Big Ten: Marcus Trotter

State of the team: Wisconsin

December, 11, 2014
Dec 11
1:00
PM ET
The Badgers are still beside themselves after their head coach bolted for the second time in 24 months. But it’s time to move on.

Wisconsin wasn’t a destination job for Gary Andersen, but it’s still a good job. This Badgers made a bowl for 13 straight seasons, won the Big Ten championship in three of the last five years, and had at least nine wins in five of the last six seasons.

Expectations are high at Wisconsin, but deservedly so. This is one of the B1G’s top programs. So, can this team continue to experience a high level of success? And what kind of situation will the next head coach inherit?

Here’s where the rest of Wisconsin stands during the search for another new head coach:

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Melvin Gordon
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon is leaving, but Wisconsin has done a great job replacing past standout running backs, and Corey Clement is waiting in the wings.
Offense: It came as no surprise that the nation’s top running back, Melvin Gordon, declared early for the NFL draft. He’s irreplaceable, as he’s put together the best rushing season in 25 years. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Corey Clement is a solid backup who has rushed for 844 yards this season. Against Rutgers, Clement even outshined Gordon by rushing for 131 yards (compared to Gordon’s 128) and averaging 9.4 yards a carry (to Gordon’s 6.7). No, Clement is not Gordon – but he still has the ability to be one of the B1G’s top running backs next season.

Elsewhere, the passing game’s key players return –starting QBs, leading wide receiver -- but this unit still has a long way to go. On the offensive line, Wisconsin will also have to deal with a drop-off. First-team All-Big Ten talents Rob Havenstein and Kyle Costigan will be gone, as will honorable mention Dallas Lewallen. But the cupboard here isn’t exactly bare. Besides the returning starters, Michael Deiter leads a talented freshman class and nearly burned his redshirt last week, and junior Ray Ball has been in the mix for much of the season.

Defense: Wisconsin returned just three starters in 2014 and still had the nation’s No. 4 total defense. This coming offseason? It should lose just four starters, and a lot of talent is coming back.

The entire secondary will basically remain intact, with safety Michael Caputo leading the way. This unit could really be special in 2015, even if it didn’t seem that way against Ohio State. Overall, the Badgers are still ranked fifth nationally in passing yards allowed and No. 23 in passing efficiency defense. Even better news? Safety Lubern Figaro has three more years of eligibility, and cornerback Sojourn Shelton has two.

The departures of inside linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch are the most costly as they finished 2-3 in team tackles, but both outside linebackers return. Wisconsin overcame more adversity in 2014 with a strong performance, and it’s positioned for another strong run in 2015. The bigger question is whether defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will return to coach them.

Special teams: Freshman Rafael Gaglianone has been tremendous, by converting his last dozen field goal attempts and going 17-of-20 on the season. He might just have a Lou Groza Award waiting in his future. If only he could punt... Wisconsin has consistently lost the field position battle because only 16 teams have a worse net punting average. And the Badgers must also replace their kick/punt returner in senior wideout Kenzel Doe.

Fan base: The Badgers don’t get enough credit here, so let’s touch upon the different points: They were ranked No. 18 nationally in attendance this season (79,520), while the capacity at Camp Randall is 80,321. Earlier this month, USA Today named Madison, Wis., the “best college football town.” Two years ago, “Jump Around” was voted the best college football tradition. And, according to 2014 data compiled by The New York Times, the “most consistently loyal fans in American live in Wisconsin.” More than 87 percent of fans in Wisconsin support the Badgers.

Leadership: Athletic director Barry Alvarez is widely respected in the world of college football. He’s a member of the College Football Playoff committee and the College Football Hall of Fame and the coach who turned around the Wisconsin Badgers in the 1990s. He might also coach Wisconsin in the upcoming bowl game.

That being said, there’s still a disconnect here. Wisconsin pays its assistant coaches among the lowest salaries in the Big Ten – a big reason for Bret Bielema bolting – and no assistant is ranked higher than No. 77 in the nation in annual salary, according to the most recent USA Today database. Also at issue is the high academic standards for Wisconsin recruits. It seems counter-intuitive to label something like that a negative, but that obviously makes it more difficult to field a competitive team. And that was admittedly a concern for Andersen. Four-star defensive tackle Craig Evans decommitted after he discovered he wouldn’t be admitted to Wisconsin, for example, only to eventually sign with Michigan State. Those issues need to be addressed.

Recruiting: The Badgers are usually a team that outplays their recruiting rankings. Wisconsin hasn’t had a top-25 recruiting class in the last five years, but the team has been ranked within the Associated Press Top 25 in all but one of those years. From 2008 to 2013, across all sports, the Badgers were also one of just four Big Ten teams to never spend more than $1 million on recruiting. (Northwestern, Maryland and Rutgers were the others.)

For the most part, Andersen picked off where Bielema left off; the class rankings usually hovered in the 30s. The Badgers have obviously done a lot of recruiting in-state (17 commits in three years), but they’ve also reached into the South in states such as Florida (six commits in the last class). Since 2010, however, Wisconsin has gained only a pair of ESPN 300 commits.

To open up recruiting a bit, Andersen had previously said he planned to follow James Franklin’s lead and hold satellite camps in Minnesota (and possibly Illinois) in 2015. That wouldn’t be a bad idea for his successor.
Melvin GordonJeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsBy winning the Paul Bunyan Axe for the 11th straight time, Wisconsin reaches the Big Ten title game for the third time the event's four-year history.

MADISON, Wis. -- The celebrations might have felt a little familiar for Wisconsin, but that didn't take away any of the enthusiasm.

