New Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen is still learning about his team. So much so that when I caught up with him this week to preview the Badgers spring practice (which starts Saturday), he didn't want to talk about individual players yet.
But he'll see them on the field starting this weekend. And then a new era begins in Madison. Here's my conversation with the new Badgers boss:
Going into spring practice, do you have an idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are on this team, or do you need to see them on the field?
Gary Andersen: We need to see them. You're so limited in today's world of the offseason in what kids can do. We can see them run and jump and a little bit of lifting weights and the little time we can spend with them. We've got to be able to see the kids play football, because at the end of the day that's the most important part. I know they're excited to get out there, and we're excited to see them. That's a big part, to see how they react to competitive situations, to see how they react to adversity, to see how they react to winning and losing, which we will compete every day in spring and have a winner and a loser.
You've taken over a new program before. So how long do you think the adjustment period will be? Will they grasp everything this spring, or will they need to go into the summer still learning the system?
GA: There is an adjustment period. But when I say that, I surely don't want the adjustment to be from a pace and effort standpoint. I know there are going to be some scheme adjustments, obviously. These young men have done a tremendous job of spending time on their own and being very passionate in the two hours a week you get to meet with them. So it's gone well, but I expect us to be a very well organized staff and look like we've done it for a number of years. And I expect the players to play with extreme effort and have a smile on their face. We're going to make some mistakes, and that's OK. That's where we're at. But I want to have fun and look like we know what we're doing, for sure.
What we believe in installation is, a lot up front and kind of taper as you get though the second half of spring. There's going to be a lot of information early on. I would like to see us clicking and feeling pretty good about ourselves on offense, defense and special teams -- it's probably going to take 10 practices or so. I'd like those last five practices for us to be able to walk off and say we made some strides, and we've kind of got some people identified as to where they fit and the kids have a good idea of what we like to do.
A big spring storyline is your quarterback situation. How will you split the reps and time for those guys?
GA: It's a little bit of a tangled web right now, no doubt. Lot of quarterbacks. I want the quarterbacks to get into a position where they're not counting their reps, they're making their reps count. And that's got to be important to them. They've got to understand that not everybody will get the same amount of reps but put themselves in position to be successful when opportunity knocks. And early preparation and prior preparation before practice, I think, is going to play a big role in that. I don't have an exact number how we're going to split them or who's going to get the reps. All I can really say is there is going to be a number of quarterbacks getting reps and opportunities, and as they pull away from each other, the reps and opportunities will favor the guy who's playing the best.
Do you anticipate having a No. 1 guy after spring?
GA: I think we'll for sure go into the summer saying we have a couple of young men we feel really good about. And I'll say this about every junior college young man that we ever recruit in our time here: They are going to be given the opportunity to compete in fall camp. So Tanner [McEvoy] will have an opportunity to compete this summer. The quarterbacks here have an opportunity in the spring. I'm sure we'll come out of the spring with a couple of guys we feel best about, and then we'll go through the summer.
You mentioned on Monday that one big adjustment for both cornerbacks and receivers will be going to man coverage. Have they been able to prepare for that this winter?
GA: On their own, really, a lot of watching tape. And these young men have done a tremendous job of going out and working against each other. Not in a completely competitive situation, but in fairly competitive scenarios. We can't watch them and we can't see them, but my feeling is it's going to help if they're doing what they're supposed to do.
It is a transition, but I don't want to make it a bigger deal than it is. It's a new technique, it's something you're going to do more than you've done before. They've played man coverage here in the past, so we're just going to do it more. It's like saying you were a Cover 3 team, and now all of a sudden you're a quarters team; well, you've got to get better at quarters. Our kids will adjust to that. But man coverage is very very specific to the athletes involved. It's like one-on-one basketball, if you will. It really matters who can get by who, or who can move around who, and if you can't stay in the way of a guy, you're going to have a problem. The same thing is true if you're driving for layups in basketball. So we've got to see who can do it, and we're not going to force a square peg into a round hole. But if we can play man coverage, we surely want to do it.
Speaking of transitions, how about for your front seven learning how to mix in some odd-man fronts? How much of an adjustment is that?
GA: I think the challenge is being able to play four-down and the odd front together. We've done that in the past as a staff and it's worked very well. It's not really the technique that changes so much; it's just the learning. There's more to it, and playing in a few different spots. These kids will handle it very well. I have no doubt that they're going to have the ability to line up and get into the different techniques that we're asking them to play and be able to handle it mentally. But there is change, because there's just more movement for the defense. And they were very good on defense last year and for years prior to that. But we want to be able to move around a little bit more, so that requires them to learn a little bit of a new scheme.
How many players do you see as in the mix for the starting center job?
GA: Two right now and possibly a third, depending on how well he can snap the football. We'll see about that. There's a couple of young men who are definitely in the middle of that, and we'll see how that develops. If we need to bring a third one in, we'll do that.
The team lost one of the greatest players in school history in Montee Ball, but the running back position still seems in great shape. How excited are you about that spot?
GA: Great, great young men. Very athletic and very talented, when you watch them run around. Flip on the film from last year, and there were some really good running backs. Montee was a very big piece of that puzzle, we all know that. But the other two men that are there right now are doing a great job. So there are good running backs, but to be a good running back, you've got to have a good offensive line and those tight ends and fullbacks and a quarterback that can help you too. But I feel good about it. I don't want to talk to much about individual kids right now, but I think those two, James [White] and Melvin [Gordon], have kind of separated themselves as leaders also.
Speaking of leaders, how is that coming along for this team?
GA: It's a work in progress. Every single team in the country, I think we're all in that spot, whether a coach has been there for 20 years or two months. I think we're all continually working to build that leadership. I will say this: Our leadership committee and captains have been picked, and I've communicated with those kids two or three times and it seems to be good. So I think it's moving in the right direction, and I think we'll have some tremendous leaders on this team.
Finally, you're taking over a program that has had great success recently with three straight Rose Bowls. Are the players open to a new way of doing things after having so much success?
GA: I think the coaches here did a tremendous job, and I've pointed that out numerous times. I never got a chance to meet Bret [Bielema]; he was gone before I came here. But the staff members I did meet were great to us as coaches and great to me. So I think these kids were coached well and we're in a good spot. The coaches like the players and the players like them.
But change is change. They've been through a number of coaches here through the years. Some of them are the No. 3 coach and some of them are even the No. 4 coach these kids have had in their time. So we need that to solidify and we need that to settle in. They've kind of wrapped their arms around us as a coaching staff. Trust is gained, and I think the first two months have gone very well. They've gained a lot of trust in us, and we've gained a lot of trust in them. But we've got to keep working at it daily and see what we can do.
And I know this: They've had some tremendous years here. But every one one those kids on the leadership committee, when I sat down with them, what came rolling out of all their mouths was, "Coach, we want to be a great team." Last year, they had six losses -- and they played great when they had to and they won a championship and got to the Rose Bowl -- but I think that's a thorn in their side. Which goes to show how competitive the kids are and kind of group of kids they are.