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Big Ten Q&A: Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin is coming off a third straight Big Ten football championship  but faces a number of questions heading in to the 2013 season. The Badgers are in the midst of a coaching transition after Bret Bielema skipped town prior to the Rose Bowl in favor of a shot at turning around an Arkansas football program recovering from a motorcycle wreck of a season. In comes Gary Andersen, who demonstrated some solid potential by making Utah State a winning team, but the new coach loses a record-breaking running back and must figure out who the heck is going to lead the offense on the field.

Still, Wisconsin figures to be a bit of a pest in the Big Ten Leaders Division and may be the biggest threat to Ohio State's potential run to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game. With spring football in the books in Madison, we welcome the opinions of Andy Coppens, managing editor of Madtown Badgers, and Richard Branch, co-founder of Buck Around, to get a sense of what is expected at Wisconsin in 2013.

1. Wisconsin is undergoing a coaching change, hiring Gary Andersen away from Utah State after Bret Bielema packed his bags for Arkansas. We will certainly get a better feel in the fall, but how has the coaching transition gone now that the spring is wrapped up?

Gary Andersen (left) takes over in Madison for Bret Bielema.
Photo: US Presswire

Andy Coppens: Honestly, I don't know if this transition could've gone better. Players readily admit to being a bit resistant to the change that happened last year around this time. With Andersen and the new staff everyone has talked about being completely on board & it's shown in how this team practices and how willing players have been to make transitions to new roles without whining. That didn't happen last year and Andersen has also done a good job of embracing the traditions at UW while also putting his own stamp – which was important after a pretty bitter breakup with Bielema. 

Richard Branch: By all reports Gary Andersen has hit a home run with his players, athletic administrators, and the fanbase thus far.  There were concerns when hired he was a "spread guy" who would radically reshape the team's identity but if the spring game was any indication the offense will look very familiar to those who've watched Badger games in the past.  The Badgers will build their offense around the running game and besides a wrinkle here and there should little changed from the Bielema era.  I think it was critical that Andersen brought with him a large contingent of his staff from Utah State hoping to limit the transition.  Most of the coaching staff already knows how Andersen operates and what he expects, they can focus on managing the transition for the players rather than amongst themselves.  

For the players, change is on defense.  Schematically they shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 which requires personnel to learn new schemes, but the bigger adjustment will be in defensive philosophy.  Under the old regime the Badgers played conservative, bend but don't break defense designed to keep the offense in front of them and minimize the chances of the big play.  Under new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda the Badgers will be blitzing a whole lot more and bringing pressure from all over the field.  The question will be if defensive backs recruited to play in Bielema's more conservative scheme will be able to adjust to press coverages and playing man to man with little help from safeties.  This team as a rule tends to be more athletic on defense than offense so they have a shot but as you alluded to we won't know anything until the season starts and they execute at game speed.  

Q: It seems as though we have asked this question before, but what does Wisconsin's quarterback situation look after the spring? Is there a starter on the roster or will the Badgers once again be looking for a transfer from an ACC school as they have the past two seasons?

AC: Hahaha… You so clever… There will be a 3rd transfer QB coming in, but this time it's a dual-threat from the JUCO ranks, an Andersen guy so to speak. The Badgers have nearly every QB from last time this year back. The only exceptions are Joe Brennan (who transferred after last spring) and Jon Budmayr (who's health has forced him into a student-coaching position). Anyway, this spring it's clear that it's all about Joel Stave and Curt Phillips. No true answers came this spring, but by all accounts and what I saw in person in the spring game it's hard to say it won't be a battle between Stave (who won the spring game battle) and McEvoy. Andersen has made it abundantly clear that McEvoy, Stave, and Phillips will all be given an equal chance to win the starting job come the fall. 

RB: Coming out of spring practice the Badgers are looking at two choices for starting quarterback.  Joel Stave and Curt Phillips have separated themselves from the rest of the group with Stave appearing the have a slight edge on Phillips.  Phillips has some of the mobility that Andersen wants while Stave is a better natural passer and has the arm to stretch the defense vertically.  Both saw time as a starter last year after Danny O'Brien lost the job (he's probably 3rd or 4th on the depth chart right now) but neither is the complete package that Andersen wants.  If Stave was a little more athletic or Phillips threw a better deep ball the job would be theirs without much of a competition.

