2006 Wisconsin Football Preview
Aug. 29, 2006
2005 Record: 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Brett Beliema. Record at Wisconsin: First Year. Overall Record: First Year.
Starters Returning: Offense 3, Defense 8, Special Teams 2
When he took the podium at the 2006 Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon, Wisconsin first-year head coach Brett Bielema reflected back to the summer of 1992, when he represented Iowa at the conference gathering before his senior season. "Little did I know that I'd come back almost 15 years later and be the head coach at Wisconsin," he said. "It's definitely an event and it's something I'm very proud to represent the University of Wisconsin."
Much has changed in 15 years for the former Hawkeye walk-on who ripened into one of the league's best linebackers, and it's not just his seat for lunch. Hand-picked by former coach and now full-time athletic director Barry Alvarez, Bielema takes over the Badger helm as the second-youngest head coach in nation.
But age only says so much for Bielema, who - in the same style that he approaches the game - made intensely efficient use of his 12-year apprenticeship with distinguished mentors in Iowa's Hayden Frye and Kirk Ferentz, Kansas State's Bill Snyder, and Alvarez. After two seasons piloting the Badgers' defensive staff, Bielema earned his position and is prepared to run the show.
While Life after Barry Alvarez begins for the Badgers, they look forward to riding the momentum from a strong finish last season in an upset of No. 7 Auburn in the Capital One Bowl architected by the former coach to finish with 10-3 record. Wisconsin has also garnered 11-of-16 Big Ten victories in past two seasons, and joins Ohio State and Michigan as the only league teams to earn 11 bowl bids in the past 13 seasons. With nearly two dozen freshmen joining the program and seven new coaches, Bielema's biggest obstacle this season will be keeping that drive of success going while blending new talent with his new staff. The rookie head coach is touted for his player development skills and familiar enough with the Wisconsin way to know his program will rise to the standards.
"The more you tell people from Wisconsin that they can't do something, the more they want to do it," Bielema said. "We have a lot of great returning players and a lot of younger guys coming up in a program that is known for taking good players and making them great."
The only members of Alvarez's staff to return under Bielema are offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and wide receivers coach Henry Mason. They were key in designing Wisconsin's 2005 offense, which set a school record for points in a season (446) and season scoring average (34.3). The NFL, however, took note, and all five Badgers selected in the NFL draft were taken from the offensive side of the ball. With only three starters returning to the nation's 14th-best scoring offense, Chryst is expecting several young players to step up quickly in order to replace the squad's top seven pass catchers and touchdown power-producer Brian Calhoun.
The Badgers' biggest returning asset is senior quarterback John Stocco. He begins his third season as the Badgers' No. 1 QB with 25 consecutive starts to his credit - a streak that ranks fourth among NCAA quarterbacks. While Badger QBs of recent history have typically been peripheral supplements to the ground game, the squad will look to Stocco's experience to carry the young troupe, especially early in the season.
"The one thing John Stocco has been able to do is consistently win," Bielema said. "He puts his best foot forward. Anytime you go through the trials and tribulations he has, it prepares you for what he has to do now. Now he has to teach - maybe more so than in the X's and O's standpoint, or do you cut the route off at 10 or 12 - teach guys how to deal with the bubble that's looking at him, and the pressures that come with it."
Although he recently underwent surgery to remedy a lingering knee injury, Stocco will look to match the school-record numbers he put up last season with 2,920 passing yards, 21 touchdown passes and 97 completions. He also came close to becoming UW's first-ever 3,000-yd passer and maintained a 60-percent completion rate.
Stocco will have to maintain that steady efficiency while the receiving corps reloads almost entirely. What juniors Paul Hubbard and Jarvis Minton lack in game experience, they make up in lightning-quick speed. The trio is touted as the fastest group of receivers Wisconsin has had in years, perhaps ever. A long and triple jump star on the UW track team, Hubbard has the speed and size to wreak matchup havoc. Minton and fellow junior Luke Swan are both versatile receivers who have been fighting injuries for the past year. With a season of experience behind him, sophomore tight end Sean Lewis also has the potential to become one of the Badgers' top pass catchers. The 6-7, 245-pound former quarterback will have a definite size advantage over his opponents, but needs to hone his blocking skills to solidify dibs on the starting spot."