The Badgers beat Minnesota 34-24 on Saturday to win the Paul Bunyan Axe trophy for the 11th straight year. They also clinched the West Division title and a spot in next week's Big Ten championship, which is also a recurring theme. Wisconsin will be playing in that game for the third time in the event's four-year history.

Still, players and coaches giddily ran around Camp Randall Stadium with the axe after grinding out a physical, hard-fought win over the No. 18 Gophers. And they put on hats and T-shirts declaring themselves the West Division champs following an on-field, postgame presentation that seemed more fitting for a postseason game.

"That was a cool feeling for us, a cool experience," quarterback Joel Stave said. "Being under the lights, on the stage, the crowd sticking around -- it was just very cool."

The No. 14 Badgers might not be done hoisting trophies or standing on triumphant platforms, either. Not long ago, they would have been considered significant underdogs against Ohio State in the Big Ten title game. But with Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett out for the season after he suffered a broken ankle against Michigan, Wisconsin just might be the favorite in Indianapolis.

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Melvin Gordon
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsMelvin Gordon earned every bit of his 151 yards rushing against Minnesota.
At the very least, Buckeyes backup quarterback Cardale Jones will have his hands full trying to deal with what has statistically been the best defense in the Big Ten, one that offers confusing looks with its aggressive 3-4 scheme.

"If he hasn't played that much, maybe we can get him flustered and get him off balance," Wisconsin linebacker Joe Schobert said. "But we've got to prepare like we're playing J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller. You can't take a guy lightly, because they have a lot of good athletes over there."

Badgers players expressed empathy about Barrett's injury -- "He's such a valuable asset, and you always want to play against the best players," linebacker Marcus Trotter said -- and they can relate to the need to overcome adversity.

This is a team that had to replace eight defensive starters in the offseason and whose starting quarterback battled a case of the yips in August and September. They blew a big lead in a loss to LSU in the opener and dropped a head-scratcher against Northwestern early in conference play.

Yet they won their final seven games of the regular season and might be peaking here at the end.

"It's been a heck of a journey," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "I feel great about taking this team to Indy. They're resilient and tough-minded."

Wisconsin needed that resiliency to clear its final hurdle toward a division title.

For the second time in three weeks, it let a road opponent go ahead 17-3 in the first half. Unlike Nebraska, however, Minnesota was not going to let Melvin Gordon simply run wild all over the place. The Gophers kept their safeties in the box and hit Gordon early and often with sure tackling. The Badgers' Heisman Trophy candidate finished with 151 yards but had to earn every bit of it. He had only two 20-plus-yard runs (none longer than 24) and did his most impressive work turning nothing into 4- or 5-yard gains.

"I knew I was going to have to grind it out today," said Gordon, who pronounced himself healthy despite limping off the field late. "The games that you have to push out and grind out, those are the games you love the best. You get hit, you get knocked down to the ground and you get back up and you keep fighting.

Andersen said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig knew he'd have to dial up some downfield throws to loosen up the Gophers' defense. That's been a shaky proposition for Wisconsin's offense for a couple of years. But Stave, getting better every week after overcoming those mental issues at the beginning of the season, turned in an efficient performance in going 11-for-18 for 218 yards and 2 touchdowns, with no interceptions.

The Badgers also got a career day from receiver Alex Erickson (5 catches for 160 yards) and clinched the victory on Stave's 17-yard touchdown strike to Robert Wheelwright, who had only two career catches and none this season before Saturday. It was those kinds of unlikely contributions -- plus an 89-yard effort from backup tailback Corey Clement, who was playing with one healthy shoulder -- that Andersen said made him the proudest.

Wisconsin wasn't perfect against Minnesota and committed a lot of mistakes in the first half, allowing the Gophers some short fields and quick scoring drives. Despite dealing with a hamstring injury that made him doubtful for the game, Minnesota's David Cobb ripped off some big runs in the first half. Many more offensive playmakers will confront the defense next week, even with Barrett out.

"To beat Ohio State, we can't miss as many tackles as we did today," Trotter said.

But much the way their season has gone, the Badgers finished out strong, scoring 31 of the game's final 38 points. Now they have a solid chance to derail Ohio State's playoff chase and claim the Big Ten title for themselves.

"We don't want to just go there," Gordon said, "we want to win it."

Don't be surprised if they're celebrating on an even bigger stage next Saturday night.
Like most people, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen wasn't sure what to expect from his linebackers coming into this season.

[+] EnlargeVince Biegel
AP Photo/Morry GashWisconsin's Vince Biegel makes up part of a group of linebackers that flew under the radar to lead the nation's top defense.
The Badgers had to replace all four starters from their 3-4 scheme, including Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland. There was good athleticism in the group but precious little experience and no household names.

Well, it's way past time to get to know these Wisconsin linebackers, because they've formed the core of the nation's No. 1 defense and are a major reason why the Badgers could clinch the Big Ten West Division as early as Saturday if they beat Iowa and Minnesota loses to Nebraska.

"They've been over the top, as far as my expectation level," Andersen said this week.

They are inside linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch and outside linebackers Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert. Or you can just call them the "Chevy Bad Boys."

That's the nickname that Trotter bestowed on the group at the beginning of the season as a nod to their rural roots -- all are from smallish towns in Wisconsin -- and their unflashy dependability.

"We have a lot of guys from the country," Trotter said. "We love Chevys and country music and wear only flannel all day long."

It took some time for the nickname to stick, but now the players are embracing it. So much so, in fact, that Biegel got a Chevy logo shaved into the side of his head this week, bookending the motion "W" on the other side of his Mohawk/mullet.

The linebackers are starting to get more national recognition, too, as Wisconsin's defense keeps piling up impressive numbers. But that's not really what this group is about.

