Big Ten: Donnell Vercher

Wisconsin season preview

August, 6, 2013
8/06/13
10:30
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Today we're looking at Wisconsin, the three-time defending Big Ten champion, which enters a new era under coach Gary Andersen.

WISCONSIN BADGERS

Coach: Gary Andersen (30-31 overall, five seasons; 0-0 at Wisconsin, first season)

2012 record: 8-6 (4-4 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB Montee Ball, C Travis Frederick, OT Ricky Wagner, LB Mike Taylor, CB Devin Smith, DE David Gilbert

Key returnees: RB James White, RB Melvin Gordon, WR Jared Abbrederis, OL Ryan Groy, TE Jacob Pedersen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward, DT Beau Allen

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
AP Photo/David StlukaIf Wisconsin wants to win a fourth straight Big Ten title, it will have to do so under new coach Gary Andersen.
Newcomer to watch: Freshman CB Sojourn Shelton stood out in spring practice for a secondary that needs bodies after losing three starters from the 2012 team. Shelton is a natural playmaker who should see plenty of field time, potentially as a starter opposite Peniel Jean.

Biggest games in 2013: The Badgers face two significant road tests in their first five games as they visit high-powered Arizona State (Sept. 14) and Big Ten favorite Ohio State (Sept. 28). They also have home tests against Northwestern (Oct. 12) and Penn State (Nov. 30), and face rivals Iowa (Nov. 2) and Minnesota (Nov. 23) on the road.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The quarterback competition between Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and possibly Tanner McEvoy is worth watching in camp, but it's more important for Wisconsin to figure out its secondary before a Week 3 trip to Arizona State. Safety Dezmen Southward is the only returning starter, and the admissions denial of junior college transfer Donnell Vercher hurts the depth there.

Opposing quarterbacks undoubtedly will challenge Wisconsin's young corners, and players such as Jean, Shelton and Darius Hillary will need to grow up in a hurry. Andersen will address the secondary through recruiting, but he and his staff must simply hold the group together through Year 1.

Forecast: No team in the country faces a situation quite like Wisconsin's entering the 2013 season.

The Badgers are a veteran-laden team, led by a 25-member senior class that knows only how to win Big Ten championships. They're also a team in transition after going through an assistant-coach overhaul following the 2011 season and the surprising departure of head coach Bret Bielema three days after the 2012 Big Ten championship game.

Bielema often cited 2013 as "The Year" even before the start of the 2012 campaign. But he's not around to see it in Madison. Instead, the Badgers turn to Andersen, who brought Utah State back from the depths but now steps onto a much bigger stage.

Andersen will keep Wisconsin's proven power offense in place, and for good reason. The Badgers return two dynamic running backs in senior James White and upstart sophomore Melvin Gordon. They're not deep along the offensive line but boast valuable pieces such as versatile senior Ryan Groy. Wisconsin must find a top quarterback, and Joel Stave and Curt Phillips will compete with junior college arrival Tanner McEvoy in camp. A greater concern is who will complement standout receiver Jared Abbrederis in a passing attack that plummeted to 111th nationally last fall.

The bigger changes will come on defense, Andersen's area of expertise. Wisconsin will be the only Big Ten team operating primarily out of a 3-4 set, which Andersen thinks will be used 60 percent of the time. The Badgers boast an excellent centerpiece in All-Big Ten linebacker Chris Borland, one of the nation's more decorated defenders. They'll need big years from linemen Beau Allen, Brendan Kelly and others, and the secondary is the biggest question mark, as only one starter returns.

"All defenses come with challenges," Andersen said, "but we've done it enough to make it fit."

Wisconsin's path to a fourth consecutive Big Ten title won't be easy, as it visits Ohio State in Week 5 and plays rivals Iowa and Minnesota on the road.
Wisconsin's secondary, which was already a position facing some depth concerns this season, has suffered its second departure by a safety in about a week.

Last week, redshirt freshman Reggie Mitchell -- who had practiced as the team's starting free safety this spring -- was granted his release for an expected transfer to Pittsburgh. Now there is word that Donnell Vercher, a junior college transfer whom the Badgers signed in February to help shore up the safety spot, isn't coming to Madison after all.

According to a Fresno, Calif., TV report, Vercher was denied admission to Wisconsin and instead will play for Fresno State this season. Vercher, who had eight interceptions for Fresno City College last season, had committed to the Badgers right before signing day and was viewed as a potential challenger for a starting safety job.

