Big Ten: Chikwe Obasih
Don't ignore new quarterbacks like Wes Lunt and Tanner McEvoy, or newcomer defenders like Jabrill Peppers and Jihad Ward, but the real gauge for some teams will take place in the trenches. There are several revamped lines in the Big Ten that will be under the microscope in Week 1.
Let's take a look:
Wisconsin defensive line versus LSU (in Houston): The Badgers will start three new players up front -- ends Chikwe Obasih and Konrad Zagzebski, and tackle Warren Herring -- against talented Tigers running backs Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Leonard Fournette, the decorated incoming freshman. Herring and Zabzekbski have five combined career starts, while Obasih, a redshirt freshman, makes his debut on a huge stage.
"I really feel that in the pass rush aspect and in the containing the quarterback aspect, we are a little bit more athletic and we have a little bit more speed," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda told me last week.
Penn State offensive line versus UCF (in Dublin, Ireland): Only one healthy starter (tackle Donovan Smith) returns for PSU's line, which has heard all about its depth issues throughout the offseason. The group will be tested right away by a UCF defense that returns nine starters, including the entire line. You can bet Knights coach George O'Leary will put Penn State's line under duress from the onset.
Ohio State offensive line versus Navy (in Baltimore): Like Penn State, Ohio State brings back just one line starter (tackle Taylor Decker) from last year, and the unit's task became a lot tougher after the season-ending loss of quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes' new-look front must protect freshman signal caller J.T. Barrett and create some running room against a smaller Navy defensive line.
Northwestern defensive line versus Cal: Both Wildcat lines have question marks entering the season, but the defensive front enters the spotlight after dealing with injuries throughout the offseason. Veteran defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) is out for the season, and tackles Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins will get an opportunity to assert themselves against a Cal offense that racked up 549 yards against Northwestern in last year's game.
Purdue offensive line versus Western Michigan: The Boilers simply weren't strong enough up front in 2013 and couldn't move the ball for much of the season. They should be better on the interior with center Robert Kugler leading the way. This is a great chance for Purdue to start strong against a Western Michigan defense that ranked 118th nationally against the run in 2013.
Michigan offensive line versus Appalachian State: This isn't the Appalachian State team that shocked Michigan in 2007, but the Wolverines need to gain cohesion and confidence up front and with their run game. After a lot of line shuffling in camp, Michigan tries to get backs Derrick Green and De'Veon Smith going in the opener before a Week 2 trip to Notre Dame.
To the links ...
- Some bad news for Iowa's defensive line, as tackle Darian Cooper posts that he had season-ending surgery.
- Prove-it time has arrived for Nebraska's supposedly improved defense.
- It's Mitch Leidner's show at Minnesota, and that's a very good thing, Chip Scoggins writes.
- Melvin Gordon spills the beans about Wisconsin's not-so secret starting quarterback. Coach Gary Andersen expects both signal callers to play this fall. A former Badgers recruit is sentenced to a year in jail for sexual assault.
- Illinois could use its two backup quarterbacks as wide receivers.
- After two pick-sixes last year against Cal, Northwestern linebacker Collin Ellis aims for an encore against the Bears.
- The Gold & Black staff weighs in on a simple but important question: Will Purdue be better?
- Michigan isn't electing captains until after the season. The Wolverines and Nebraska are on Jeremy Fowler's list of sneaky playoff contenders.
- Ohio State still has at least four starting spots up for grabs this week.
- Notes and nuggets from Penn State's coordinators before the team departs for Ireland.
- Indiana has implemented an NFL-style tackling system to help its defenders.
- Spartan Stadium gets a facelift.
- A closer look at Maryland's Week 1 depth chart.
- Dan Duggan lists 10 under-the-radar Rutgers players to watch this season.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:
2013 overall record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)
Key losses: RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OG Ryan Groy, DE Pat Muldoon, DT Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward
Key returnees: RB Melvin Gordon, OT Rob Havenstein, OG Kyle Costigan, OT Tyler Marz, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Michael Caputo
Instant impact newcomer: Safety Lubern Figaro. If you're from outside the Badger State, you're probably asking, "Who?" After all, Figaro was just a three-star recruit and enrolled over the summer -- but he's already projected to start in the opener. Part of the reason is reportedly an injury to safety Leo Musso, but Figaro has already done plenty to separate himself. In the first scrimmage this preseason, he returned a pick for a touchdown. DB Sojourn Shelton made an impact last season when he was a true freshman; now it looks as if it's Figaro's turn.
