Coming into last spring football practices the number one objective was to see how the quarterback battle progressed. Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook switched out every series and most of the starters played right along with them on both the defensive and offensive side of the ball.
This year was a bit different.
It was a bit of a snooze fest as most of the starters did not see any action with the rest of them seeing very limited action. While that is not to much delight for the average fan or the writers in the press box, it shows just how far this team has come already.
“I think that this team started to find itself, whether it be leadership, new roles that guys have played a lot, take on, and so I think it was a good second phase of getting ready for the season,” head coach Paul Chryst said after the scrimmage.
And that is exactly what this team did, they found their roles. That includes roles of being the next guy up and building depth.
One of the positions that really showed their depth in the spring game was the defensive line. Sophomores Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk both had a sack and a tackle for loss, as they caused problems for the Badger quarterbacks all day.
“The depth is pretty good. I mean Sheehy, Chikwe and Alec I watch them everyday and I see the things they do and try to follow in their footsteps,” Loudermilk said. “I mean they’re all going to be seniors and it’s going to be tough when they do go, but I feel like when they do we got me, Garret, Billy, Smoke, Fuf and Craig and now we have Jake…We’ll be young but we’ll all be on the same page.”
Behind them in the secondary of the defense will also be a position littered with depth. Even though they will be short on experience, with the departures of Sojourn Shelton and Leo Musso, the defensive backs will be more than capable of making up for that via depth.
Nick Nelson, a cornerback transfer from Hawaii, will most likely be a starter going into this year and see a lot of time with the first team, but he also likes what he sees behind him at the position.
“I feel like the freshman we brought in, I feel like all of them can play. You got Dontye, you know Lubern he is good. We got pretty good depth,” Nelson said.
The depth at cornerback has also allowed Natrell Jamerson to make the move to free safety to add depth to Musso’s vacant position.
“I like it cause he can cover and now we got a safety back there that can cover. Natrell is really fast, he is probably one of the fastest on the team so it’s pretty nice having someone back there on the post that can run and get number to number,” Nelson said of Jamerson’s ability to play the free safety position.
Finally on defense, we have Mr. Depth himself, Leon Jacobs.
Jacobs has made position changes almost every year he has been playing at Wisconsin. Fullback last year, inside linebacker before that and now Jacobs has made the move to outside linebacker.
There, he will add to the amazing depth and talent at the linebacker position.
“There’s a guy that would do anything for this team, and he did it,” Chryst said. “Last year at this time he was playing fullback, and then he jumped in and had injuries and was playing inside backer, but I think the outside is a really good fit for him.”
Now, the offensive side of the ball lost a bit more than the defensive side, but even they are building depth much earlier into the offseason than last year’s team.
The position that it is most apparent at is at the tight end position, with Troy Fumagalli leading the way.
“I like [the depth] a lot. I think, you look where we’ve been the past couple of years and I think we are evolving. We are asked to do a lot more things in the offense and all of that is good,” Fumagalli said. “We lose Eric but Zander steps up and Kyle and Luke and some of those younger guys.”
With Fumagalli being the clear starter and possibly the most important player on the offense this coming season, his back ups have continued to shine through out the offseason.
Zander Neuville, Kyle Penniston and Luke Benzschawel all have flashed great potential during the spring and have opened up the door of using two-tight end sets as the regular season gets going.
“Spring’s a great time cause you can try things out and there’s no game, if something doesn’t work you don’t have to do it. But you know it’s definitely a good time to experiment things and be able to do it,” Fumagalli said.
At running back, the Badgers lost their first and second guys in Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, but again, the depth is still there.
Bradrick Shaw and Chris James are battling it out for the starter job, but both will get plenty of game time to have an impact regardless. But behind those two, Taiwan Deal will look to come back fresh after a season of injuries and freshman Garrett Groshek and Sam Brodner also have shown flashes all spring.
“Here’s a guy that puts in a ton of time, and he’s smart, and he’s always up in Coach Settle’s office. He wants to be the best he can, and he’s got some athleticism,” Chryst said on Groshek.
Another key position where depth may be needed is the quarterback position. Freshman Jack Coan and sophomore Kare Lyles are battling out who will get the second string job, but both have gotten ample work in this spring.
In the spring game, Alex Hornibrook did not play, so Lyles and Coan were able to split series. While their games and reps haven’t always looked the best with missed open receivers or poor decision making, Chryst and the coaching staff sees even the mistakes as growing experiences.
“It didn’t always look pretty, but there’s great learning — even today with Jack, you know, if you’re going to throw the ball away, you’ve got to make sure it gets all the way out of bounds,” Chryst said.
With spring on it’s way out and summer on it’s way in, this Badger team is well on it’s way to the regular season. The biggest takeaway from these spring practices is the fact they are well ahead of the curve that last year’s team set.
Last year there were question marks from the offensive line, to the quarterback and to the secondary. This year, those question marks have fallen down the line to the second and third stringers as they battle it out to add depth to a team primed for success in 2017.