Alas that is not the case and for this reason a new face will be added to the mix come fall in JUCO transfer Tanner McEvoy.  McEvoy was a highly touted dual threat quarterback who will be given every opportunity to win the job in preseason camp.  He completed nearly 70% of his passes this past season.  If he proves he has the ability to make throws and is a quick study when it comes to the playbook it will be tough for Stave or Phillips to hold him off.  Andersen has made no secret that he likes what a mobile quarterback brings to the table and McEvoy was brought in to give Andersen the option of having one from day one.

Q: Montee Ball was a baller for the Badgers ground game the past couple of seasons, injury aside. He will be tough to replace, one might think, but Wisconsin always seems to have a solid running game. Who are we looking to see carry the ball on offense in 2013?

RB: Running back is my last concern for 2013.  The backfield is an embarrassment of riches, and even with the loss of Ball there is still the dynamic 1-2 punch of James White and Melvin Gordon.  White will likely be named the starter out of fall camp due to his experience but as the season progresses I suspect Gordon will supplant him as starter – or at least get the balance of carries – as he has all the tools to be a great back.  The only question with Gordon is how he handles running between the tackles.  The majority of his carries last year were on sweeps running to the edge; this will be his first season where he's working primarily out of the backfield.  His performance in the spring game gave every indication that he could do just that but those contests are not always great indicators of regular season success. 

Beyond those two Junior Jeff Lewis, redshirt freshman Vonte Jackson, and true freshman Corey Clement could contribute as a 3rd back.  Andersen has also spoken at length about getting his running backs involved in the passing game more.  Whether this means lining up out wide or catching the ball more out of the backfield has yet to be seen but the group will likely get their share of touches in the passing game as the team has major questions in the receiving corps.

AC: Wisconsin turns out quality running backs like PSU turns out linebackers, that's to say it's always going to be next man up. So, while it may suck to lose Ball, there's plenty of talent behind him. If you need to know what the backfield will look like, just DVR or find the replay of the last Big Ten Championship game, where we saw the Badgers backup's of James White and Melvin Gordon both go off. Hell, Gordon needed just 9 carries to go for over 200 yards rushing. He's shown this spring that he can do more that carry the ball on the edge too – for my money he could be the best back Wisconsin has ever produced when it's all said and done. Look for senior James White, who had some nagging injuries this spring, to get the first crack as a starter, but expect both to go for well over 1,000 yards this season, and that's not wishful thinking – just look to the 2009 season to see an example of multiple Badger backs going for 1,000 yards each.

Q: Wisconsin has had what some might call an underrated defense the past couple of seasons. One strength on Andersen's resume is the ability to improve a defense. Give readers a look at what Wisconsin loses on defense and who was stepping up in key spots this spring.

RB: The big losses on defense were in the secondary.  Three of four starters from last season are gone and there isn't much depth at the position beyond the projected starters.  Working alongside returning safety Dezmen Southward, the likely replacements at cornerback will be Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary who both saw time in the nickel package the past few years.  They were both serviceable in those roles but as I mentioned earlier the question will be how they adjust to man defense and press coverages when most of their experience is in zone coverage.  Behind them, things get murky.  Early enrollee Sojourn Shelton looks to be the favorite to win the job as the 3rd cornerback but the Badgers are presently working on another JUCO signee who could compete with Shelton immediately. 

Right now redshirt freshman Reggie Mitchell looks like the starting free safety but another JUCO signee in Donnell Vercher stands a good chance to win the job in the fall.  For now at least the secondary is young and unproven.  The development of this position group is a big question mark for the defense. Given the new scheme, they will need to execute for the defense to perform well overall. 

Wisconsin fans are very excited about the emergence of Vince Biegel as punctuated by his strong performance in the spring game.  Biegel was a highly touted recruit last year who would have seen significant playing time had he not been sidelined by a foot injury that forced him to redshirt.  Working as an outside rush linebacker he looks like someone who could be a disruptive force on the defense.  Chris Borland's began his Badger career as a linebacker that was moved all over the field, and there is a lot that reminds people of Borland in what Biegel brings to the table.   

AC: The biggest question on the defensive side of the ball heading into spring was the secondary where the Badgers lose three of four starters from a season ago. However, new coach, new 3-4 scheme and new man-to-man coverage from this secondary. In the spring the group looked far better than it did even a season ago. One name to really watch out for is true freshman (and early entrant) Sojourn Shelton who was one of the top standouts of spring and the spring game. If he turns the corner physically this summer look for him to get some major playing time come the fall.