Offense: QB: Joel Stave, RS Jr., 6-5, 220; RB: Melvin Gordon, RS Jr., 6-1, 213; FB: Derek Watt, RS Jr., 6-2, 236; WR: Alex Erickson, RS So., 6-0, 196; WR: Reggie Love, RS So., 6-3, 214; TE: Sam Arneson, Sr., 6-4, 244; OT: Tyler Marz, RS Jr., 6-5, 321; OG: Dallas Lewallen, RS Sr., 6-6, 321: C: Dan Voltz, RS So., 6-3, 311; OG: Kyle Costigan, RS Sr., 6-5, 319; OT: Rob Havenstein, RS Sr., 6-8, 333
Defense: DE: Chikwe Obasih, RS Fr., 6-2, 268; DT: Warren Herring, RS Sr., 6-3, 294; DE: Konrad Zagzebski, RS Sr., 6-3, 277; OLB: Joe Schobert, Jr., 6-2, 240; ILB: Marcus Trotter, RS Sr., 6-0, 226; ILB: Derek Landisch, Sr., 6-0, 231; OLB: Vince Biegel, RS So., 6-4, 244; CB: Darius Hillary, RS Jr., 5-11, 188; CB: Sojourn Shelton, So., 5-9, 178; S: Michael Caputo, RS Jr., 6-1, 212; S: Lubern Figaro, Fr., 6-0, 179
Specialists: P: Drew Meyer, RS Jr., 6-3, 187; PK: Rafael Gaglianone, Fr., 5-11, 231
Biggest question mark: Can this front seven recover from so many key departures? Of the seven players who started in the Badgers' bowl game last season, only one returns. That leaves quite a few holes, especially when considering the departures of Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland and two All-Big Ten honorable mentions (Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon). Wisconsin's front seven dominated in 2013, as they helped the Badgers rank No. 5 nationally in rush defense (102.5 yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.3 points per game). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is solid, but he's not a magician. Those defensive numbers will almost certainly drop from last season -- but just how much?
Most important game: Nov. 15 versus Nebraska. It's basically a three-team race in the West Division, so this is a must-win if Wisconsin wants a spot in the Big Ten championship game. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule this season, so the Huskers and Iowa Hawkeyes are the teams to beat. Iowa is just as important, but that contest comes a week later, and that won't mean a thing if Wisconsin first can't get past this contest.
Upset special: Nov. 29 versus Minnesota. A lot could be on the line when the Badgers square off against Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. And, depending how Wisconsin's defense progresses, this could be an interesting one. Wisconsin's run defense is a wild card right now, and the Gophers could boast the second-toughest rushing attack on Wisconsin's schedule (outside of Nebraska). No team held Wisconsin to fewer points (20) last season than Minnesota, so there is some potential here. Plus, one has to think the Gophers will be able to manage better than a seven-point offensive effort this time around.
Key stat: Sure, everyone knows the departure of Jared Abbrederis will hurt Wisconsin. But the Badgers actually lost their top four targets, and only one (Jordan Fredrick) recorded catches in the double-digits. And he had just 10. Overall, Wisconsin lost 81 percent of its receiving production, as this year's returners had just 42 combined receptions last season compared with the 217 total catches.
What they're wearing: Wisconsin has come a long way since 2010, because it basically went from rotating between two uniform combinations to doing photo shoots with more than 20 combinations.
One possible new look includes an all-red, jersey-pant combo (not to be confused with Nebraska's all-red getup):
@UWCoachAndersen) joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, but he pumps out unique tweets and is a great follow. The official Wisconsin football account (@BadgerFootball) tweets like crazy and is always on the ball. As far as players, running back Melvin Gordon (@Melvingordon25) is a no-brainer, while cornerback Sojourn Shelton (@SDS1_) definitely deserves a few more follows. There are quite a few good follows for your coverage needs -- besides us, of course -- including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) and SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q).
They said it: "No question there's a temptation to run him every time." – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on running back Melvin Gordon
Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins
Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins
Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.
There will be so much more to talk about in the Big Ten as the season continues to draw closer, and obviously way more to discuss when it arrives. Follow along with me here on Twitter, and stay tuned there to ask questions for the mailbag.
@AWardESPN Is there any hope for the Badger's defense after losing their front 7? I see them losing 3 or 4 games this year starting with LSU— Jack Miller (@jackbearmiller) July 20, 2014
Austin Ward: Given the amount of production and experience Wisconsin must replace, it's certainly going to be a tall order for the defense to come close to holding opponents to around 16 points per game like it did a year ago. But there are plenty of young pieces that have the coaching staff excited not just about the long term, but also with what they can provide this fall thanks to the natural athleticism and what could be a unit with improved speed across the board. Wisconsin was able to redshirt some talented defenders last season thanks to the veteran presence it had, and defensive linemen Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Garret Dooley all fit the mold for what Wisconsin is trying to build up front moving forward. The Badgers may still drop a few games, but the defense should be strong enough to help keep them solidly in the mix to win the West Division.
@AWardESPN what're the odds we have a B1g heisman winner in the next five years?— Dane Binder (@dbinderAZ) July 19, 2014
Austin Ward: This year might be as good as any for the league to break its drought for the game's biggest individual award. Ohio State's Braxton Miller will enter the season with the most buzz and attention as the quarterback of a high-profile program with title aspirations, but a pair of running backs could make it really interesting for voters regardless of whether or not their teams are playoff contenders. Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon are capable of putting up head-turning numbers out of the backfield, and while they would buck a recent trend that seems to be focused almost exclusively on quarterbacks, they could rack up enough yardage to make it impossible for voters to ignore them. Of course, if Miller hadn't missed out on prime opportunities to pad his numbers a year ago when he was injured in September, there's a chance he could have pushed Jameis Winston for the trophy. It's hard to know who will develop into viable candidates five years from now, but I would be stunned if the Big Ten doesn't have another winner by then.
