Thursday, April 2, 2009
Improved WR play highlights Wisconsin's practice
By ESPN.com staff
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin went through a full-pads practice Thursday afternoon at the McClain Center, and I was there for almost the entire workout (had to step out to interview Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman, and a friend called informing me the Bears had traded for Jay Cutler, woo hoo!).
All four candidates for the Badgers' starting quarterback spot got plenty of work, as did an improved wide receiver corps led by Kyle Jefferson and Nick Toon, the son of former NFL star and Badgers great Al Toon. The younger Toon has been one of Wisconsin's spring standouts, and he didn't disappoint today, hauling in several receptions. He also nearly made a circus catch, only to cough up the ball to safety Aubrey Pleasant for a turnover.
"It's growing pains," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "Nick has a big-time play and then puts the ball on the ground. Is that a good thing? Yeah, he got there, made it, got big, but bad that he didn't finish. So shoot, that's spring ball."
Here are some other observations from the Badgers' workout:
- Everyone wants to hear about the quarterbacks, so here goes. All four are receiving about equal reps, but I'd give a slight edge to fifth-year senior Dustin Sherer, who looks more comfortable with his throws and moving in the pocket. Sherer has shortened his throwing motion and found Toon for several completions. He also threaded the needle to tight end Garrett Graham midway through team drills.
- From talking with several Wisconsin beat writers, Scott Tolzien had arguably his best practice of the spring, hitting several different receivers, including David Gilreath on a deep ball. Tolzien also found Toon for a leaping grab toward the end of practice.
- Curt Phillips, who wore No. 19 instead of his usual No. 10 because his jersey was reportedly "too tight," has an unorthodox throwing motion but gets the job done most of the time. He seems to shot-put the ball, but he connected on several nice throws, including a deep fade route to Isaac Anderson. Phillips also is clearly the most athletic of the four candidates, and his scrambling ability should help his cause.
- Freshman Jon Budmayr didn't have his best practice, from what I was told, but he still showed why people are buzzing about him this spring. Budmayr isn't very big -- generously listed at 6-foot-1 -- but he's got a very live arm. Not surprisingly, the Illinois native is a Rex Grossman fan but seemed excited about the Bears acquiring Cutler. Budmayr might not win the starting job this year, but he'll be on the field soon. There were some growing pains for Budmayr, including an interception to linebacker Tony Megna.
- Chryst and head coach Bret Bielema want to narrow the quarterback pool to two by the end of the spring. I'd be stunned if Sherer isn't one of them, but the other spot is unclear.
- The Badgers wide receivers are much, much better, which isn't saying much after last year. They caught the first six passes during team drills, an excellent sign after been plagued by drops in 2008. Toon and Jefferson look like the top two wideouts, though Anderson and Gilreath also had their moments. The wideouts caught several deep balls and more important, the intermediate routes over the middle. Tight end Graham looked to be in All-Big Ten form Thursday, but this team needs the wideouts to step up.
- The first-team defensive line consisted of senior O'Brien Schofield and Central Michigan transfer J.J. Watt at the ends and seniors Jeff Stehle and Dan Moore at tackles. Moore, a converted end, looks undersized at the tackle spot, but Wisconsin might need to go that route after losing three starters.
- Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren came over to chat briefly during the water break. Doeren is working with a pretty green linebacker corps but likes the development of junior Culmer St. Jean. He seemed most excited about Watt, whom he called "a beast" and a future star along the defensive line.
- Why is weight always an issue with Wisconsin running backs? P.J. Hill isn't around any longer, but John Clay will need to manage his size as the season nears. Clay apparently eclipsed 250 pounds last season and is listed this spring at 247 pounds but looks bigger. The sophomore can be one of the best running backs in the Big Ten next fall, but he'll be at his best closer to 235-240 pounds.
- Former Badgers coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez stopped by the practice for a few minutes to chat with Bielema. Alvarez showed off his speed as Toon nearly took him out after catching an out route near the sideline.
- Hard-hitting safety Jay Valai, who underwent sports hernia surgery during the offseason, was held out of most contact drills. You can see it's killing him not being able to crush somebody.
- Defensive end Louis Nzegwu was on crutches Thursday after tearing his MCL at the end of Tuesday's workout. Bielema said Nzegwu, who had been coming along nicely this spring, will miss 6-8 weeks.