"Not a lot of people really looked at us as being a big-time defense going into the season," Biegel said. "Being able to have that chip on our shoulder and approach every game with that chip has been the difference for us this year.

"We're a bunch of smart football guys who weren't necessarily four- and five-star recruits. We're just hard-working Wisconsin dudes."

Biegel, who leads the team with 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, was actually a four-star recruit out of high school. But Trotter and Schobert, the latter of whom was named Big Ten defensive player of the week for his performance against Nebraska, walked on to the Badgers. The 5-foot-11 Landisch was lightly recruited, with interest from MAC schools, and viewed by some as too small to stay at linebacker.

All four bided their time while waiting for the opportunity to become full-time starters, especially seniors Trotter and Landisch.

"We were all very eager for our chance," Trotter said. "We were excited to finally prove people wrong."

Each of the four have different personalities, but that meshes into a cohesive bond. Trotter is the motormouth leader who wears bear-themed shirts and sometimes only answers to the name "Mookie Blaylock."

Biegel is also talkative and energetic. "If you looked inside his mind," Trotter said, "you'd see a hamster spinning on a wheel. He's just all over the place, all the time. He's a goofy guy who likes to mess with people."

Landisch, who has six sacks and 12 tackles for loss, is quiet and often needs his nerves calmed before games. "I feel like I'm his psychiatrist sometimes," Trotter said.

Schobert is also reserved but in a much more relaxed way. Trotter said while the Nebraska game was still close last week, Schobert cracked a joke to him about missing a fumble recovery right before the snap.

"I was like, 'Joe, be quiet, I'm trying to get the call,'" Trotter said. "But he's just very calm and confident in his technique."

What the quartet lacked in starting experience, they have made up for in pass-rushing ability and football savvy. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda uses his linebackers in all sorts of ways, lining them up in different spots and bringing pressure from a variety of angles. As Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said this week, Wisconsin's defense looks pretty normal on first and second downs. On third down, though, "who knows what you're going to get," Ferentz said.

Andersen said he wasn't confident that the group would be able to master the complicated scheme and take the information from the meeting room to the field. But the Chevy Bad Boys have had no trouble doing just that.

"I've played all kinds of positions this year -- with my hand in the dirt, at standup outside linebacker, even inside linebacker in a couple different packages," Biegel said. "Coach Aranda asks a lot of us mentally. It's fun, because you never know what you'll be doing each week, what your technique and assignment will be."

Wisconsin now knows that it will get elite production from its linebackers every week. And it's way past time that everyone else gets to know who these guys are.

Wisconsin Badgers season preview

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
10:30
AM ET
 

» 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.

[+] EnlargeSojourn Shelton
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsSojourn Shelton and the Badgers' defense will have their hands full against teams in the West Division.
Projected starters

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):

Team's top Twitter follows: Head coach Gary Andersen (@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.
The SEC and ACC have already held their media days, the Big 12 is wrapping up, and the Pac-12 is on deck. Don't worry, the Big Ten gets its day(s) in the sun next week.

To get you more than ready, we've been looking at three questions each team will likely face at the Hilton Chicago. We wrap up our series now with the Wisconsin Badgers, who will have running back Melvin Gordon, offensive tackle Rob Havenstein and defensive lineman Warren Herring to the festivities along with coach Gary Andersen.

1. How will the passing game come together?

The spring featured an intriguing competition at quarterback between last year's starting safety, Tanner McEvoy, and incumbent starter Joel Stave, who was recovering from a shoulder injury. McEvoy, who has never thrown a pass in an FBS game, could win the job with a strong fall camp. An even bigger question might be who will catch the throws from either guy, as Jared Abbrederis' graduation leaves a major void at wide receiver. The Badgers have few proven options there, and the recent departures of a pair of incoming freshmen wideouts didn't help. We know Wisconsin will be able to run the ball well once again. But can the passing game make enough strides for this team to be a serious Big Ten contender?

2. Who steps forward in the defensive front seven?

Dave Aranda's defense must replace all three starting defensive linemen from 2013 and three of its four starting linebackers. The lone returning starter from the front seven is Derek Landisch, who had 33 tackles last season. So, yeah, this is a formidable retooling project, with veteran stalwarts such as Chris Borland, Beau Allen and Brendan Kelly no longer around. There is still a lot for Aranda to build around in guys such as Herring, who has played a lot of snaps, and linebackers Vince Biegel and Marcus Trotter. But how quickly the defense can mesh together and play as well as an often underrated group from last season remains a question.

3. How big is the LSU game?


The first two questions above need to be answered quickly, because Wisconsin opens the season against LSU in Houston. It's one of the biggest regular-season games in years for the Badgers, who will quickly put themselves in the spotlight if they can beat the Tigers. The rest of their schedule is such that a 9-0 start before hosting Nebraska on Nov. 15 suddenly becomes a real possibility with an opening win, and the College Football Playoff would be an attainable goal. The challenge, however, is steep. It will be interesting to hear how much Andersen and his players have been thinking about and preparing for this game all spring and summer long. Having LSU on the schedule should certainly have added a little more urgency to offseason workouts.
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin's defense appeared to offer a series of new looks, pressures and personnel groupings in coach Gary Andersen's first season.

Turns out, the reveal is just beginning.

Although the Badgers in 2013 showcased certain elements they hadn't under the previous coaching staff, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who inherited a strong and dominant line, catered his scheme to the players' power. The front seven is almost completely new this spring, which has brought different emphasis points, namely speed and versatility.

[+] EnlargeSojourn Shelton
Patrick S Blood/Icon SMICB Sojourn Shelton is one of the few Badgers on defense not switching positions this spring.
The Badgers' 2014 defense will more closely resemble the units Aranda and Andersen directed at Utah State than last year's at Wisconsin.

