When Wisconsin announced Gary Andersen as its new head coach in late December, there were no doubts that he was going to bring a fresh philosophy on both sides of the football. In the time since the hire, seemingly all of the talk centered on how far the offense would stray from “the Wisconsin tradition.”
A crowd of 12,050 descended upon Camp Randall on Saturday in hopes of getting their answer, firsthand. Frankly, not much of the new playbook was on display. The offense was straightforward and the defense primarily base packages. While, from what we’ve seen, it’s hard to deny the presence of some new wrinkles and nuances, truth be told, it appears as though Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig have teamed up to provide an approach which, at least on the surface, is no further from said tradition than Matt Canada’s philosophy of a year ago.
To many, the biggest headline was the absence of some of the bigger names on the roster. The returning conference champion Badgers lost just 10 letter winners from a season ago, but it would have been hard to discern that given the, largely, unfamiliar names on the field for the bulk of Saturday.
Among those held out of the contest were consensus first team All-Big Ten wideout Jared Abbrederis, linebacker Chris Borland, a first team All- Conference pick by the coaches and running back James White, who ranks second in the NCAA among active rushers in career rushing yards.
As it turned out, the lack of high-profile players opened the door for some of the lesser known talents on the squad to shine.
QB: For a variety of reasons, Wisconsin had a trio of starters under center a year ago. With all three young men returning this season and a new regime at the helm, the position of signal caller is once again up for grabs.
Former head coach Bret Bielema described last year’s crop of quarterback as the best he’d ever seen in Madison. With the addition of a healthy Bart Houston, who redshirted last season, and the pending arrival of junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy, it appeared as though Andersen and company had an even larger selection to choose from. But, just a few drives into the scrimmage, it became apparent that, at least for the time being, this is a two-horse race.
Sixth-year senior Curt Phillips was handed the reins to the No. 1 unit to begin the scrimmage. He led a 50-yard march that culminated in a Kyle Fench field goal. Throughout the afternoon, Phillips showed the ability to throw on the run and connect on shorter routes on a frequent basis. However, the Kingsport, Tenn. native continued to showcase struggles throwing the medium to long ball (sans a 31-yard completion to Kenzel Doe on the opening drive).
Redshirt sophomore Joel Stave, who appeared eight games for UW a season ago, quickly emerged as the frontrunner heading into fall camp. Stave was an impressive 15-20 for 162 yards and a touchdown. Though the accuracy was spotty, his arm strength was on display as he was the only quarterback afforded the opportunity to connect on a deep pass.
Not even a year ago, then, transfer Danny O’Brien was tabbed as the one who would deliver the Badgers from the growing pains of a group of inexperienced quarterbacks. It took O ‘Brien just three starts to fall from the graces of the coaching staff and fans alike. His struggles continued Saturday with a performance marred by some errant throws and a lack of offensive efficiency. It’s unlikely that the book is completely closed on O’Brien. It’s possible that he can contribute to this team but, it likely won’t be as a starter.
There has been a good deal of buzz surrounding redshirt freshman Bart Houston. After shoulder surgery kept him out of last season’s competition, Saturday provided the first glimpse for many intrigued fans. Simply put: Houston looked like a freshman in his first spring game. Like many young signal callers, most of his issues stemmed from the speed of the game. His footwork was inconsistent and he seemed to check down before routes had fully progressed.
To be fair to Houston, he had the second string offensive line in front of him. He didn’t seem to trust them and, to be honest; the back-up line didn’t provide many reasons why he should feel safe in the pocket.
To some extent, it was just a glorified scrimmage. No need for Badger fans to panic about Houston’s future. It’s just safe to say that he will not be “the guy” this season and, from the looks of things, that’s OK.
No. 2 WR:
For the second straight season, Abbrederis will be the top wide receiver. However, the second spot is wide open.
Doe was, far and away, the best receiver on the field Saturday. The junior out of Reidsville, N.C. hauled in eight catches for 93 yards. His talent began to shine through in small doses last year and it was once again on display this weekend. The question remains: where will he fit in the grand scheme of things once Abbrederis and White return to the lineup? That answer may not come for some time, but that won’t stop Doe from doing his thing. In the postgame press conference, Andersen praised his work ethic and love of the game. Doe has been an underdog since his arrival and campus but, the 5’-8” wideout continues to put himself in the conversation for a spot, if only through sheer will.
Redshirt sophomore Jordan Fredrick also saw some quality reps and came away from the contest with three catches 35 yards.
Who stepped up:
Aside from the outstanding performances from Stave and Doe, there were a few other players who rose to the occasion:
Melvin Gordon (RS So, RB): No one has ever questioned Gordon’s talent. It’s very apparent that he’s gifted. But, how would he fare as the featured back? Though it’s too early to know for certain, the preliminary signs are positive. The Kenosha Bradford product rushed for 74 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries to go along with four receptions for 39 yards.
Perhaps the most impressive component of the redshirt sophomore’s performance was his patience. To this point in his career, Gordon has been used primarily for jet sweeps and runs to the edge. He was asked to do work between the tackles Saturday and responded well. It would be easy for someone who is so explosive toward the outside to bounce out every time the initial hole wasn’t there, but Gordon showed vision and persistence, even when things didn’t go well up front.
Joe Schobert (So, LB): The defensive schemes were admittedly bland, but Schobert seemed comfortable with the respectable amount of playing time he received. The second-year linebacker recorded seven tackles, including a sack.
Sojourn Shelton (Fr, DB): The secondary is likely the largest question mark on this team, but the rookie showed that he wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in there. Shelton racked up four tackles in his unofficial debut, including one tackle-for-loss.