@AWardESPN Do u agree w reasoning for not having The Game under the lights? Thinking it prob would lead 2 more excitement. Anticipation— Matt Pacholski (@Mpachol) July 18, 2014
Austin Ward: The rivalry and two enormous fan bases guarantee that The Game doesn't exactly need to change to please anybody else, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't evolve if it can make itself even more appealing to a broader audience. Using tradition as an excuse doesn't really work anymore when Ohio State is already leading a charge to play more night games with six of them on the schedule this season. Why should Michigan be an exception for the Buckeyes, or vice versa? It seems pretty clear that the atmosphere for night games is more electric in the evening than at noon, and the next person that complains to me about having longer to tailgate will be the first. Television partners move games to prime time for a reason since that's where the ratings are best. And while I don't live on the West Coast, wouldn't it be a nice advertisement for the league if more casual fans in California who might not be watching football at 9 a.m. had a chance to see the greatest rivalry in college football? I think there are even more benefits that could apply, and while Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith is perhaps rightfully worried about alienating a portion of the fan base that is burdened by traveling for night games, it's hard to see how just one game should have its kickoff time protected while every other opponent is a candidate to play under those permanent new lights at the Horseshoe.
Being stout up front and strong enough to stop the run has long been a staple of success in this league. This year, several stars return at defensive end, including Nebraska's Randy Gregory, Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun, Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, Maryland's Andre Monroe and Minnesota's Theiren Cockran. Things are a little more undecided at defensive tackle, though Iowa's Carl Davis and Ohio State's Michael Bennett could be early round NFL draft picks.
Let's continue our position preview series with the guys holding down the fort in the defensive trenches:
Best of the best: Ohio State
I've already pegged this as the best overall position group in the Big Ten, so naturally the Buckeyes take the top spot here. The star power is immense with Bosa and Spence on the end and Bennett and Adolphus Washington inside. There are some question marks about depth, especially early on as Spence is suspended for the first two games of the season. Jamal Marcus transferred, and Tracy Sprinkle -- who at best would have provided some rotation help -- has been kicked off the team pending the resolution of his legal problems. The good news is that some incoming recruits could help right away, and when Ohio State's starting four is all together, it will be tough to stop.
Next up: Michigan State
Few teams can match the pair of defensive ends that the Spartans can line up. Calhoun is the Big Ten's reigning defensive lineman of the year, and he was a first-year starter last year who should continue to improve. On the other side, Marcus Rush has started 40 of the past 41 games and done everything asked of him. He's one of the most underrated players in the league. Michigan State has to replace both starting defensive tackles from last season, but there are several players ready to contribute, including Joel Heath and Damon Knox. Highly rated recruit Malik McDowell could work his way into the mix as well. And there are other stars waiting in the wings, like Demetrius Cooper.
The Wolverines were decent but nothing special on the defensive line last season. But they have some interesting pieces to work with this year. Start with a pair of seniors on the edges in Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer. Elsewhere on the line are a several talented young players who have seen a lot of snaps early in their careers, such as Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Willie Henry and Matt Godin. Many of these players were highly rated recruits, and if they can live up to their potential and bring the level of play back up near Brady Hoke's first year as head coach, this is a group that can make some noise.
Problem for a contender: Wisconsin
Like several other positions for the Badgers, this one was hit hard by graduation, as stalwarts like Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel have all moved on. There is still some promise here, as Warren Herring gives the team a big body inside and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih provides reason for excitement. Fifth-year senior Konrad Zagzebski will need to make his presence known. The group could have a little more speed than in years past, but no team lost more experience on the defensive front than Wisconsin.
These are guys who haven't played big roles yet but showed enough during the 15 spring practices -- not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans this fall.
We finish the list with the Wisconsin Badgers, who revamped their defense this spring and received a spark from a young lineman.
Spring breakout player: DE Chikwe Obasih
The Badgers lost all three starting linemen from the 2013 team and return only a handful of players who entered the Capital One Bowl in the two-deep at either line or linebacker. The personnel turnover left the door open for younger players to emerge, and Obasih capitalized during spring practice.
After redshirting as a freshman last season and getting knocked around on the scout team, Obasih made significant strides throughout the spring and ended the session penciled into a starting role. He played in a 4-3 scheme in high school and came to Wisconsin undersized for a 3-4 end, but he has added the necessary weight through offseason training.
"If you put on Day 1 of spring ball and Day 13 of spring ball, it's an unbelievable difference in his pad level, the use of his hands, his understanding and knowledge of the defense, the basic concepts of football," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "And that's where you'd expect him to be.
"Chikwe is starting right now."
Obasih must continue to build on the spring to retain his position, as fellow redshirt freshman Alec James and others are pushing for playing time. But after impressing coaches and teammates with his toughness in a thankless role as a freshman, it's unlikely Obasih steps off of the gas.