Wisconsin finished the year ranked in the Top 25 of every major statistical category on defense last year, but with the team returning all but four defensive players from a year ago and with the aggressive change this team looks even more scary on defense. I said it before, this could be the most underrated unit anywhere in the country, if for no other reason than everyone focuses on the offense with the Badgers. 

Q: What were some of the other key position battles to watch this spring at Wisconsin? Who was a player fans outside of Wisconsin may not know now but will in the fall?

AC: The biggest position battle was at QB for sure, however those of us who follow and cover the team see the wide receiver battle as even bigger and less settled than the QB issue. Having said that one name that stood out above the crowd in the spring game on offense was junior WR Kenzel Doe – he's the opposite of Abbrederis, in that he's short (they list him at 5'8" tall & having stood next to him it's more like 5'6" and 185lbs.) – otherwise he's just like Abbrederis in that he catches the ball well, runs good/great routes and he's elusive when trying to be tackled. It appears he's finally put it all together and could be a major weapon for Andy Ludwig's offense this fall. 

RB: While not so much a position battle, the biggest issue by far is the receiving corps.  There is no other way to say it: outside of Jared Abbrederis – who is about as good as anyone in the conference – the rest of the group is just not that good.  Kenzel Doe made the biggest splash in the spring game but given his size (5'8" 170 lbs.) it's hard to envision him as more than a slot receiver against top competition.  Jordan Fredrick has decent hands but isn't terribly athletic or physical.  Jeff Duckworth has largely disappeared since his signature catch in the B1G title game in 2011.  The rest of the group – AJ Jordan, Chase Hammond, and Reggie Love – have the look of a wide receiver but seem a year away from being ready or haven't progressed in their development as others have hoped.  Given the fact that Abbrederis was a walk on, the state of scholarship wide receivers on the Badgers is downright embarrassing for a program with championship aspirations. 

Coming off an honorable mention all conference season hardly puts him under the radar, but I think Dez Southward is poised to make a major splash at strong safety in his senior season after playing free safety as a junior.  Dez finished the season very strongly last year and looks to benefit greatly under Andersen's new defense.  The head coach has made it very clear Southward is going to be used a lot and in just about every package on defense.  I envision him playing up close to the line almost like an extra linebacker as he has great instincts for play recognition and can be a disruptive force in the backfield where his speed and athleticism create mismatches for opposing offenses.  I'm not sold yet on the idea that the defense as a whole will be better, but I do think Southward is the blueprint for the type of player that Andersen will be recruiting to Madison in the future.

Q: Finally, the Big Ten will be moving to a nine-game conference schedule and re-organizing the divisions starting in 2014. With those changes, Penn State and Wisconsin will no longer meet in the final week of the regular season. How do the new conference plans impact Wisconsin?

AC: I'll actually miss having the PSU game at the end of the season – it's a game that's proven to be very meaningful to both schools the first two years and likely again this season. Having said that I don't know a single Badger fan that isn't happy as hell to see the new division alignment happen. Having Iowa cut out of the schedule more often than not just didn't sit well and was really missed by both sides. Add in the fact that we'll be in the same division as our hate rivals Minnesota and a budding rival in Nebraska and we got what we wanted. Plus, we don't have to deal with Michigan and Ohio State on an annual basis unless we're in the B1G Championship game (and when haven't we done that? lol) and it's all a win for the Badgers. 

RB: Wisconsin is a huge winner with realignment.  From a fan perspective, the Badgers regain their traditional rivalry with Iowa (the Penn State – Wisconsin rivalry never really caught on for me) and the budding, very natural rivalry with Nebraska is guaranteed every year.  There is no doubt the West is an easier division given Iowa's current downturn.  Outside of Wisconsin and Nebraska there isn't a team whose stated goals are winning the conference year in and year out.  I know Northwestern is coming off a strong campaign, but I'm not convinced that program has the ability to do that on a yearly basis.  Keeping Michigan State, Ohio State, and Michigan off the schedule most years helps things quite a bit.  

Andy Coppens is the managing editor of Madtown Badgers (@MTBadgers) and The B1G Time (@TheB1GTime).

Richard Branch is the Co-Founder of Buck Around (@Buck_Around).

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Kevin McGuire

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com and AthlonSports.com. Member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. College Football Hall of Fame voter. Also managing The Sports Daily's NittanyLionsDen.com and Macho-Row.com. Can also be seen contributing to TheComeback.com and TheStudentSection.com.

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