I've reviewed the Big Ten Network's final preview show at Wisconsin. The crew of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith recently stopped by a Badgers practice.
Here are some notes and observations from the show:
The offense looked very good in the practice, and I think Wisconsin boasts the most balanced attack in the Big Ten. Quarterback Scott Tolzien is a perfect fit for Paul Chryst's system, the offensive line is big and very physical and there are plenty of weapons at running back, wide receiver and tight end. "This is the most physical offense in the conference," DiNardo said. "There's no doubt about it."
Running back John Clay told the BTN crew that his surgically repaired ankles were a bit tender at the start of camp, but he's working his way into game shape. Clay looked OK in the practice, but backups Montee Ball and James White stood out to me. Ball brings a good mix of speed and size, and White really throws a change-up at the defense with tremendous quickness. White made two nifty cutbacks on a long run during team drills. "Talk about a kid who really has it all," Griffith said. "He can flat-out play." I'm already getting excited for the competition at running back after Clay moves onto the NFL.
It's fun to watch Tolzien, because he lacks the ideal mechanics but almost always gets the job done. His passing targets performed well in the workout. Top wideout Nick Toon had a good day, displaying physical play and beating two defenders for a touchdown on a deep ball in team drills. "Toon really stood out in this practice," Revsine said. Kyle Jefferson and Lance Kendricks also made several nice catches, and walk-on Jared Abbrederis should be a key contributor this fall.
I kept a close eye on the secondary during the practice. There were some issues during team drills, including a breakdown that left Kendricks wide open in the back of the end zone for an easy touchdown. Junior cornerback Antonio Fenelus, one of three players competing for two starting spots, had a nice pass breakup. Reserve safety Shelton Johnson, who drew praise from coach Bret Bielema and the BTN crew, picked off Tolzien near the goal line and likely would have been gone for a touchdown had it been a game. Defensive backs Devin Smith and Peniel Jean showed physical play in a bump-and-run drill that put them against bigger receivers. New secondary coach Chris Ash is very vocal and could be heard a lot during the practice.
Wisconsin's young defensive line really should benefit from going against arguably the nation's top offensive line in practice. It was a lot of fun watching junior end J.J. Watt go against star left tackle Gabe Carimi in drills. On one play, defensive tackle Patrick Butrym split a double team, forcing the ball-carrier to cut back. DiNardo tabbed another defensive tackle, sophomore Eriks Briedis, as his under-the-radar player. Bielema said the defensive tackles made a big jump from the first scrimmage to the second. "People thought we were going to be a weakness last year," Watt said of the defensive line, "and that's what a lot of people are saying this year, so we're real excited to prove people wrong."
DiNardo had an interesting take on Wisconsin's schedule, saying the Badgers' soft nonconference slate won't adequately prepare them for Big Ten play. Wisconsin faces UNLV, San Jose State, Arizona State and Austin Peay in September before a tough Big Ten opener Oct. 2 at Michigan State. "I don’t know if they’re going to know their problems [after the nonconference slate]," DiNardo said.
Bielema told the BTN crew that he expects several freshmen to play right away, including White, defensive lineman Beau Allen and wide receiver Manasseh Garner.
Both DiNardo and Griffith love Wisconsin's potential, but they're also concerned about how all the hype and attention will affect the Badgers. The 2008 season is still fresh in the minds of a lot of folks, but I expect the Badgers to handle themselves better. Bielema said only once during the team's first 17 practices did he need to step in and question the work ethic. "Our role as humblers," Bielema said of the coaching staff, "we accept very willingly."