So now there are even more questions for a Badgers secondary that returns only one starter: strong safety Dezmen Southward. The competition for the other safety spot figures to include junior Michael Trotter, who started three games last year but needs to raise his level of play; juco transfer T.J. Reynard, who signed with the Badgers just last month; and Jeff Lewis, who has reportedly moved from running back to safety to provide help.

I spoke with Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on Monday and asked about the depth concerns in the secondary (before the Vercher news broke). Here's what he told me:

"Everybody has places where I guess they feel comfortable with the depth, and other places where they're a little bit concerned," he said. "Because Reggie departed, I don't think that makes me more overly concerned about the depth. It puts us in a situation kind of like the offensive line, where the depth is a little bit worrisome and we've got to be careful and smart. And I'd say the same thing about the safety position.

"The key thing at the safety position is to truly identify the two starters. As we came out of spring we had a starter, and we had some kids competing for the other spot. Reggie was one of those guys competing. Dez has the one locked down, which is as it should be. The other one is up in the air and we'll see how it goes. It is a concern, but it is what it is. We've all got some depth issues or concerns, and as we move forward, we'll do our best to clean it up."
Gary Andersen inherited a veteran-laden Wisconsin team that featured good depth at most positions with one obvious exception: the secondary.

The Badgers returned just one starting defensive back, safety Dezmen Southward, from last year's Big Ten championship squad. Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda knew they needed bodies in the back four and found a potential solution this spring in Reggie Mitchell.

A cornerback who moved to safety under the new staff, Mitchell drew praise from Andersen and Aranda for his performance this spring. Andersen last month told Sirius XM’s "College Sports Nation" that Mitchell "is going to lock down one of those safety spots."

But Mitchell won't be playing for Wisconsin this season. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh are reporting that Mitchell has been released from his scholarship at Wisconsin. WPXI-TV reports Mitchell, a Pittsburgh native, will transfer to Pitt. Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph recruited Mitchell to Wisconsin while he was on the Badgers' staff.

I'm sure there's more to the story as Mitchell seemed to be in a good spot at Wisconsin, and we'll pass along information as it becomes available.

Mitchell's departure makes a thin Badgers secondary even thinner. The competition to start opposite Southward in camp should be ramped up. Andersen has brought in two junior-college defensive backs in Donnell Vercher and Tekeim Reynard. Junior Michael Trotter also could be in the mix at safety, and there are reports that running back Jeff Lewis has been moved to safety to help the depth there.

Lewis' move is a bit odd so late in his career, although Wisconsin clearly needs help at safety and should be OK at running back with James White, Melvin Gordon, Vonte Jackson and incoming freshman Corey Clement.
Is Gary Andersen turning Wisconsin into Kansas State?

His plan isn't nearly that extreme, but the new Wisconsin coach has so far kept to his word so far about bringing junior-college players to Madison. Andersen, himself a former junior college All-American before moving onto Utah, makes it clear that Wisconsin is in the market for junior-college talent.

The Badgers added another piece during the weekend as cornerback Tekeim Reynard committed to the school. Reynard, who played last year at Independence Community College in Kansas, will be eligible to play this fall and have three seasons with Wisconsin. The 5-11, 175-pound cornerback, originally from Virginia, picked Wisconsin ahead of Colorado, Kentucky and others.

Reynard is the third junior-college player to join Wisconsin since Andersen's arrival. Quarterback Tanner McEvoy and safety Donnell Vercher both arrive this summer.

"They told me how I would fit in and elevate their defense," Reynard told BadgerNation.com. "I feel excited about it and can't wait to dominate. This is just the beginning of something special. I'm an impact player and a dynamic player. You’ll see a passionate player with a lot of energy on the field for Wisconsin. I just can't wait."

Well, he certainly doesn't lack confidence.

Andersen and his assistants haven't hidden the fact that they need bodies in the secondary, where just one starter (safety Dezmen Southward) returns from the 2012 team. Sophomore Darius Hillary and junior Peniel Jean worked as the first-team cornerbacks during spring practice, and freshman early enrollee Sojourn Shelton received steady praise from the coaching staff. But Wisconsin still lacks significant game experience at corner, so bringing in Reynard, who recorded 88 tackles (56 solo), an interception and seven pass breakups in seven games, makes sense from a depth standpoint.

Andersen has stated often that any junior-college player brought in will get a fair chance to compete for a starting job in preseason camp, so keep an eye on Reynard, McEvoy and Vercher in August.

Junior-college players aren't unusual in the Big Ten, but they are at Wisconsin, which before Andersen's arrival hadn't brought in a juco player since 2008.