"When you look at the people we've got, they're best when they're in space and on the move," Aranda told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "So we've moved some of the linebackers to defensive end, we've moved some of the safeties to linebacker, some of the defensive ends to nose [tackle]. Everyone's kind of moved down a spot to try to maximize speed."

Michael Caputo, who started at safety last season, moved to linebacker earlier this spring and then back to the safety spot. Michael Trotter moved from safety to join his twin brother, Marcus, as an inside linebacker. Promising redshirt freshman Alec James shifted from outside linebacker to defensive end. Joe Schobert has worked at both inside and outside linebacker, and Leon Jacobs moved from the outside to the inside. Vonte Jackson, whose recurring knee injuries have prevented him from entering the mix at running back, will get a shot at safety.

Aranda used Schobert and Ethan Armstrong in versatile roles last season, but most players stayed in one spot. He now has "an abundance" of players with flexibility.

"We wanted to see how guys fit in other places, and then they decided to move a couple guys around more," Caputo said.

Other than a few exceptions -- top cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary are staying put -- the coaches are shuffling players through different positions to see who best fits. For the most part, it's working.

"We're famous for taking guys and moving them to a different spot," Andersen said. "That has been invaluable in my career. Does it always work? No. But you never know if you don't try it. That's what you do as a coach.

"There is no free agency. It's college football."

Wisconsin hasn't abandoned the power element and boasts some size up front with Warren Herring, Konrad Zagzebski and others. Aranda likes practicing against the Badgers offense, which boasts a massive line and has always excelled at the power game, while incorporating a few more spread elements than in the past.

"There's a tendency to want to get big and strong, and we are that," Aranda said. "But to win some of the games we want to win and can win, and take that next step, being as fast as we can and as athletic as we can would be the goal.

"If you can have your cake and eat it, too, let's try it."
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 10

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
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We have true separation in the Big Ten, and not just with Ohio State at the No. 1 spot. Although the Buckeyes remain the league's kingpin, both Wisconsin and Michigan State also belong in the Big Ten's upper crust.

The big debate in these rankings concerns the No. 2 spot, which Wisconsin has occupied for several weeks. The Badgers handled Iowa on the road and delivered a salty defensive performance even without superstar linebacker Chris Borland. Michigan State smothered Michigan, complementing a dominant defense with timely passes from Connor Cook. Both teams have won at Iowa and at Illinois. Michigan State has the best win between the bunch but has played the easier schedule.

For now, we're keeping Wisconsin at No. 2. We realize we're in the minority there, but Wisconsin hasn't done much to move down since the Northwestern game. It's too bad the Badgers and Spartans can't play this season to decide the second spot.

Elsewhere, Nebraska avoids another drop thanks to its Hail Mary against sad-sack Northwestern. We debated whether to move Minnesota higher, and we will if the Gophers keep winning. Iowa falls down a few spots, and the bottom of the rankings remains unchanged.

Here's one last look at the Week 9 rankings.

Now, the new rundown ...

1. Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten; last week: 1): Ross-Ade Stadium is no longer a graveyard for the Buckeyes, who buried Purdue in a matter of minutes Saturday. Ohio State scored 28 first-quarter points and 42 in the first half, as the tight ends got involved, quarterbacks Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton both had jump-pass touchdowns and the defense blanked Purdue. Whether style points matter, Ohio State is finally getting them. The Buckeyes are off this week before visiting Illinois on Nov. 16.

2. Wisconsin (6-2, 4-1; last week: 2): The offense struggled and top defender Borland watched from the sideline with a hamstring injury, but Wisconsin found a way to beat Iowa. Marcus Trotter was fabulous filling in for Borland, as the Badgers' defense repeatedly turned Iowa away in plus territory. Running back James White came alive late as Wisconsin pulled away. The Badgers will need a stronger performance this week as they step out of league play against a good BYU squad.

3. Michigan State (8-1, 5-0; last week: 3): Not only did the Spartans reclaim their superiority against in-state rival Michigan, but they looked like a worthy competitor for Ohio State in a potential Big Ten championship game matchup. If Nebraska falls this week at Michigan, MSU would have a two-game lead on the rest of the division with three weeks to go. An elite defense had its best performance under Pat Narduzzi, as end Shilique Calhoun and linebackers Denicos Allen and Ed Davis combined for seven sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Cook made some impressive throws as the Spartans pounded Michigan. They'll have some extra time to celebrate during an open week before visiting Nebraska on Nov. 16.

4. Nebraska (6-2, 3-1; last week: 7): One play makes all the difference between another Power Rankings drop for Big Red and a three-spot gain. Nebraska had defensive problems early and turnover problems late against Northwestern, but the Huskers never gave up and won a game on a Hail Mary to Jordan Westerkamp for the first time in team history. Credit running back Ameer Abdullah for keeping a potentially splintering team together. The young defense also shut down Northwestern's offense in the second half. Nebraska must beat Michigan on the road this week to stay in the Legends Division race.

5. Michigan (6-2, 2-2; last week: 4): That Notre Dame win feels like years ago as Michigan's warts were exposed in Saturday's loss at Michigan State. The Wolverines are either too young or simply not tough enough, as they were pushed around the field at Spartan Stadium. Michigan had a program-low rushing total (minus-48 yards) and couldn't protect quarterback Devin Gardner. The program's Big Ten championship drought almost certainly will reach nine years, and it's fair to question where things are really headed under third-year coach Brady Hoke. At least Michigan returns home, where it has never lost under Hoke, to face Nebraska this week.