He showed tremendous playmaking ability in high school with 49 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and nine forced fumbles.
"I set high standards for myself," Obasih told foxsports.com. "The coaches set high standards for myself. I know where I can be. But I'm not there yet. Not near enough. I'll be working for that over the summer."
More spring breakout players
- Purdue: Defensive tackle Ra'Zahn Howard
- Rutgers: Wide receiver Janarion Grant
- Iowa: Wide receiver Derrick Willies
- Northwestern: Wide receiver Miles Shuler
- Minnesota: Safety Damarius Travis
- Penn State: Defensive tackle Anthony Zettel
- Indiana: Defensive end/linebacker Nick Mangieri
- Michigan State: Defensive end Demetrius Cooper
- Maryland: Cornerback Alvin Hill
- Nebraska: Nickel back Charles Jackson
- Ohio State: Linebacker Darron Lee
- Illinois: Wide receiver Mikey Dudek
- Michigan: Wide receiver Freddy Canteen
So this is a chance to share our impressions and observations. We'll start today with the West Division, where Adam got an up-close look at Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
Adam Rittenberg: Well, it was actually a portion of practice, but I'll take what I can get at Fort Ferentz. This is a legitimate Big Ten contender, in large part because of the schedule but also because of the team it returns. I just didn't get the sense Iowa has many major problems. AIRBHG is off torturing baby seals. The linebacker thing is worth monitoring, but Quinton Alston would have started for most teams last year. Kirk Ferentz's best teams are strong up front, and Iowa looks very solid along both lines with Brandon Scherff, Carl Davis and others.
The young wide receivers really intrigue me, especially Derrick Willies, who blew up in the spring scrimmage. Iowa hasn't had difference-makers at receiver for some time. The offense had a spike in plays last year, and coordinator Greg Davis wants to go faster and be more diverse, even incorporating backup quarterback C.J. Beathard into the mix. That intrigues me. So you've got solid line play, more weapons on offense and a cake schedule. Indianapolis-bound? It's possible.
BB: When it comes to winning Big Ten titles, Wisconsin has been far more successful than its new West brethren in the last five years. Yet the Badgers lost a whole lot of valuable seniors, especially on defense. You went to Madison. How's the revamped defense looking, and is there anyone who can catch the ball from whoever starts at QB?
AR: Fascinating team. Quarterback competitions are nothing new in Mad City, but the sheer number of questions at UW stands out. It feels like coach Gary Andersen should be going into his first year, not his second. Kenzel Doe had a nice spring at slot receiver, but Wisconsin will need help from its five incoming freshmen. The uncertainty at receiver could benefit Tanner McEvoy in the quarterback competition as Andersen wants a second rushing threat on the field (or sometimes a third when Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement play together).
I didn't get a great read on the offensive line because of injuries, but the defensive front seven will be a big story all season. So many position changes. Linebacker Derek Landisch is the leader, but who are the top playmakers? Cornerback Sojourn Shelton could be one, and the coaches really like young defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. I really liked linebacker Leon Jacobs last summer and could see him emerging. Like Iowa, Wisconsin has a favorable schedule, but we're going to find out how good Andersen and his staff really are this season.
AR: If the team stays focused and aligned, not to mention healthy, the answer is yes. Northwestern spun the two-quarterback deal well for a while, but it's always better to have one QB and a clear identity on offense. It has that with Trevor Siemian, who looked good this spring, and a scheme that should rely more on the pass. Wide receiver is a strength as Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler shined at the slot. I'm interested to see how running back Venric Mark's role changes without Kain Colter on the field.
The defense could be the best in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. Improved recruiting is paying off in the secondary as several redshirt freshmen, including safety Godwin Igwebuike, enter the mix. Defensive tackle is the big concern and overall D-line health, but the defense wasn't the reason Northwestern went 5-7. It should keep the team in most games.
BB: The last West team you saw was Illinois. Did anything you witnessed convince you the Illini can get to a bowl in 2014?
AR: I'm still thawing out from a frigid March night at Chicago's Gately Stadium. Illinois has a chance to sustain its momentum on offense. The line should be solid, quarterback Wes Lunt has a plus arm and Josh Ferguson is a big-time threat. Continued improvement at wide receiver is key as newcomers Geronimo Allison and Mike Dudek impressed. The defense still needs a lot of work, but T.J. Neal has helped fill Jonathan Brown's role, and linemen D.J. Smoot and DeJazz Woods stood out. Illinois needs more numbers in the front seven to firm up a run defense that really struggled last year.
BB: Overall, did anything you saw change your opinion on the West Division race? I'm pretty high on Nebraska and think their defensive front seven could be pretty special. I still think Minnesota will be a factor, but the lack of visible progress in the passing game (granted, the spring game debacle there means little in the big picture) was disappointing. For me, the jury's out on Wisconsin and Iowa is a big-time dark horse. What say you?
AR: Iowa is beyond dark-horse status. A veteran team took a big step last year and is poised to take another with a favorable schedule. Wisconsin likely will be the popular pick to win the division, but I have too many doubts right now. Nebraska is the wild card to me. Can we trust a Huskers team that will be better on defense? Minnesota might be a better team with a worse record because of its schedule. Northwestern could be a factor if it gets past the union distraction.