"It's a privilege to be at this school," Andersen said in February. "For junior college kids, if they take care of business, they have high academic standards ... they'll be able to come in without any problem."

Andersen is putting his imprint on Wisconsin's recruiting efforts. Expect more players from the West in future classes, as well as a greater emphasis on speed and athleticism at receiver and defensive back.

But the most dramatic change so far has been the junior-college arrivals, who could make an impact this season.
Spring practice is kicking off around the Big Ten, and we're taking a look at one potential breakout player for each team. We’re spotlighting players who could take a major step during spring ball, so those who have started multiple seasons or earned All-Big Ten recognition in 2012 aren't eligible.

New Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen lifted the curtain on spring practice Saturday, and the team is looking for help in the secondary. The Badgers likely will turn to ...

Darius Hillary, CB, sophomore, 5-foot-11, 190 pounds

Andersen inherits a roster that has good depth at several positions, including running back, defensive line and quarterback. But the Badgers need bodies in the secondary after losing three of four starters to graduation, including both top cornerbacks. Although the new staff addressed the group by adding Donnell Vercher from the junior-college ranks in its first recruiting class, Wisconsin needs 2012 backups to transition well into featured roles. Hillary looks ready for the part after appearing in all 14 games last season, mostly as a nickelback.

He recorded 23 tackles (16) solo and two pass breakups, including eight stops in a nonleague win against UTEP. Hillary endured some tough moments, like allowing the game-winning touchdown pass against Michigan State in an overtime home loss, but for the most part held his own. The varied experiences as a younger player should help Hillary as he moves into a likely starting role. Not surprisingly, Hillary and Peniel Jean, who missed a chunk of last season with injury, opened the spring as Wisconsin's starting cornerbacks. He's a smart player whose father, Ira, played wide receiver in the NFL. Hillary can play both cornerback and safety but fills a bigger need at the corner spot. It will be interesting to see how he develops this spring under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and secondary coaches Bill Busch and Ben Strickland, a holdover from the previous staff.

Spring previews: Leaders Division

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
10:00
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Spring practice is under way in the Big Ten, so let's take a look at what's on tap for the six teams in the Leaders Division.

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:

1. Coaching staff makeover: Illinois players are used to coaching changes, and Tim Beckman's staff received a significant overhaul during the winter as five assistants departed the program (four voluntarily). The biggest change comes at offensive coordinator, as former Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit takes over. Cubit has to implement his system and identify more playmakers with a unit that finished last in the Big Ten in both scoring and total offense last season.

2. Lines in limbo: The Illini not only lost significant pieces on both the offensive and defensive lines, but they have new position coaches at both spots as well. Defensive line has been Illinois' strongest spot, but the team must replace two future NFLers in Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence. Glenn Foster is also gone, so the front four will have a very different look. The offensive line struggled mightily in 2012 and needs young players such as Michael Heitz and Ted Karras to take steps this spring.

3. Getting healthy: Illinois lost so many starters to injury in 2012 that it became difficult to get an accurate gauge on what Beckman could do with a healthy roster. Although linebacker Jonathan Brown and receiver Darius Millines will be limited this spring, the rest of the team is ready to go and Illinois added several potential big contributors from the junior college ranks. If Illinois has any chance of taking a major step in 2013, its best players must stay on the field this spring and allow the coaches a chance to evaluate and scheme for the season.

INDIANA

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Quarterback cluster: While some Big Ten teams (Penn State, Purdue) have hardly any experience at quarterback, Indiana has three signal-callers who have logged significant field time. Tre Roberson, who started the 2012 season before suffering a broken leg in Week 2, returns this spring, and it will be interesting to see how he looks and whether he outperforms Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld. Coffman started the final 10 games last fall and passed for 2,734 yards and 15 touchdowns, while Sudfield added 632 passing yards and seven TDs. Indiana's quarterback depth is a good problem to have, but it would be good to see some separation this spring.

2. Defensive leadership: Fielding a Big Ten-level defense remains Indiana's top priority, and the Hoosiers need leaders to develop this spring. Top linemen Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. depart, and Indiana needs to build depth up front after allowing a league-worst 231.3 rush yards per game in 2012. Linebacker is another spot IU must upgrade, and David Cooper should be ready to take the reins after recording 86 tackles in 12 starts a year ago. Like Illinois, Indiana also welcomes several junior college defenders, including tackle Jordan Heiderman.

