Sept. 4, 2009
By Larry Watts
Wisconsin led the Big Ten and was 14th in the country in rushing (211.2 yards per game) in 2008. The Badgers also led the conference in fumbles, losing the ball 19 times. Their minus-8 turnover ratio ranked 97th nationally.
Guess what is one of the top priorities for Bret Bielema as he prepares for his fourth season as head coach at Wisconsin? If the Badgers expect to improve on last year's 7-6 record (3-5 Big Ten, tied for sixth), they will have to do a much better job of ball security in 2009. And it also might help if their kickoff team isn't ranked last in the country, like it was last year.
OFFENSE: With two of the six returning starters entrenched on the offensive line, this was supposed to be one area of little worry for the Badgers, especially considering their ability to develop stout linemen. But by the second week of fall camp, three projected starters were on the sidelines. Junior center John Moffitt, a returning starter who is on the Rimington Award watch list, was nursing a pectoral injury. Junior (RG) Bill Nagy was struck by a car while driving his moped early in the summer and suffered injuries to his wrist and heel. Then junior (LT) Gabe Carimi, who has started 23 games in two seasons, injured his right knee early in fall camp. Bielema expects all three to be ready for the Sept. 5 opener, but should they be unable to go, that would mean freshmen (LT) Ricky Wagner, (RG) Kevin Zeitler and (C) Travis Frederick or Peter Konz will jump into the lineup with junior (LG) Jake Bscherer and sophomore (RT) Josh Oglesby. Bscherer, who made one start as a true freshman, is coming off a redshirt year while Oglesby leads the remaining group with three college starts. Solidifying that offensive line will take a lot of pressure off the quarterback position, where junior Scott Tolzien, freshman Curt Phillips and senior Dustin Sherer are in a tight battle. Bielema has named Tolzien as the starter in the opener with Northern Illinois. Tolzien only played in three games last season, completing five of eight passes for 107 yards. Phillips was taking most of the snaps with the first team early in fall camp, but Sherer did start seven games, winning four, last year. Sherer completed 104 of 191 passes for 1,389 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions in 2008. Nine of the Badgers' top receivers, led by senior (TE) Garrett Graham, are back in the fold. Graham, who is on the Mackey Award watch list and a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media, caught 40 balls for 540 yards and five TDs. Top producers at wideout figure to be returning starters David Gilreath and Isaac Anderson, both juniors, along with junior Kyle Jefferson and sophomore Nick Toon. Gilreath caught 31 passes for 520 yards and Anderson had 21 receptions for 286 yards. Toon (17 receptions, 257 yards) and Jefferson (14 catches, 189 yards) are primed for breakout years, but Jefferson has to remain healthy. He has already suffered two concussions in his Wisconsin career. With the early departure of P.J. Hill to the NFL, the primary running duties appeared to be headed to 250-pound sophomore John Clay, who rushed for 895 yards and 11 touchdowns as Hill's backup last year. However, junior Zach Brown (55 carries, 305 yards in 2008) was making a big push during fall camp. Clay was hoping to shed 15 pounds by fall camp, but Wisconsin fans well remember 270-pounder Ron Dayne rushed for a school-record 7,125 yards in his career and ran off with the Heisman Trophy in 1999. Sophomore Bradie Ewing figures to be the primary blocking back while junior Lance Kendricks will serve as the second tight end.
DEFENSE: (DE) O'Brien Schofield, a senior who had five sacks last year, is the lone returning starter on the defensive front. Sophomore J.J. Watt, a transfer from Central Michigan, had an outstanding spring at the opposite side. Seniors Jeff Stehle, Dan Moore and Dan Cascone along with sophomore Patrick Butrym figure to be the top candidates to fill the middle. Graduating two starters, the linebacking corps needs to develop quickly. Senior Jaevery McFadden, who led the Badgers with 84 tackles last year despite playing most of the season with a broken hand, will move from the middle to the weakside. Junior Culmer St. Jean, who has three starts in his career, takes over in the middle while redshirt freshman Mike Taylor is getting first call at strongside. Junior Blake Sorensen, who has gained most of his experience on special teams, and true freshman Chris Borland will also see a lot of action. Three starters return in the secondary, but depth took a hit at the start of fall camp when Bielema handed out indefinite suspensions to backup safeties Aubrey Pleasant and Shane Carter, both seniors. Junior safety Jay Valai (56 tackles) is perhaps the most feared hitter on the defense and he'll be lining up with Western Michigan transfer Chris Maragos, a junior who posted 45 tackles in 2008. Junior Niles Brinkley led the Badgers with four interceptions last year, has been passed up on the depth chart by sophomore Devin Smith at one corner. Sophomore Aaron Henry, who missed last year with an ACL tear, is the new addition at the other corner.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Veterans Philip Welch and Brad Nortman, both sophomores, are back at placekicker and punter, respectively. Welch, who is on the Groza Award watch list, hit 20 of 24 field goal attempts, with a long of 52 yards, and was successful on all but one of 40 PATs. His 99 points ranked second among Big Ten kickers. Nortman averaged 41.8 yards per punt. Gilreath will get the first call on all returns.
MISCELLANEOUS: Opening the season with four straight road games will be a big plus for the new additions to the Wisconsin lineup. The Badgers are 30-3 at Camp Randall Stadium since 2004, which is tops in the Big Ten and tied for fourth nationally with Texas for best home record. *Evidently not learning its lesson from Northwestern or Michigan State, Wisconsin has elected to end its regular season at Hawaii on Dec. 5. Both the Wildcats and Spartans saw their bowl aspirations disappear when they elected to make the same decision in previous years. *With their appearance in the Champs Sports Bowl last year, the Badgers now have a school-record seven straight bowl trips, which is the second-longest current streak in the Big Ten. *Wisconsin had six games decided by three points or less in 2008. They were 3-3.