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Spring wrap-up: Wisconsin Badgers

4/27/2015

Wisconsin closed spring practice Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium as Team Gasser (guest-coached by Josh Gasser, the standout guard on the Badgers’ NCAA runner-up basketball team) won in a 35-7 rout over Team Dukan (forward Duje Dukan served in the same role).

The scrimmage marked an end to coach Paul Chryst’s first spring in command of the Wisconsin program after his three seasons at Pitt. The entire offensive coaching staff is new as the Badgers replace All-America running back Melvin Gordon. Defensively, Wisconsin again appears solid after ranking second in the league last fall in yards and points surrendered en route to a West Division title.

Here’s a review of the spring in Madison:

The first question

In what shape are the skill positions on offense?

All reviews start with the quarterbacks. At Wisconsin, any doubt over the ability of fifth-year senior Joel Stave to retain starting position was eliminated this spring. Stave played a limited role Saturday, completing his only two throws in directing the No. 1 offense to a touchdown.

More compelling, the battle for the backup QB spot took shape this month. Junior Bart Houston appears to enter the summer months with an edge after a 9-of-16 showing in the spring game, though redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins progressed, and true freshman Alex Hornibrook showed impressive readiness over 15 practices.

Running back Corey Clement sat out of the final practice after making clear his position as the heir apparent to Gordon. Junior Dare Ogunbowale, who rushed for a game-high 89 yards and two touchdowns, looks like the No. 2 back. Redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal and converted cornerback Serge Trezy, a junior, are also bidding for carries.

At receiver, it's more murky. Junior Rob Wheelwright, who has played sparingly and made three catches over the past two seasons, caught seven balls for 79 yards and two scores in the scrimmage. He’s a candidate to break out in 2015, but Alex Erickson remains the group’s leader. Sophomore George Rushing caught four passes. And Reggie Love, who had a good spring until he was hurt in the final week, also looks in line for increased playing time.

Positions of strength

Look to the defensive side, particularly in the back eight. Spring practice did little to change views about the secondary, considered among the Big Ten’s best groups. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton re-emerged after a mediocre sophomore season, and Tanner McEvoy transitioned well back to defense, earning a spot with the top defense at safety. Veterans Michael Caputo, who left with a minor injury Saturday, and corner Darius Hillary complete the secondary.

The situation at linebacker perhaps looks better than expected at this stage after junior Leon Jacobs and redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards solidified the middle. New to the starting unit, they combined for 17 tackles and 2.5 sacks Saturday. Wisconsin is set at outside linebacker with returning starters Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel. Chryst also noted the play of backup linebackers Jack Cichy and Jesse Hayes.

Still unanswered

Will the Badgers be good enough on both lines of scrimmages to rule the West again?

On the offensive side, injuries to center Dan Voltz and guard Ray Ball scrambled things to the point that the Badgers struggled to gauge progress as a group. The quarterbacks were sacked 10 times Saturday.

“We don’t have the depth that maybe we’d like to have,” Chryst said.

Redshirt freshman Michael Deiter, playing guard and center this spring, looks like a key piece, and Tyler Marz will anchor the line at left tackle. But the injuries, lack of depth and reality of replacing three starters leave an uneasy feeling at the end of spring.

Defensively, noseguard Arthur Goldberg missed time, but Alec James and Chikwe Obasih finished the spring the note with a solid scrimmage. Still, to complement the linebackers and secondary, much more work remains up front.

“We took a step back,” Obasih said.

Obasih said he still feels uncomfortable.

”But I’m doing the things the way they need to be done," he said, "and there’s only room to grow from here.”

We’ll learn early in the 2015 season if the Badgers have made the necessary major strides at the line of scrimmage.