3. Secondary surge: All the question marks in Indiana's defensive front seven make it even more important for the secondary to make strides this spring. The Hoosiers have no shortage of experience in the back four with players such as Greg Heban, Mark Murphy, Brian Williams (12 starts last season) and Antonio Marshall (started final seven games). There's potential for the secondary to be a strength for IU in 2013, but the group must make more plays after recording a league-low seven interceptions last fall.

OHIO STATE

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 13 (at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati)

What to watch:

1. Taking a pass: The highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten returns every starter but two, and all that experience, talent and familiarity with the spread attack heading into Urban Meyer's second season with the Buckeyes figures to make them even more dangerous. The key will be how much more efficient Braxton Miller can become as a passer.

2. Getting defensive: For all the pieces the offense retains, the defense is a completely different story heading into spring camp. The Buckeyes have to replace the entire defensive line after losing three seniors and junior Johnathan Hankins to the draft, two starting linebackers are gone and the graduation of cornerback Travis Howard leaves an additional hole in the safety. There will be no shortage of competition for first-team reps.

3. Looking for leaders: Meyer and the senior class that has since departed quickly forged a deep bond, and he has gone out of his way to praise those players' leadership as integral in the unbeaten season that started his tenure with the Buckeyes. Now he needs a new wave of emotional speakers and relentless workers to take the torch from the likes of John Simon and Zach Boren, and Meyer will be making a point to identify his best candidates over the 15 workouts leading into the summer.

-- Austin Ward, BuckeyeNation

PENN STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. Quarterback competition: With the departure of fifth-year senior Matt McGloin, quarterback is now the biggest question mark on this team. Sophomore Steven Bench has a head start and will compete against juco early enrollee Tyler Ferguson. Christian Hackenberg won't join the team until summer. Can this no-huddle offense be as effective?

2. Replacing LBs Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges: Mike Hull, who usually played inside, will have to make some adjustments as one of the expected replacements for the All-Big Ten linebacker tandem. The other spot is up for grabs, and fans should expect to see a battle between Ben Kline and Nyeem Wartman.

3. New faces at WR, TE: Redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis, the headliner of PSU's 2012 class, could challenge Brandon Moseby-Felder as the No. 2 WR target. Adam Breneman, the No. 1 tight end recruit in the country, is also hoping to be recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in time for the Blue-White Game. Both could be stars down the road for PSU.

-- Josh Moyer, NittanyNation

PURDUE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:

1. Behind these Hazell eyes: Yes, I'll justifiably take the abuse for the Kelly Clarkson reference, but new Purdue coach Darrell Hazell has his first chance to evaluate his team on the field this spring. Hazell brings a completely new coaching staff and a new approach to Purdue, which fell short of expectations in 2012 and has significant questions on both sides of the ball. He seems to be getting good buy-in from the players so far, but it'll be interesting to see how things progress during the 15 workouts this spring.

2. Quarterback race: If you like mysteries, you'll enjoy Purdue's quarterback competition this spring. The combination of a new coaching staff and unproven but talented candidates makes the race virtually impossible to predict. Hazell and new offensive coordinator John Shoop will study redshirt freshman Austin Appleby, who could have a slight edge to win the job, along with redshirt freshman Bilal Marshall and early enrollee Danny Etling, a decorated recruit. Don't forget about Rob Henry, who started in 2010 and would have been the top quarterback in 2011 if not for an ACL injury weeks before the season.

3. Short stopper: Purdue has to find a replacement for standout defensive tackle Kawann Short, the centerpiece of the defensive line the past few seasons. Bruce Gaston Jr. will continue to occupy the other top tackle spot, but there will be plenty of competition to join him in the starting lineup. Purdue's defensive line underachieved in 2012, and while Gaston and ends Ryan Russell and Ryan Isaac all return, the Boilers will really miss Short's production if they don't build more depth up the middle.

WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 9

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:

1. New era dawns: Consistency is the norm at Wisconsin, but players will have to adjust to a dramatically different coaching staff for the second consecutive season. This time, it includes a new leading man in Gary Andersen, who gets his first chance to work with the players on the practice field. Andersen doesn't plan to overhaul the schemes, but he and his coaches will put their spin on things and see what works. He'll also bring a different personality to practice but one that athletic director Barry Alvarez thinks will fit the program's culture.

2. Intrigue at quarterback: Arguably no team in America has a more interesting quarterback race than the Badgers do this spring. They have three players with starting experience -- Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and Danny O'Brien -- plus a talented redshirt freshman (Bart Houston) who arrived as a decorated recruit and a junior college addition (Tanner McEvoy) brought in by the new coaches. Add in a new system under coordinator Andy Ludwig, and it's anyone's guess who will separate himself this spring. Be sure to tune in.