6. Minnesota (7-2, 3-2; last week: 6): The Minnesota mojo continues, thanks in large part to an inexcusable crunch-time blunder by Indiana. Minnesota blew a 22-point third-quarter lead but rallied behind Philip Nelson, who established himself as the team's offensive leader with 298 pass yards and four touchdowns. It was a rough second half for the defense, but linebacker Aaron Hill came up with the decisive play late as the Gophers got out of Bloomington with their third consecutive league win. Minnesota is a factor in the Legends Division race but must keep winning this week against Penn State.

7. Iowa (5-4, 2-3; last week: 5): Sure, the Hawkeyes are improved this season, but some of the same maddening offensive traits remain, like being unable to finish drives. Iowa should have been up at halftime rather than down 7-6 to Wisconsin, and although quarterback Jake Rudock's injury impacted the game, the Hawkeyes' second-half struggles on offense are nothing new. The defense is good enough to get Iowa a few more wins, but can the offense start scoring? Iowa visits Purdue this week.

8. Penn State (5-3, 2-2; last week: 8): It isn't always pretty with Penn State, but the Lions don't quit, especially on their home field. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg once again rallied his team from a late deficit and stepped up in overtime as Penn State avoided what would have been a bad loss to Illinois. Bill Belton established himself as the team's top running back with 201 yards and a touchdown. The defense remains far too vulnerable to big passing plays. Penn State will need to be better on both sides of the ball this week as it visits surging Minnesota.

9. Indiana (3-5, 1-3; last week: 9): Coach Kevin Wilson's crew doesn't quit, but the Hoosiers still don't know how to win. They were 9 yards away from completing a huge second-half comeback against Minnesota and moving a step closer to bowl eligibility. At worst, they were in position to send the game to overtime. Instead, everything fell apart on a dropped backward pass to Tevin Coleman, who had a big game (108 rush yards, TD). The quarterback race took another turn with Nate Sudfeld outplaying Tre Roberson, and the defense had a wildly inconsistent performance. Indiana hosts Illinois this week but will need a road win at Ohio State or Wisconsin to become bowl eligible.

10. Northwestern (4-5, 0-5; last week: 10): The former Cardiac Cats are only giving their fans heartache at this point as they've forgotten how to perform in the clutch. Northwestern had another golden opportunity for a road win, but let it slip away when it couldn't finish off Nebraska on either side of the ball, leading to the Hail Mary touchdown to Jordan Westerkamp. Injuries continue to mount in a snakebitten season for the Wildcats, who likely won't make a bowl. Northwestern has an off week to regroup before hosting Michigan on Nov. 16.

11. Illinois (3-5, 0-4; last week: 11): The Big Ten losing streak has reached 18 games, and arguably no defeat stung more than Saturday's at Penn State. Illinois wasted opportunities early, took the lead late and still couldn't hold on for a victory. Tim Beckman's team performed better than expected and can take some positives from its performance in Happy Valley, but there's still too much inconsistency on both sides of the ball, as the defense allowed 250 rush yards. Illinois visits Indiana this week.

12. Purdue (1-7, 0-4; last week: 12): The misery continues for Darrell Hazell's crew, which is on its way to its worst season since 1993 (1-10) and might be one of the worst squads in recent Big Ten memory. Young quarterback Danny Etling had another rough outing as Purdue never challenged Ohio State and had no answers for the Buckeyes' offense. Purdue has been shut out in consecutive games and has scored just 17 points in four Big Ten contests. The remaining schedule is a little more favorable, but Purdue has to show something positive by season's end.
Recognizing the best and the brightest around the Big Ten in Week 10:
  • Michigan State LBs Ed Davis and Denicos Allen, and DE Shilique Calhoun: We could have given a sticker to the entire Spartans defense after its 29-6 dismantling of Michigan. But these three stood out, combining for seven sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Calhoun now leads the Big Ten in sacks, Allen continued his dominant stretch and Davis stood out, filling in for the injured Jairus Jones, with his first breakout performance.
  • Wisconsin LB Marcus Trotter: Filling in for the injured Chris Borland (hamstring), Trotter made sure the Badgers defense didn't miss a beat. He recorded nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and put a hit on Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard that forced a key second-half interception. Wisconsin did not allow a touchdown in its 28-9 road win. James White provided most of the offense with 132 yards and two touchdowns, though most of his damage came late.
  • Penn State RB Bill Belton: He could have been the goat after fumbling at the Illinois goal line late in the game. But the Nittany Lions overcame that miscue and probably wouldn't have been able to pull out the 24-17 overtime win without Belton. He carried the ball 36 times for 201 yards and a touchdown and had an 11-yard run in the overtime period to help set up the game-winning score. It marked Penn State's first 200-yard rushing performance since Larry Johnson in 2002.
  • Ohio State QB Braxton Miller: The Buckeyes junior had as many incompletions (four) as he did touchdown passes, as he went 19 for 23 for 233 yards. And all of that came in the first half, as Miller got an early breather in Ohio State's ridiculously easy 56-0 win over Purdue.
  • Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah: Everyone will talk about Jordan Westerkamp's Hail Mary touchdown catch off Ron Kellogg III's desperation heave to beat Northwestern. But it was Abdullah that kept the Huskers in the game. He ran 24 times for 127 yards, and on fourth-and-15 from the Nebraska 24 on the game's final drive, he caught a short pass and willed himself forward for a first down. He's the heart and soul of the Huskers right now.
  • Minnesota QB Philip Nelson: The Gophers are firmly Nelson's team now. Starting for the first time in a few weeks, Nelson completed 16 of 23 passes for 298 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in a 42-39 win at Indiana. Nelson's final throw went for 50 yards to Maxx Williams for the winning touchdown. Running back David Cobb added 188 rushing yards and a score on 29 carries.
A few injury-related notes from around the league ...
  • Wisconsin could be without its top defensive playmaker against Ohio State as junior linebacker Chris Borland could miss the game with a hamstring injury. Borland, who sustained the injury last week against Indiana, isn't running at full speed but will test the hamstring in pregame warm-ups. Sophomore Marcus Trotter will start at middle linebacker if Borland can't go. Borland leads the Badgers with 4.5 sacks, is tied for third in the league with three forced fumbles and has 82 tackles and nine tackles for loss. He ranks in the top 15 in the Big Ten in tackles, tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles.
  • Northwestern will be without its top corner for the third straight game as Nick VanHoose will sit out against Michigan State with a shoulder injury. VanHoose's absence has proved costly as teams have attacked Demetrius Dugar and the secondary. Reserve linebacker Collin Ellis also is out with an undisclosed injury.
  • Minnesota top wideout A.J. Barker (ankle) will miss his third straight game Saturday at Nebraska. The Gophers also will be without defensive tackle Roland Johnson (knee) and reserve linebacker Lamonte Edwards. Senior defensive end D.L. Wilhite, tied for the Big Ten sacks lead with 7.5, is listed as questionable on the team's injury report but also remains the starter on the depth chart. Center Jon Christenson, injured last week at Illinois, also is questionable.
  • Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead (knee) will be a game-time decision against Minnesota, coach Bo Pelini said Thursday. Burkhead, who twice has aggravated the knee in Big Ten play and has missed the past three games, tested out the knee this week in practice. Wide receiver Tim Marlowe also is a game-time decision.

