin to build young depth, which is why the Badgers have only nine seniors on its 97 player spring roster.
“Next year, I think we have a chance to be a very, very good football team if we get all the right players at the right positions,” Bielema said during his Monday news conference. “Two years from now, we could possibly be starting as many as nine or 10 seniors on offense. On defense next year, we’ll only lose three, maybe four starters, defensively. The thing that gets exciting for me is not only does next year look promising, but the year after … our two-year forecast is pretty exceptional.”
It’s also proves somewhat of a challenge. Wisconsin has roughly 11 scholarships available for the 2013 recruiting class on a year when in-state talent is at one of its highest levels in recent memory.
“We could really do some nice things in recruiting, but we only have (11) scholarships,” said Bielema. “So you have to be very detailed in offering who you prioritize or categorize as a high-priority to get. When you are dealing with 18, 20, 22 scholarships, it’s a whole different world. When you are dealing with (11), it’s very difficult.”
It’s a reason why Wisconsin has seen other Big Ten schools – especially Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota – start coming into the state and offering some juniors full offers ahead of the Badgers. It’s one of the reasons Beaver Dam running back R.J. Shelton has already committed to Michigan State.
Wisconsin is trying to get creative by offering some in-state athletes a grayshirt scholarship (meaning they would commit to Wisconsin but couldn’t enroll until January 2014), which appears to still be tantalizing to some kids. Eagle River athlete Austin Ramesh accepted such an offer Saturday from Wisconsin, but it still proves frustrating with UW not being able to operate how it is accustomed to.
“In-state (recruiting) this year, the world has changed,” said Bielema. “We typically carry anywhere to 40 to 48 percent of our scholarship roster from the state of Wisconsin … I think the secret is out a little bit. All of a sudden, these people that haven’t traditionally been recruiting have come in abundance and tried to raid our in-state prospects.
“I try to emphasize all the time that our priority starts in the state of Wisconsin. A lot of states say that but here at Wisconsin, it is the heart and soul of what we are.”
One area where Bielema doesn’t expect a recruiting change is with quarterbacks and running backs. Even though the Badgers have been bitten by the injury bug at the quarterback position the last few seasons, Bielema said he will continue pursuing one high school quarterback a recruiting cycle – a philosophy he decided on his first year in 2006. Bielema also said his staff will look at some transfer options – much like he did with Russell Wilson a season ago and he’s done with Dayne Crist, Danny O’Brien and Jordan Webb this past offseason.
“The QB and running back position are unique because you can only get one of them on the field at a time,” said Bielema. “It allows us to get a better person in that slot.”
Movers and Shakers
When Wisconsin released its spring roster last week, five players had gone through position changes that Bielema said will help the team cultivate some depth. The biggest two changes came from Muskego sophomore Kyle Costigan and Cypress Bay (Fla.) sophomore Joe McNamara switching from the defensive line to the offensive line.
The move allows both Costigan and McNamara to return to the position they played in high school and allow the Badgers to possibly get them on the field quicker with the lack of depth at some spots on the offensive line.
“He was kind of getting buried (at defensive line); he was the same age of some of the guys there now,” Bielema said of Costigan. “Joe McNamara, I remember getting a call from Charlie Partridge on a high school field watching him play offensive line and projected him as a defensive lineman. We just wanted to give him that opportunity again.”
Bielema also said Sherard Cadogan has trimmed up his body and become very efficient working at the fullback position, Josh Harrison was moved to defensive line during bowl practice last fall and Josh Peprah has moved from safety to linebacker.
In his time at Wisconsin, Bielema said he has yet to see any negative drawbacks about a high school senior enrolling early in college to participate in spring football. Pointed out the example of junior lineman Travis Frederick enrolling early and starting the season opener, something he likely could not have done if he didn’t go through 15 spring practices, Bielema has already seen positive gains with the three seniors – Hugs Etienne, Vonte Jackson and Dan Voltz – that are with the team now.
Jackson has put on roughly 20 pounds since enrolling in January as he continues to finish up his ACL rehab while Etienne, probably the least ready of the three, has also put on weight and found his comfort level. Of the group, however, it appears Voltz is progressing at such a rapid pace that he could find himself with a starting spot come the fall.
“From the recruiting process to where we are today, (he’s) been nothing but a highlight to us,” Bielema said of Voltz. “Whatever Coach Markuson says to him, you better say what you want the first time because that’s the way you are going to get it and every time after that. He’s very detail oriented and probably one of the more gifted o-linemen since I’ve been here that I’ve seen come in and handle things so well. He’s going to be a very good football player for us.”
Extra Points: Bielema called Wisconsin’s first two spring practices ‘a shock’ because of how clean and efficient they were. ‘I’ve always (taken) a lot of pride in how we practice here.’ … Jon Budmayr got some positive injury news last week and is at the Mayo clinic for some second opinions to hopefully figure out his arm problems … Bielema had no new injuries to report than what he did on Thursday