There's no alpha dog here. Should be a wild ride.
We begin with Wisconsin.
Three things we learned in the spring
- The quarterback race is down to two: Wisconsin entered spring practice with four candidates and reduced the pool by 50 percent. Joel Stave, who has started 19 games the past two seasons, missed much of the session with a throwing shoulder injury. Stave will compete this summer with Tanner McEvoy, a junior-college transfer who played safety and wide receiver for parts of last season. McEvoy looked sharper this spring at quarterback and brings a run threat to the pocket. D.J. Gillins likely will redshirt, while Bart Houston remains in a reserve role.
- The coaches aren't afraid to take chances: Gary Andersen and his staff shuffled pieces on both sides of the ball, especially on defense, where they want more speed on the field. Most players saw time at multiple positions, and several young players put themselves in position for significant playing time, including redshirt freshmen defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James, safety Austin Hudson and center Michael Deiter.
- Melvin Gordon and Derek Landisch are the leaders: Gordon, the All-Big Ten running back who turned down the NFL for another year at Wisconsin, not only is the team's best player, but much more of a leader. He talked openly this spring about elevating Wisconsin to elite status and the initial College Football Playoff. Landisch, the only returning starter in the defensive front seven, is the undisputed leader of the defense and takes the torch from Chris Borland.
- Who emerges at wide receiver?: The Badgers lose a huge piece in Jared Abbrederis and went through most of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. Although senior Kenzel Doe is stepping up, many others must emerge in the summer. Alex Erickson returns from injury and Jordan Frederick and Robert Wheelwright will be in the mix, but Wisconsin needs at least two of its five incoming freshmen wideouts to contribute. Keep an eye on Dareian Watkins.
- The starting quarterback: Unlike other Big Ten spring quarterback competitions, Wisconsin ended the session with no obvious leader. Stave's injury made it tough to gauge his progress, and the limited number of receivers made the passing game look worse than it probably will be. McEvoy has a great opportunity to win the job, especially with the coaches looking for more mobility at the position. This race likely will last well into camp.
- Defensive playmakers: Borland's loss not only hurts Wisconsin in production, but playmaking ability. No one defender can replace what Borland brought, so the Badgers need several to improve during the summer months. Leon Jacobs moved from outside linebacker to inside and has the speed to be a difference-maker. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton had four interceptions as a freshman, and the coaches are counting on players such as linebacker Joe Schobert and linemen Obasih, James, Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring.
McEvoy will be the starter by Big Ten play, if not earlier. Andersen's recruiting suggests he values dual-threat quarterbacks more than his Wisconsin predecessors, and the potential concerns at wide receiver accentuate the need for another backfield weapon alongside Gordon and Corey Clement. McEvoy must continue to develop as a passer, but his athleticism trumps Stave, who struggled for stretches last season despite having an elite target in Abbrederis.
MADISON, Wis. -- Gary Andersen's current job description looks a lot like that of a first-year coach. Here's the thing: Andersen is entering his second season at Wisconsin.
Andersen's inheritance with the Badgers last year, in coaching currency, rivaled that of a Walton, a Bloomberg or Prince George. Most new coaches are saddled with teams plagued by youth, discontent or a culture of losing. Andersen stepped into a locker room filled with 25 seniors, including stars such as Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis. Wisconsin had won three consecutive Big Ten championships. It had an identity and a proven path to success.
The Badgers needed a leader after Bret Bielema spurned them for Arkansas, but Andersen's primary task could be reduced to four words: Don't screw it up. To his credit, he didn't, guiding Wisconsin to a 9-2 start before the year ended with losses to both Penn State and South Carolina. He also provided a calm, stabilizing presence that resonated both with players and Badgers fans. Wisconsin has recorded better seasons, but Andersen's first made a strong enough impression on the Cleveland Browns, who reached out to him about their coaching vacancy, and on Barry Alvarez, who awarded Andersen a raise and a new contract.
But it's fair to wonder about Andersen. Program maintenance, while challenging, isn't the same as program building. Wisconsin doesn't lack a foundation -- Alvarez provided one and Bielema kept it from cracking -- but there's a lot of hard labor ahead for Andersen and his assistants as their roster turns over significantly.
"We are a very youthful crew," Andersen told ESPN.com. "It's like my second year at Utah State. We were youthful, we were excited, but our coaching was so important to be able to put the kids in the proper positions, which is the ultimate goal. It's not how much offense you have or how much defense you have. It's how well you’re performing the basics: how many missed assignments, how are we tackling, how are our administrative penalties.
"You want to do everything you can to make sure you're teaching them how to play football the right way."
Utah State went 4-7 in Andersen's second year before reaching bowls the next two seasons. Wisconsin's expectations are much higher despite its new-look depth chart.
Wisconsin is not rebuilding, but it faces an unusually high number of questions on a depth chart that shouldn't be written in anything permanent.