Fresh faces: Wisconsin

August, 3, 2011
8/03/11
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Our look at three fresh faces to watch for each Big Ten team this season continues with the Wisconsin Badgers. Wisconsin has produced the past two Big Ten Freshmen of the Year (RB James White in 2010, LB Chris Borland in 2009).

These players are freshmen, redshirt freshmen, transfers or upperclassmen ready to move into much bigger roles this season.

OFFENSE: Manasseh Garner, TE/WR, sophomore, 6-2, 210

Wisconsin needs more pass-catching options to help its new starting quarterback, and Garner should see an increased role this fall. The Badgers love to feature their tight ends as receivers, and Garner has the speed and athleticism to get open in the middle of the field. He played mostly on special teams as a true freshman but had a nice spring and fits the tight end-wide receiver hybrid mold, much like former All-Big Ten standout Lance Kendricks. Garner had four receptions for 57 yards in the spring game.

DEFENSE: Marcus Trotter, LB, redshirt freshman, 6-0, 235

Injuries to top middle linebackers Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong allowed Trotter to play with the first-team defense this spring. Trotter capitalized on the opportunity, impressing the coaches with his play and increasing his chances of seeing the field this season. He had five tackles and a forced fumble in the spring game and boasts a knack for being around the ball. Trotter provides some insurance in case Borland's shoulder issues crop up again.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kenzel Doe, WR, freshman, 5-8, 170

Wisconsin hopes Doe can step in following the departure of longtime return man David Gilreath. Doe enrolled early and had an impressive spring, drawing comparisons to Gilreath and showing good leaping ability to counter his size. The coaches will give him immediate opportunities on returns as Wisconsin tries to remain among the Big Ten leaders.

More Fresh Faces
It's time to jump back into our preseason position group rankings. We've made our way through the offenses and the front line of the defenses. Now it's time to take a look at the linebackers.

As always, this is a ranking of the entire position group, so depth matters in addition to individual star players.

Away we go:

[+] EnlargeLavonte David
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska's Lavonte David led the Big 12 last season with 152 tackles.
1. Nebraska: Lavonte David set the school record with 152 tackles last year, best in the Big 12. He also added 15 tackles for loss and six sacks on his way to second-team All-America honors. David was a one-man wrecking crew last year but should get more help this year. Will Compton returns after an injury-shortened season, and Sean Fisher is back after a broken leg cost him all of 2010. With an excellent defensive front leading the way, the Cornhuskers' linebackers should make plenty of impact plays.

2. Penn State: Is this the return of Linebacker U? The Nittany Lions technically only return one starter at the position but have plenty of talent. The unit got hit by injuries last year, including one that knocked Michael Mauti out of the lineup for several games. He's one of the best in the Big Ten when healthy, which he should be in 2011. Senior Nate Stupar led the team in tackles last year. Sophomores Gerald Hodges and Khairi Fortt are among the skilled youngsters battling for playing time. This could wind up as the deepest linebacking corps in the league.

3. Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost two starters, including leading tackler Brian Rolle. But the Silver Bullets usually reload at linebacker. Senior Andrew Sweat should emerge as the unit's leader, and hopes are high for Etienne Sabino after he took a redshirt year in 2010. Sabino showed promise this spring and locked down a starting job. The battle is on for the third starting position. Incoming freshman Curtis Grant could make a sudden impact.

4. Wisconsin: Much depends on the health of Chris Borland, who missed nearly all of 2010 and sat out the spring with a shoulder injury. The 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will move to middle linebacker and should anchor the unit if he's sound. Mike Taylor finished second on the team in tackles for loss and interceptions last year, and Kevin Claxton is expected to take over at the strongside spot. The Badgers like what they have seen from redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter.

5. Iowa: The Hawkeyes lost a lot of experience from the 2010 team, including leading tackler Jeremiha Hunter. While there's some concern about the leadership void, Iowa has good young building blocks here. James Morris was pressed into service as a true freshman and was terrific; another year of development should only make him better. Tyler Nielsen was missed down the stretch when he suffered a neck injury, and the senior provides a veteran presence. Players like Bruce Davis, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens need to take on bigger roles.

