- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Wisconsin has established itself as an emerging Big Ten power by winning league titles in each of the past two seasons. Have the Badgers turned the corner in recruiting as well? It's up for debate. Wisconsin signed only 12 players in its 2012 recruiting class and lost offensive line commits Kyle Dodson and J.J. Denman to other programs. The Badgers still ended up with some quality prospects, including quarterback Bart Houston, in a class that never was going to have big numbers.
Coach Bret Bielema chatted with ESPN.com on Wednesday. Here are his thoughts on the recruiting crop.
What were your top priorities with this class?
Bret Bielema: Without a doubt, the offensive line. We were losing some pure numbers there the last two years, some guys going to the NFL, so we knew that was of major importance for us, especially with Pete [Konz] jumping out a year early. And it's always important for us to sign a quality quarterback and a quality running back, and we did that as well. Defensively, we were only going to take one D-lineman, really liked him [Arthur Goldberg], a kid we got out of Pittsburgh that we fell in love with when he came to camp. He's our kind of kid, blue collar, loves to work, get after it. We signed a really high recruit linebacker [Vince Biegel]. We weren't going to take big numbers there, but we wanted good quality, so we filled that out. And we got three DBs that are quality young men.
Did you expect to be in this range in terms of numbers, like 12 or 13?
BB: We originally thought it was going to be a class of nine or 10. There were some departures on our team. Obviously, Pete Konz, I don't want to have a great player leave early, but the benefit of that is we got to sign another kid. This was really a class we were excited about, because we were going after some high-profile guys and they were jumping in the boat. We still have a chance for one more guy out there, but for the most part I'm very excited. I was excited to get [Jake] Meador in there, we beat out Missouri and Florida. Also with Walker Williams, he's a kid that when we started to have [coaching] transition, several Big Ten schools as well as Pac-10 schools tried to get back in there, and he stood strong.
Did you experience that with a few recruits after you had your assistants leave?
BB: Absolutely. As coaches, we're all vultures. They smell something and they want to try and see if there's an interest, especially with great players. That'd be a great story if you want to call Walker Williams and ask him who came through his school the next two weeks after our Rose Bowl game. And he didn't really bat an eye.
Was this unique in that you had a small class to begin with, and then a coaching transition?
BB: One hundred percent. If it had been a class of 24, we would have had real problems, just getting enough people. At one one point we got down to only [assistant] three coaches with me, Chris Ash, Charlie Partridge and Thomas Hammock, the four of us trying to cover everything. I had to put GAs out on the road, they did a tremendous job, really did well with kids having good faith. And again, with a larger class, I don't know if that could have happened.
You mentioned wanting to get a quarterback and a running back. What stands out about Bart and Vonte Jackson?
BB: If I'm not mistaken, Bart's lost one game in three years as a starting quarterback at De La Salle. He's got an incredible record, an incredible history, something that stands second to none, and that's just winning football games. And Vonte, we had him going into his junior year in camp and he was ridiculous, the numbers he put up, his coachability and his work ethic and everything he stood for. It was very important for us, him being an in-state kid, to keep him here in the state.
You added some defensive backs. What stands out about them?
BB: Well, Hugs Etienne is a guy who is in here at school right now. He's going to be a nice kid that's going to grow into his position. The other two guys, D.J. Singleton and Reggie Mitchell, both have a lot of athletic ability. Reggie comes to us from Pittsburgh, so it was nice to get another Pittsburgh-area kid here into Camp Randall. And D.J. Singleton coming from the East Coast, from St. Peter's Prep, he's a nice guy to bring in and continue his career.
Do you fight any perception when you're signing a smaller class versus schools signing 25 or more guys at all sorts of positions?
BB: One of the things we do is we keep our kids. We don't have a lot of transition among our kids. When we get them, they usually stay four, five years and are part of our program. One of the disadvantages is you end up with smaller classes in a couple different years back to back. One thing that would be neat is if you really sat down and studied the amount of seniors graduating versus the amount of kids being signed. So if you're graduating 13 and signing 28, there are 15 kids, you have to figure out where the heck they went.
You've had some Big Ten freshmen of the year in recent seasons. In this class, do you see some guys who have a chance to contribute early, or will it be tough with the bigger numbers you have elsewhere?
BB: I've never really singled out a guy who might do that, but I'm not saying the possibility isn't there.
Was anything different this year with the Big Ten recruiting landscape, as some new coaches stepped in around the league?
BB: One of the greatest things we have going for us with the new divisional alignment was to be in the same division as Penn State and Ohio State. To me, that's where the true competition lies. Before last season, Ohio State had had six uninterrupted conference championships, and obviously we've had two now. For us to have a big conference rivalry game against Ohio State speaks volumes about where we're at. That's something we took with a lot of pride. They came in on some of our guys, and vice-versa, so it was interesting. It's going to be fun to learn the recruiting style that Ohio State's staff and the new Penn State staff has. That's what you've got to expect in these inter-conference battles. It's just good, clean football, and hopefully the best man wins.
Did you guys swing for the fences more in going for some higher-level prospects after the recent success on the field?
BB: If they're kids who lie within our normal recruiting area, we're going to go after a kid whether he's a five-star or a one-star, if he fits our program. On the flip side, if there's a kid outside of our norm, it's usually because they reached out to us, Walker Williams being a case. I believe he had every Pac-10 school [interested]. I know there were two major schools within our conference who reached out to him after the bowl game, hoping the transition of coach [Paul] Chryst and [Bob] Bostad would have an effect on the decision. It didn't. That speaks volumes about where we're at.