"It's a reset, you're starting at ground zero," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "Even with the veteran O-line, a couple guys are out, you're mixing and matching, so you can't assume or take anything for granted. Even with [quarterback Joel Stave], it's a chance to reteach things that he's had hundreds of reps on, because there's always a new way to look at it."
Stave is part of the mystery at Wisconsin. Despite starting 19 games the past two seasons, he must outshine Tanner McEvoy in camp to keep his job, especially after missing much of the spring with a pesky throwing shoulder injury. McEvoy, a gifted athlete who played both safety and wide receiver last season, could represent a shift in what Wisconsin wants from its quarterbacks.
Andersen's first two quarterback recruits, McEvoy and D.J. Gillins, both are true dual threats.
"He's got a tremendous skill set, obviously," Ludwig said of McEvoy. "An athletic guy, starting as a safety last year. The weapons he brings to the quarterback position, it's a huge asset for us."
The quarterback run threat, when paired with dynamic backs in Gordon and Corey Clement, becomes even more critical if Wisconsin can't bolster the wide receiver spot. The team's leading returning receiver, Jordan Fredrick, had only 10 receptions in 2013. Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright all missed part or all of the spring with injuries.
Wisconsin had only four receivers for most of the 15 practices.
"It's pretty tiring," senior Kenzel Doe said. "You're basically taking every rep."
The Badgers defense had fewer injuries this spring but went through a more substantial facelift. Inside linebacker Derek Landisch is the only returning starter in the front seven.
Most defenders spent spring ball working at multiple positions as the coaches looked for ways to upgrade speed. Michael Caputo, a starting free safety last season, went to linebacker and then back to safety before the spring ended.
"We definitely wanted to see how guys fit in other places," Caputo said. "The goal is to be a mean, aggressive, fast defense. We're slowly getting to that, but it's definitely a transition with a lot of the younger guys and playing different positions."
There have been positive developments already. Andersen points to players such as Chikwe Obasih, a redshirt freshman who ended the spring as a starting defensive end.
“"You look how far Chikwe has come," Andersen said. "If you put on Day 1 of spring ball and Day 13 of spring ball, it's an unbelievable difference in his pad level, the use of his hands, his understanding and knowledge of the defense.
When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better.” -- Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen
"When you've got young kids, you've got to get them reps if you want them to get better."
The summer takes on added importance for these Badgers. As Ludwig said, Wisconsin's first workout in August must be Practice 16, not Practice 1.
If all the uncertainty and opportunity in practice doesn't drive players, the season opener against LSU certainly will. Last year, Wisconsin thumped Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech to open the season before its infamous trip to Arizona State. This time, the test comes sooner.
"I really like that opener for this team," Andersen said. "It's got to be a driving force."
Which Badgers team shows up at Houston's NRG Stadium remains to be seen. But it will have more of Andersen's fingerprints on it.
The big reveal at Wisconsin is still to come.
Check out more coverage of the game here and here and here.
Star of the game: Fullback Austin Ramesh. There weren't many standouts in the game portion of the day, but Ramesh capitalized on his opportunity with both Gordon and Clement out. He recorded 71 yards on 12 carries and added a 4-yard reception for the victorious Cardinal team.
How it went down: The controlled scrimmage featured more offensive highlights than the actual game, as quarterback Tanner McEvoy connected with wideout Kenzel Doe on a 27-yard touchdown pass and both McEvoy and Clement added rushing touchdowns. The defenses dominated the actual game portion, as the White squad recorded only 49 net yards (35 pass, 14 rush) while the Cardinal had just 54 pass yards.
McEvoy completed 4 of 10 pass attempts with no touchdowns or interceptions in the game, but both he and Andersen were pleased with his performance throughout the spring. Andersen said afterward that McEvoy and Stave will receive the bulk of the first-team reps in preseason camp. It doesn't appear Bart Houston is in Wisconsin's future plans, but Houston doesn't plan to transfer.
The offense still needs a lot of work, especially in the pass game, but one takeaway from the spring is that McEvoy is in prime position to push Stave for the starting job.
"He walks up to the huddle, he looks more comfortable," Andersen said of McEvoy. "The football team is more comfortable around him, similar to how they were with Joel walking in and saying, 'Hey, this guy can get it done for us.'"
Defensive notables Saturday included safety Austin Hudson, an early enrollee who capped a solid spring with five tackles. Two young ends, Alec James and Chikwe Obasih, both showed promise during the scrimmage/game. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton had two tackles and two pass breakups.
Wisconsin fans shouldn't draw too much from Saturday given the injuries and other limitations. But this Badger team is much more of a work in progress than last season's senior-laden squad. A critical summer awaits.
When: 4 p.m. ET Saturday
Where: Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.
Admission: Tickets are $5 and will benefit Wisconsin's School of Education. Children under 2 admitted free.
