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MADISON - After his starters survived the toughest stretch of fall camp, Coach Bret Bielema and No.12 Wisconsin had to deal with its first serious injury to key personnel late last week.
As Badgernation.com reported Sunday, redshirt sophomore cornerback Peniel Jean was seen heading into the training room with left foot in a walking cast and sporting crutches under both arms, unable to put any weight.
Bielema confirmed during his Monday news conference that Jean broke his foot last week and will miss between four-to-six weeks after a successful surgery.
“(He’s) a guy that we were counting on, banking on, a guy that's done a lot of really good things,” said Bielema. “That hurt a little bit.”
Jean played in all 14 games a season ago, stepping in as the team’s nickel corner after Devin Smith went down in week 2. Jean registered 23 tackles (17 solo), two pass deflections and one tackle for loss last season and had emerged as the team’s third cornerback and starter in the nickel package.
With Jean on the shelf, the Badgers will turn to redshirt freshman Darius Hillary - the backup free safety who was practicing at cornerback up until two weeks ago – and sophomore Devin Gaulden, who played sparingly last year. Both players are listed as backup cornerbacks on the latest depth chart for Saturday’s opener against Northern Iowa.
“(Jean’s injury) did give an opportunity now to guys like Devin Gaulden and Darius Hillary, guys in the back end, corner position, to step forward,” said Bielema. “I think Darius and Devin are right there neck and neck, taking all the two reps.”
Freshmen on the cusp
The injury to Jean takes one cornerback out of the mix, meaning the Badgers are utilizing true freshman Reggie Mitchell in the same role Hillary filled last year – travel with the team, work with the starters and be used in an emergency situation.
“Reggie (is) close to playing,” said Bielema. “He's a guy that we've listed as a 3 on all of our special teams depth. Been very encouraged by what he brings to the table and where he's at.”
Bielema also said that Reggie Love will play for Wisconsin at wide receiver and be involved in special teams, Dan Voltz will be involved in special teams and possibly some late game work on the offensive line and Vince Biegel has the chance to play that depends on how he recovers from a foot injury suffered the second week of camp.
The one surprise freshman that will likely play is preferred walk-on Joe Schobert, who is current taking reps at safety but has the body to play linebacker.
“DB coaches want him to stay at DB (and LB coach Andy Buh wants him to move to linebacker,” said Bielema. “You have a head coach that just wants him to play. He's involved in all special teams and just very, very impressed with how that young man handles everything that's being thrown at him.”
From the Infirmary
While the right guard position will be finalized this week between Kyle Costigan and Zac Matthias, Bielema was pleased to say that redshirt sophomore Dallas Lewallen is close to be medically cleared, allowing his name to be entered in the mix to the right guard role.
Named the scout team player of the year as a freshman, Lewallen has been battling knee cap injuries over the last two years and is close to getting his leg back to full strength.
“(He’s) someone we're very intrigued with,” said Bielema. A guy that obviously comes in with high accolades and high thought process. He's a guy that can run and bend, because he's been through a lot, you'd think he'd be ready to play.
“I know they did a strength test on him a week ago, and he was basically almost three times as strong on a good leg versus a bad leg. They did the test yesterday and he gained all of that back and was actually stronger on the hurt leg than the healthy leg. I think we're right on the verge of either getting him in there either this week or next week.
“Now, we have to be human and realize he has not played football for two years, in basic terms. So I just know he's chomping at the bit. He's excited to get out there and it will be a nice element to that guard position when he does.”
For the second consecutive depth chart, Wisconsin has a different starting field goal kicker. One week after true freshman Jack Russell ascended to the role, redshirt sophomore Kyle French’s strong week made him the starting kicker, on paper, for Saturday.
But even that isn’t set in stone, as Bielema said the kicking competition could drag on as long as Thursday.
“It's been a back and forth deal,” said Bielema. “Last go-around both of them hit the ball fairly well on Friday night under the lights. We listed Frenchy as a starter in both phases because he's been there and he's done it. But I totally expect Jack Russell to get kicks on Saturday as well.”
On the other side of the special teams equation, redshirt freshman punter Drew Meyer has made significant strides since spring with his consistency.
“I think if there's one guy, to be quite honest, on our entire roster who has improved from spring to where he is going into Saturday would be Drew Meyer,” said Bielema. “Just the consistency, the way he's hitting the ball, the operation time he's hitting it with, to know that he has the potential to be a four-year guy is pretty special. I've been very, very impressed with him.”
Do you have to guard against him going out there thinking he has to live up to something, a bar that was set last year, for instance?
“Yes and no. I think he wants to go out and wants to have success because we've had success. I don't think it has -- I think it's as far from him as possible.
“Russell is doing some good things now, too. But we've kind of almost addressed that during his recruiting visit. I'd like to be ahead of the curve on everything. I kind of just assured him, I've read a couple of things and seen a couple of things.
“By any means, every man is his own man when he walks through this door. I know I didn't want to put him in 16, being our starting quarterback. It was my idea to go to six. So just cut it in half.
“Not mathematically, just -- I went to Iowa, but geez. It's something I think we were very up front, honest with. I don't think the guys in the room really even went down that road. That's going to make print. I can tell you that.”