3. Secondary in the spotlight: The Badgers lose three of four starters in the secondary from the 2012 squad, including top cornerbacks Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie. The new staff is aware of the numbers issue and signed junior college All-American Donnell Vercher earlier this month. Other players who will compete for starting spots include cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean and safeties Michael Trotter and Michael Caputo. Wisconsin hopes to have some answers in the back four by the end of the spring.
Gary Andersen's roots are on the defensive side of the ball, which came in handy the past six weeks. Andersen's first priority as Wisconsin's new coach was to defend and retain the team's verbally committed players from other potential suitors. He and his staff also had to add a few pieces to their first recruiting class. They did a good job of achieving both objectives as Wisconsin on Wednesday finalized a class of 17 scholarship players, headlined by ESPN 150 running back Corey Clement and junior college quarterback Tanner McEvoy.

ESPN.com caught up with Andersen on Wednesday to discuss his first recruiting haul.

What are some of the challenges you faced coming in when you did, trying to keep the committed guys, and then trying to go out and get some new guys?

Gary Andersen: I think the biggest challenge first of all was getting a staff put together. Thomas Hammock and Ben Strickland did an unbelievable job of really calming the waters when the transition took place. Once I was able to retain them on the staff, it took off from there. They had the parents settled, the coaches settled, the young men settled to say, 'Hey, let's just wait and see what happens here.' So that was a big first step. Secondly, it was getting the [remaining] staff hired, and thirdly, it was getting into their homes and presenting who we are as a program. The positive thing is you didn't have to go out and talk about education or a great program or facilities. What you had to do is go in and lay the groundwork of who we are as coaches, and work to start the trust factor that's really built over a period of six or seven months in the recruiting process, and try to get that down in three weeks. That's very difficult. But those were the major challenges. Most of our young men, except for the four we signed once we came here, had already taken [recruiting] trips, so we did have a little bit of a convenience there, being able to be out on the road some of those weekends. For me, there are 17 total kids, and the goal is to get into 17 homes in a very short period of time. We started with the commits we had and sort of went from there. There's a lot to it, but I'm very pleased with the coaches and grateful to the mentors, the parents, the kids and the coaches who hung in there with us and gave us a chance. It all ended very well.

[+] EnlargeGary Andersen
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsGary Andersen, left, who replaced Bret Bielema as Wisconsin's coach, said his staff worked hard to earn the trust of recruits and their families in a short amount of time.
How were you received by those players and their families? Did it surprise you one way or another?

GA: We were received at first cautiously, which I would expect. You get somebody walking into your living room or picking up the phone that is brand-new. They want to get to know you. They're people who have been through this recruiting process, and have great care for each one of the young men. So everybody's going to be guarded when they first get into that scenario. I'm never a guy who walks in and says, 'Hey, trust me right now.' I want to be able to earn your trust. But we got that done in a short period of time. They understood the direction we're headed. My big push, and it always is and always will be, is to let them understand that we're going to take care of the kids first. As we went through that process and they understood who we were. When we walked out of those homes, they felt very comfortable with us.

You inherited a roster that has three quarterbacks with starting experience (Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and Danny O'Brien). Why did you feel the need to bring in another quarterback, and why did Tanner appeal to you?

GA: You're right, there is great competition at the quarterback spot here. Last year, we had three young men start and play in games, and [they] have done some good things. But for us, just like every position, the key is to create as much competition as we possibly can. We had some injuries at the quarterback position. There were a couple young men who had injuries, a couple young men recovering from injuries. All of them look good, but there's still that question mark of 'are we healed and can we really get through a season in the Big Ten the correct way?' That played a factor into it. The next thing is Tanner's a tremendous athlete, a tremendous quarterback, and he does a lot of things that we like at that position. He strengthens our competition for next fall, and he has three years left. That was another thing that was very intriguing to us.

The other thing I liked is Tanner has had to fight his way here. He started off strong and got himself in a Division I school [South Carolina], and then he had to go back into the junior college and fight his way through there for a year. The story he tells about going through that process and making his decision in about four days to hop on an airplane to Yuma, Ariz., where he'd never been before. That builds toughness. It builds commitment to the sport of football. It helps him grow as a young man, which I think will continue to make him be a very good quarterback going forward. And he brings a lot of athleticism to the position. As we move forward, we'll see how that all filters out, but the best players are going to play, bottom line, and we have great competition there.

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