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MADISON - It’s hard to pick out glaring problem areas from a 45-0 season-opening win, but Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen didn’t mince his words when talking about the Badgers’ special teams, saying the group has to be better as the season gets underway.
It’s one of the main reasons Wisconsin – up two spots to No.21 in the Associated Press poll – went through live special teams drills at the end of practice Tuesday, including full tackling, contact and rushing the kickers, as it prepares for FCS opponent Tennessee Tech Saturday.
“We were pretty aggressive this week in practice,” said Andersen Thursday. “The things I am really interested to see is kickoff team, how we get down there, how we kick the ball in field goal situations, all aspects … We’ve got to be better.”
While UMass didn’t provide much of a personnel threat on returns, the Golden Eagles have a legitimate weapon in Ladarius Vanlier, who accounted for 188 all-purpose yards, all before halftime. After taking back the opening kickoff 44 yards and a 93-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter, the program’s first in 23 years, Vanlier was named his conference’s co-Special Teams Player of the Week and a CFPA National Punt Return Performer of the Week.
He also put strain on the punt protection, too, rushing upwards of 12 players, and putting some purposively offsides, to create dire situations that the line would have to deal with.
"It doesn't get any harder than that, right?" Andersen said. "Just trying to make it be the worst-case scenario when they walk in, and hopefully they're able to handle that. It's completely overloaded. They almost don't have a chance in a way, and a lot of that goes onto the snapper and the kicker.
"Make it tough in the moment, so hopefully when we get backed up one day we can react in a positive way. When there is only 11 and they all stay onside, hopefully we can get it off in a critical situation."
Andersen called it a “good week” of practice as the Badgers prepares for Tennessee Tech’s wide-open spread offense; an offense that draws some parallels to Oregon’s spread attack. It shouldn’t be a surprise considering the Tech coaches spent time in Eugene in the offseason.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how we can handle a true spread offense with an athlete quarterback who runs around,” said Andersen. “That’s going to be a big part of this game.
“They’re a true spread team that has it all. They throw it like a spread team. They run it like a spread team. They run the quarterback. They run all the triple option, so it’s a lot of offense.
With starting fullback Derek Watt expected to miss Saturday’s game after suffering a hamstring injury in the second half, the Badgers are expected to start redshirt sophomore Derek Straus and have true freshman Austin Ramesh make his college debut.
“There’s going to be a lot of those questions (whether to play them) as we go through, but right now we’re planning on him playing,” said Andersen. “It’s a philosophy. We need the youth in this program right now.”
Andersen said the coaching staff may regret a decision to play a player down the road, but listed the positives of being able to play on special teams and travel with the team for a season.
Extra Points: Andersen said the coaches plan to get true freshman wide receiver Rob Wheelwright more involved on special teams this week … Andersen said he was complimented by the officials on the abilities of Wisconsin wide receivers to block physically and correctly during Saturday’s game … Andersen said the staff is still evaluating the walk-ons in terms of offering more scholarships … Wisconsin is expected freshman Garret Dooley (knee) back at practice within the next 10-14 days. He went down with the injury Aug. 7.