[+] EnlargeGreg Jones
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesReplacing two-time All-American Greg Jones will be a tall order for the Spartans.
6. Michigan State: It would be difficult to overstate how much the Spartans will miss two-time All-American Greg Jones and Eric Gordon, who combined to start 95 games in their illustrious careers. But life goes on. The lone returning starter, Chris Norman, is a dependable veteran. The Spartans hope Max Bullough and Denicos Allen build on their potential, and TyQuan Hammock inspired confidence with his play this spring.

7. Minnesota: An experienced linebacker group could be the strength of the Gophers defense this season. All three starters -- leading tackler Gary Tinsley, Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis -- are back. Rallis needs to stay healthy after only appearing in 12 games the past two years because of injuries. Florida transfer Brendan Beal should provide a boost.

8. Purdue: The Boilermakers are led by senior Joe Holland, who has 35 career starts under his belt. Junior Dwayne Beckford finished second on the team with 85 tackles a year ago. Will Lucas could break out after an excellent true freshman campaign. Senior Chris Carlino adds veteran depth.

9. Michigan: The Wolverines struggled defensively last year, and the linebackers shouldered some of the blame. They lost Jonas Mouton to the NFL. Cam Gordon moves down from safety and adds some playmaking ability. Kenny Demens had 82 tackles last year at middle linebacker. Freshman Jake Ryan should contribute right away. This group still has a lot to prove.

10. Illinois: The Illini have to rebuild after losing a pair of NFL draft picks at the position in Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey. Senior Ian Thomas now becomes the veteran leader. Sophomores Johnathan Brown and Houston Bates -- who had a strong spring -- will be counted on to step forward.

11. Indiana: Fifth-year senior Jeff Thomas could be the centerpiece of the Hoosiers defense. Another fifth-year senior is Leon Beckum, though he lacks top-end speed. Overall, there isn't a lot of depth here.

12. Northwestern: Linebacker play was a sore spot last season, and starters Nate Williams and Quentin Davie are gone. Bryce McNaul needs to recover all the way from shoulder surgery and has to stay healthy. Pat Fitzgerald thinks he has some talented young players at the position; they'll need to grow up fast.

Wisconsin spring wrap

May, 4, 2011
5/04/11
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Wisconsin

2010 overall record: 11-2

2010 conference record: 7-1 (T-1st)

Returning starters

Offense: 5; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB James White, RB Montee Ball, C Peter Konz, RG Ricky Wagner, WR Nick Toon, DT Patrick Butrym, LB Mike Taylor, CB Antonio Fenelus, FS Aaron Henry

Key losses

QB Scott Tolzien, LT Gabe Carimi, LG John Moffitt, RB John Clay, TE Lance Kendricks, DE J.J. Watt, LB Blake Sorensen, S Jay Valai

2010 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: James White* (1,052 yards)

Passing: Scott Tolzien (2,459 yards)

Receiving: Lance Kendricks (663 yards)

Tackles: Blake Sorensen (66)

Sacks: J.J. Watt (7)

Interceptions: Antonio Fenelus* (4)

Spring answers

1. Defensive leadership: Wisconsin hasn't lowered expectations on the defensive side despite the loss of All-American J.J. Watt, and one area the team addressed this spring was leadership. Defensive tackle Patrick Butrym and safety Aaron Henry answered the call and will share the duties in the fall. Butrym, who leads a deep group of defensive tackles, feels it's his time to lead as a senior, while the naturally vocal Henry has settled into the safety spot after switching from corner.

2. Men on the run: The run game once again will drive Wisconsin's offense, and backs Montee Ball and James White both elevated their play this spring. Both backs changed their bodies during the winter and showed no signs of letting up during practice. White hasn't been fazed by the accolades he received as a freshman, and Ball looks to pick up where he left off after racking up 777 rush yards in Wisconsin's final five games last fall.

3. Insurance at linebacker: The Badgers expect Chris Borland to return at top form after missing most of last season with shoulder problems, but they have some insurance at linebacker. Redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter stood out this spring, practicing alongside projected starters Mike Taylor and Kevin Claxton and holding his own. Trotter likely earned himself a chunk of playing time this fall even with Borland and Ethan Armstrong back in the mix.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback: There's little doubt Jon Budmayr will start the season for Wisconsin, but the team wants to see more out of the redshirt sophomore after an inconsistent spring. All of Wisconsin's quarterbacks struggled in the spring game, but Budmayr's problems stood out because he'll soon be taking snaps when it counts. To be fair, Wisconsin was thin at receiver this spring, so Budmayr should have a better chance to build confidence in fall camp. It didn't help when Curt Phillips was ruled out for the season after another knee setback.

2. Nick Toon: The senior wide receiver missed spring ball following foot surgery, but he'll be in the spotlight when the team resumes practice in August. Toon had a bit of a disappointing season in 2010, but he's undoubtedly the team's top option at receiver. Although Wisconsin should once again be strong at the tight end spot, it could really use a star receiver for its new starting quarterback. Toon should be that guy.

3. Defensive playmaking: Watt helped the defense in so many ways last season, and his presence will be missed. The coaches like their top three defensive ends -- Louis Nzegwu, David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly, who came on strong this spring -- but they're looking for playmakers throughout the defense. Borland certainly can be one when he's healthy, and cornerback Devin Smith made big plays at times this spring. Wisconsin wasn't a lock-down defense in 2010, but its playmaking ability stood out. Who will step up this fall?

Spring game recap: Wisconsin

April, 25, 2011
4/25/11
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Wisconsin wrapped up spring practice Saturday with it spring game at Camp Randall Stadium. Coach Bret Bielema shook things up this year and had the first-team offense compete against the starting defense. The defense ended up dominating, holding the offense out of the end zone, and posted a 29-27 victory in a scrimmage that used a modified scoring system.