TV: Big Ten Network (live)
Weather forecast: Cloudy with a chance of showers, high of 62 degrees, winds at 10-15 mph
What to watch for: Coach Gary Andersen said the Badgers will use thud tackling for the first half of the scrimmage with the first-team offense against the first-team defense, the second-team offense against the second-team defense and so on. Top running backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement, who have had very limited contact most of the spring, will participate in this section. After a halftime break, the Badgers will have a full-tackle scrimmage with a scoring system, putting the first-team offense against the second-team defense and the first-string defense against the second-team offense.
Gordon and Clement will sit out the second half, and right tackle Rob Havenstein won't play much. "But everybody else is going to go," Andersen said. "They need to play."
Quarterback Joel Stave will not play because of a lingering shoulder injury, so Tanner McEvoy has a chance to end the spring on a positive note before the competition with Stave really heats up this summer. Signal callers Bart Houston and D.J. Gillins also should get some work. Wisconsin is very thin at wide receiver because of injuries and the pass game struggled in last week's scrimmage, so it will be interesting to see if anyone can get anything going. Senior Kenzel Doe has stepped forward this spring at the slot position.
The spring game also gives fans a chance to see a new-look defense that has featured plenty of position changes this spring. Coordinator Dave Aranda wants more speed on the field and has been impressed with young players like ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. Freshman Austin Hudson also has seen plenty of work at safety, and junior cornerback Devin Gaulden is making the most of his opportunity after a long road back from knee injuries.
Several projected offensive line starters are sidelined but fans can check out freshman Michael Deiter, a mid-year enrollee who has been working as the first-string center.
Unlike last year's senior-laden team, Wisconsin is very much a work in progress, and the spring game offers some good subplots.
Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.
Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.
Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.
Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.
Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.
Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.
Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.
Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.
Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.
Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.
Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.
Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.
Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.
Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
With that in mind, we've come up with our annual recruiting all-name team. There might not be a name quite as good as new Alabama signee Dee Liner, who of course, plays on the D-line. But the Big Ten is no slouch when it comes to monikers.
There's a Taco and a Sprinkle on the defensive line. There's a Nebraska linebacker who shares a name with the most famous woman in grunge and a Huskers offensive lineman who might be nicknamed "The Rock." Minnesota has a linebacker named De'Niro who hopefully won't keep asking Jerry Kill, "You talkin' to me?" We've got a Dad in the secondary, some Jazz in the receiving corps and a big ol' Butt at tight end.
What's in a name? Hopefully some great future players here who will keep brightening up our lives. Presenting the 2013 Big Ten recruiting all-name team:
Team Captain: Taco Charlton, DL, Michigan
Alternate captain: Courtney Love, LB, Nebraska
QB: Tanner McEvoy, Wisconsin
RB: Akrum Wadley, Iowa
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
WR: Jazz Peavy, Wisconsin
WR: Marchie Murdock, Illinois
WR: Csont'e York, Michigan
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Chongo Kondolo, Nebraska
OL: Dwayne Johnson, Nebraska
OL: Dallas Hinkhouse, Illinois
OL: Graham Bullmore, Northwestern*
DL: Taco Charlton, Michigan
DL: Chikwe Obasih, Wisconsin
DL: Tracy Sprinkle, Ohio State
DL: Henry Poggi, Michigan
LB: De'Niro Laster, Minnesota
LB: Courtney Love, Nebraska
LB: Josey Jewell, Iowa
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Daletavius McGhee, Minnesota
DB: Boaz Joseph, Nebraska
DB: Dad Poquie, Penn State*
K: Hunter Niswander, Northwestern
All-purpose: Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern
Michigan still leads the FBS in verbal commits with 18, although teams like Georgia and Texas A&M are closing the gap. The Wolverines have a bigger advantage in ESPN 150 commits with 11 total, three more than any other squad.
Ohio State is tied for fifth nationally in ESPN 150 commits with five, and Penn State is tied for 10th with three.
Scorecard time ...
2013 verbal commitments: 18
Spotlight: Fellow offensive line recruits Logan Tuley-Tillman and Kyle Bosch have been in the headlines this week following Tuley-Tillman's letter-burning incident, but Michigan has secured the nation's No. 1-rated guard in David Dawson from Cass Tech in Detroit. Dawson is the No. 2 player in the state behind fellow Wolverines commit Shane Morris.
ESPN 150 selections: 11
Highest rated: Shane Morris, QB (Grade of 87)
2013 verbal commitments: 11
Spotlight: Ohio State might solidify the cornerback position for years to come in the 2013 class. Both of the Buckeyes' top-rated prospects, Eli Woodward and Cam Burrows, play cornerback. Ohio State will have one vacancy at cornerback after the 2012 season, and Woodward and Burrows have the skills to see the field early in their careers.
ESPN 150 selections: 6
Highest rated: Eli Woodard, CB (Grade of 89)
2013 verbal commitments: 10
Spotlight: May was a productive month for the Illini, who picked up four commitments, including one from another Detroit Cass Tech player, defensive tackle Kenton Gibbs. At 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds, Gibbs won't need to get much bigger to help Illinois on the interior defensive line.
ESPN 150 selections: 0
Highest rated: Aaron Bailey, QB (Grade of 80)
2013 verbal commitments: 8
Spotlight: Defensive end David Kenney III seems to fit the mold of previous Iowa defensive linemen. He might be able to play both line spots, and has the ability to power rush off of the edge. Along with defensive tackles Brant Gressel and Nathan Bazata, Iowa is putting together a strong group of defensive linemen in this class.