In his Wisconsin debut, Calhoun put up career numbers with 253 yards and five touchdowns, and didn't stop pounding in scoring drives the rest of the season. The Badger backfield doesn't have one sensational running back to fill his void, but it might have found something even better - a huge group of backs to share the load. P.J. Hill, Jamil Walker and Dywon Rowan all have the size - the trio averages 233 pounds a back - to power the ball downfield. While he's not as speedy, Hill packs more power than recent UW backs like Calhoun and Anthony Davis and has the potential to become a steady pass receiver. Walker and Rowan saw some action last season. A former walk-on, Rowan has a dangerous dose of speed to go with the power his 243-pound frame. Freshman Lance Smith is creating a buzz after a sensational finish to his high school career. The ground game will also benefit from monster fullback Bill Rentmester, who checks in at 254-pounds and will make a skillful blocker.
Traditionally, as the offensive line goes, so go the Badgers. This year's mammoth line has the potential to exceed even conventional Wisconsin expectations with two legitimate All-America candidates returning. Leading the way is Joe Thomas, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Wisconsin's bowl victory over Auburn while splitting time as a defensive end. The Lombardi Award semifinalist started his career as a defensive end but has since grown into a top pro prospect at left tackle. Right guard Kraig Urbik moves in from right tackle, where he started every game last season, and will be a staunch blocker. Thomas and Urbik, along with left guard Andy Kemp and center Marcus Coleman, are focused on jump-starting the Badgers' running game, but they will also look to revamp pass protection for Stocco after surrendering 37 sacks last year.
A year ago, the Wisconsin defense felt an upheaval similar to this year's offense with four former frontline stars gone to the NFL. But after a year of growing pains, the Badgers' defense could be one of the best in the conference. Ranked 92nd in the nation in 2005, the outfit is looking to rebound after last season when youth and injury on the line prevented it from any consistency. Eight starters return from last year's defense, which began to emerge at the end of the year, holding Auburn - which averaged 425.6 yards per contest - to just 236 yards in the Capital One Bowl.
Wisconsin looks to be particularly strong on the defensive line this season. Led by junior tackle Nick Hayden, sophomore tackles Jason Chapman and Justin Ostrowski will help make up the line's strongest area. The largest tackle with a 6-5, 310-pound build, Hayden had a break out year in 2005. An All-Big Ten honorable mention selection, he made 56 stops and nine tackles for loss, and recovered three fumbles last season. Defensive ends Matt Shaughnessy and and Jamal Cooper are also returning from ACL injuries, but if both are healthy their speed and pass-rushing potential will be invaluable.
Anchoring the linebacking corps, senior Mark Zalewski has been one of the Badgers' best at the position over the past two seasons. After making 83 stops last year, he could be one of the Big Ten's best linebackers. Zalewski leads a promising young group of quick, talented linebackers. Sophomores DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas will flip-flop spots to make better use of their skills. While Levy's size will help out against the run on the strong side, Casillas' all-around athleticism will reap dividends on the weak side. Elijah Hodge, the younger brother of former Iowa star Abdul, and senior Paul Joran are versatile backups.
In the secondary, the combination of talented young cornerbacks and veteran safeties will have to gain a consistent balance to be successful unit. There are two returning starters in sophomore corners Allen Langford and Jack Ikegwuonu, who combined for 65 stops, five interceptions and seven broken up passes. Big-hitting senior strong safety Joe Stellmacher returns after a 90-tackle season, and fellow senior free safety Roderick Rogers will be strong against the pass if he gains some consistency after pulling in 11 interceptions in 2005.
The Badgers' kicking game is one of the best in the league and the country. All-America candidate punter Ken DeBauche led the conference last season with a Badger-record 44.8-yard average. At 6-2 and 221-pounds, he has had a consistently powerful leg, putting 39 kicks inside the 20 in the past two years. Place kicker Taylor Mehlhoff was a steady 14-for-17 on field goals inside the 40, but the Badgers would like to see him gain some consistency from longer range. The nation's ninth-ranked return game will miss Brandon Williams and junior Marcus Randle El, who will miss the season to undergo knee surgery. Minton and senior backup corner Zach Hampton to step up in the return game.
The Badgers' early Christmas present for 2006 came when top-ranked Ohio State and Michigan State were left off this year's schedule. The key game for Wisconsin will be its Big Ten opener in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Sept. 23. After beating the beat Wolverines last year for first time since 1994 in instant classic 23-20 battle at home, the Badgers will need to be ready for a rematch. If the Badgers' are triumphant, they could likely take a 9-0 record into their Nov. 4 meeting with defending co-conference champion Penn State at home. The following weekend is another big road test with a trip to Iowa. Bielema's approach is simple: Go 1-0 every day. "Obviously we want to go 1-0 every gameday, but we take that same approach throughout our week," he said. "If we have a great practice on Tuesday, that will lead to a great practice on Wednesday and so on. The 1-0 philosophy means you take every day for what it is."