Let's take a closer look:

Game coverage: Here and here and here and here.

Quotable: "We were without four, possibly five, offensive starters, so the continuity of that group was thrown off a little bit. I really like the offensive line depth we've been able to develop. On the back end, the defensive side, I was really concerned about the safety position, but Shelton Johnson, Aaron Henry and Dezmen Southward are three guys who can really give us some ability that I didn't know was going to be there." -- coach Bret Bielema

Highlights
  • It was a rough day for Wisconsin's quarterback position both on and off the field. The Badgers' top three signal-callers -- junior Jon Budmayr, redshirt freshman Joe Brennan and true freshman Joel Stave -- combined to complete just 22 of 61 pass attempts (36.1 percent) for 241 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a fumble. The offense failed to reach the end zone and managed only one scoring drive, resulting in a field goal. Budmayr, the front-runner to be the starter this season, completed 10 of 23 passes for 113 yards with an interception and a lost fumble. "The three guys that got the majority of the reps today aren't anywhere where we need them to be for us to be a competitive team in the fall," Bielema said. "They need to continue to move forward." Bielema revealed after the game that quarterback Curt Phillips, a potential challenger to Budmayr, will miss the 2011 season following his third knee surgery.
  • Although the offense played without several starters, the top defense turned in an encouraging performance. The pass rush was solid as ends David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu both recorded two tackles for loss and a sack. "Our D-line, we're winning," Gilbert said. "As long as we're winning, that’s what matters." Linebacker Marcus Trotter finished an impressive spring with five tackles and a forced fumble, and starting cornerback Devin Smith had an interception and four tackles.
  • The run game averaged only 2.6 yards per attempt, although Wisconsin's top two backs had their moments. James White led the way with 47 rush yards on eight carries, including gains of 22 yards and 17 yards. Montee Ball finished with 33 rush yards on eight carries, while third-stringer Zach Brown also had 33 rush yards. "Today probably wasn’t the best performance but we'll be even better come fall," White said. "We have a lot of confidence as an offense. We have a few people banged up and that can mess with things but we're still getting better."
  • Kicker Philip Welch had a mixed performance in the game. He went 8-for-8 during two separate kicking segments on attempts between 27-61 yards, hitting from 58 and 61 yards out. But during the team portion of the game, Welch missed attempts from 38, 49 and 52 yards. "He's got to be able to handle the pressure, he's got to be consistent with where we're at," Bielema said.
MADISON, Wis. -- A layer of snow or freezing rain or something yucky covered the Camp Randall Stadium field on Tuesday afternoon. Thankfully, Wisconsin held its practice inside the McClain Center, and I was there for most of it.

Some quick thoughts and notes from the Badgers' 13th workout of the spring.
  • Quarterback Jon Budmayr had a live arm and he showcased it several times during the practice, especially in team drills. Budmayr made a nice throw to a leaping Kenzel Doe, and he also found Jared Abbrederis for a good gain. The downside is he often looked hesitant in the pocket, which will cost him in games. Although he moves decently and can extend plays, he needs to get rid of the ball faster. It's important to note that top receiver Nick Toon isn't practicing following offseason foot surgery, and Budmayr doesn't have a ton of options at his disposal. Some will point to Budmayr's lack of size as a concern, but he can get it done if his decision making gets a bit better.
  • I don't think Budmayr will be pushed much for the starting job. Although redshirt freshman Joe Brennan and true freshman Joel Stave both have nice size and can spin it, their youth shows up at times and both players threw interceptions. Unless Curt Phillips makes amazing progress by fall camp, this will be Budmayr's team.
  • Senior cornerback Devin Smith had a very impressive practice. Smith, who served as Wisconsin's nickelback last season after starting in 2009, stepped in front of a receiver to intercept a Stave pass. Moments later, he won a 50-50 ball against Abbrederis for another interception. The Badgers should have the Big Ten's top cornerback tandem this fall with Smith and All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus. Aaron Henry enters his second full season at safety, while sophomore Dezmen Southward seemed to get the most time as the second first-team safety, while second-team cornerback Peniel Jean recorded an interception. The secondary could be Wisconsin's strongest unit on defense this fall.
  • Wisconsin likely will account for its lack of wide receivers with more tight ends on the field this fall. Toon and Abbrederis are the team's only proven receivers, and I didn't see a clear No. 3 option Tuesday. The good news: there are quite a few options at tight end. Sophomore Manasseh Garner stood out to me Tuesday. Listed as a tight end, the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Garner can play on the edges and made several nice catches. The Badgers will use him as a pass-catcher.
  • Speaking of tight ends, no player impressed me more Tuesday than senior tight end Jake Byrne. He made several nice plays on vertical passes in the middle of the field. Byrne can really stretch the defense. Wisconsin should feature multiple tight ends a lot this fall as Byrne, Jacob Pedersen and Garner all are good options.
  • The pass game only needs to be serviceable because Wisconsin's rushing attack once again should be scary good. Top backs Montee Ball and James White looked good Tuesday, along with the mammoth offensive line. Both Ball and White transformed their bodies during the winter -- Ball slimmed down to 214 pounds and White strengthened his lower body -- and the gains are noticeable when you see them.
  • For depth chart aficionados, the first-team defensive line typically consisted of Louis Nzegwu and Brendan Kelly at the end spots and Patrick Butrym and Ethan Hemer at the tackle spots. Defensive end David Gilbert seemed to be dealing with some sort of ailment. The top linebackers were Mike Taylor, Kevin Claxton and redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter, a star of the spring who made some nice plays.

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