ESPN 150 selections: 0
Highest rated: David Kenney III, DE (Grade of 80)
2013 verbal commitments: 8
Spotlight: The Lions hope defensive tackle prospect Greg Webb is their next dominant defensive tackle. But Webb will have to bounce back from an injury setback after he tore his ACL in February. Webb recently told Statecollege.com that his recovery is going well, and that he's ahead of schedule.
ESPN 150 selections: 3
Highest rated: Christian Hackenberg, QB (Grade of 89)
2013 verbal commitments: 8
Spotlight: The Huskers lose two senior tight ends (Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed) after this season, but they're replenishing the position with Greg Hart from Bo Pelini's home state of Ohio. Hart already is a big target at 6-4, 225, who should fit in well with Tim Beck's offense.
ESPN 150 selections: 0
Highest rated: Tre'vell Dixon, Athlete (Grade of 82)
2013 verbal commitments: 7
Spotlight: Michigan State's last superstar linebacker named Jones, Greg Jones, attended Cincinnati's Archbishop Moeller High School. The Spartans are hoping for the same success with commit Shane Jones, a 6-1, 220-pound linebacker. Jones will join another Moeller alum, defensive end Marcus Rush, in East Lansing.
ESPN 150 selections: 0
Highest rated: Damion Terry, QB (Grade of 82)
2013 verbal commitments: 6
Spotlight: Defensive end Chikwe Obasih continued Wisconsin's pipeline to Brookfield, Wis., with his verbal commitment in late April. He'll play multiple positions in a 3-4 defense as a senior before joining the Badgers' 4-3 scheme in 2013.
ESPN 150 selections: 0
Highest rated: Jack Keeler, T and Garret Dooley, LB (Grade of 79)
2013 verbal commitments: 2
Spotlight: Matt Alviti resembles recent Northwestern quarterbacks in that he lacks height but makes up for it with speed, arm strength and competitiveness. A Dan Persa clone? Wildcats fans would be thrilled if that's the case.
ESPN 150 selections: 1
Highest rated: Matt Alviti, QB (Grade of 84)
2013 verbal commitments: 2
Spotlight: Defensive end Randy Gregory originally committed to Purdue in 2011 before heading to a junior college in Arizona. Several other schools pursued Gregory, but he pledged again to the Boilers, and will suit up in 2013.
ESPN 150 selections: 0
2013 verbal commitments: 1
Spotlight: Cornerback Keelon Brookins is Minnesota's only verbal so far, but the Gophers had only two players committed at this time last year. So it's too soon to press the panic button. It will be interesting to see how well second-year coach Jerry Kill and his staff do within the state. They had 10 Minnesota players in last year's class.
ESPN 150 selections: 0
2013 verbal commitments: 0
Spotlight: The Hoosiers are one of four major-conference programs -- Iowa State, Oregon State and Wake Forest are the others -- without a commitment for 2013. This is a departure from the end of the Bill Lynch era, when Indiana was among the Big Ten's leaders in early commits.
- Bill O'Brien finally gets a chance to coach as Penn State opens spring practice today. A look at O'Brien's spring to-do list and his biggest concern. Penn State fans are warming up to their new coach.
- Brian Christopherson has a good primer on spring football around the Big Ten.
- Despite starting every game last season, Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush knows there are no guarantees. Boilers coach Danny Hope has high expectations for a young cornerback.
- Matt Canada might be new to Wisconsin, but the offensive coordinator has a lot of familiarity with one of his assistants. Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips slowly works his way back from injury.
- Nebraska will face three new but proven coaches during non-league play in 2012.
- New assistant Kerry Coombs will help Ohio State strengthen its ties to Cincinnati. A good look at 10 changes for Ohio State as spring ball begins. Charlie Weis must have forgotten about the 2006 Fiesta Bowl.
- Michigan's Brandon Moore has emerged as the leader to take the top tight end spot. Roy Roundtree is excited about moving to the flanker position.
- A psychologist who examined a 1998 allegation against Jerry Sandusky reported that the former Penn State assistant fit the profile of a pedophile.
- Minnesota likes having mobile run-stoppers along its defensive line.
- Pat Harty looks at 14 mostly unproven players who could play big roles for Iowa this fall. Not surprisingly, the Kansas City Chiefs are once again eying several draft prospects from Iowa.
- USC transfer WR Kyle Prater went through his first practice at Northwestern earlier today. Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa tries to prove he's NFL-worthy.
- Illinois is scouting several recruits from a high school in Wisconsin, including DE Chikwe Obasih. Illinois trustee Lawrence Oliver is satisfied the school is keeping diversity in mind with its coaching searches.
- Indiana TE Ted Bolser talks about his expectations for 2012. The Hoosiers' revamped defense looks different in the team's first spring scrimmage (subscription required).
- Los Angeles police are looking into a sexual assault allegation against former Wisconsin administrator John Chadima.