At March’s end, the Badgers have concluded a number of spring practices – it’s a chance for vets to return to the field and get a first look at who’s got the potential to replace assets who’ve either graduated or are getting a shot at the big show. Notably, filling the roles of LBs T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, RBs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, OT Ryan Ramczyk, FS Leo Musso, and CB Soujorn Shelton will be the focus this spring. Players moving in and out of programs is natural in the NCAA, and the Badgers are dealing with it any way any other team would. While spring practices are relatively low key, any young player fighting for a starting role is giving it all they got. Here are a few notes from practices thus far:
Hornibrook has put in work and it shows
After a solid freshman season in which his predicted production was more or less a surprise, albeit positive, Hornibrook has embraced the starting role. Even over spring break, Hornibrook passed on the traditional college spring break vacation, and instead traveled to San Diego to work out with quarterback guru George Whitfield, who’s trained the likes of Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston, and Johnny Manziel, among others. Moreover, the coaching staff has supreme confidence in his ability to lead this team.
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph spoke on the character of the soon to be sophomore.
“He’s more commanding of the offense, there’s a confidence there, even [his] words in the huddle,” said Rudolph. “There’s a calmness to him that I like…he doesn’t get flustered if a play isn’t just right.”
Rudolph also commented on Hornibrook’s time in San Diego.
“I think anyone who takes the time to detail their [game] up and is thinking about their craft on their own time is always good.”
Hornibrook’s delivery has definitely looked sharper; more precise, more zip. During scrimmages, he’s shown composure outside the pocket, striping passes in stride. In the pocket, he’s displayed patience to let a play develop instead of settling for a screen or dump-off. Above all, his deep ball has become both more frequent and more polished. With a fairly unproven backfield, Hornibrook’s ability to command the offense will be an x-factor this fall.
Young defensive backs and receivers are developing nicely
Aside from seniors Jazz Peavy and George Rushing, the Badger receivers are a young, but promising group. Watch out for names like Quintez Cephus and AJ Taylor, both sophomores. Cephus and Taylor have shown flairs of potential during spring outings, hauling in long balls and shaking elite badger defenders.
Taylor was happy to chat about the development of the young core, and the camaraderie that comes naturally.
“When we get down on the field, we help each other compete, cheer each other on,” Taylor said.
Having to run scrimmages against an elite secondary, Taylor says the challenge does nothing but help the group progress.
“It’s definitely a grind going against them…they’re gonna keep us working,” said Taylor. “It makes us work even harder.”
Peavy and Rushing will most likely be the one and two at WR, but Cephus and Taylor will play crucial roles, especially if the Badgers move into a more pass heavy offensive scheme.
With Shelton and Musso’s exits, the secondary is less tricky than other major holes to fill. However, the surplus of talent is a luxury to consider. Senior CBs D’Cota Dixon, Derrick Tindal, Lubern Figaro, and Natrell Jamerson will likely step up, but talented senior CB Nick Nelson and sophomore Caesar Williams boost the depth chart in the secondary. With so many names clogging the roster, there’s a wonderful sense of cooperation and dedication to group improvement.
“We are all young, but we can all play. We learn from each other,” said Nick Nelson. “If they go train somewhere, they bring what they learned. If I go train somewhere, I tell them what I learned.”
When it comes to filling the gaps left by Musso and Shelton, Nelson believes a change in mental pace will make the transition more fluid.
“We need to play more mental,” Nelson said. “They were able to slow the game down. We need to do that.”
Shelton’s departure is not yet final, as Nelson says he’s still in contact with the former CB.
“Me and So[journ] are good friends,” Nelson said. “He’s still in this building and will sometimes come up and watch film with me.”
Overall, defensive backs and receivers could be a point of strength especially with a strong depth chart.
With Watt and Biegel gone, it’s time to unleash Cichy
T.J. and Vince were as volatile a one-two punch as you could ask for, and replacing their production will be no easy stroll, but Cichy feels great following his late season injury, and he’s prepared to be the next asset. At practices he’s been putting in extra work on the tackle dummies, trashing them endlessly. Aside from the physical tools, Cichy asserts that process and familiarity with the scheme come first.
“We lost two great players, but we can’t skip a beat,” said Cichy. “At first we need to grasp the mental side of it and then we can get to the physical side. We need to be more comfortable with the scheme.”
After recovering from a torn pectoral muscle in the second half of last season, Cichy had time to master the defensive system.
“It really helped me grasp the defensive scheme better. Knowing the scheme better really allows me to help my teammates more, which I love doing.”
Cichy was a valuable piece in the Badgers’ elite defense last season, and he’ll play an even bigger role along side T.J. Edwards, Chris Orr, and Garret Dooley. All gifted athletes, they’ll have to find their role to keep the defense smothering.
There have been a handful of reasons for optimism as the season gets closer, albeit far off. Spring practices give us a tiny taste of what’s to come, but if these practices have been any realistic look at the future, get psyched.