- Mitch Sherman, College Football
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Wisconsin concludes spring practice Saturday with its spring game at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers have progressed this spring through the transition of coach Paul Chryst’s return to Madison, filling holes left by key contributors – none larger than Heisman runner-up Melvin Gordon at running back – to a team that won the Big Ten West in 2014.
The Big Ten Network will provide coverage at 4 p.m. ET.
Aside from a modest-sized crowd, already explained by athletic director Barry Alvarez, here’s what to watch in Wisconsin’s spring game:
The look of Dave Aranda’s defense: In two years with the Badgers as defensive coordinator after following Gary Andersen from Utah State, Aranda has directed a unit that ranked third nationally in yardage allowed (299.4 per game), sixth in scoring (18.6 points per game), fifth in pass defense and seventh against the run. The Badgers did it in 2013 with a mix of zone coverage and a two-gap scheme up front. Last season, they played more straight-up at both levels, using the play-making skill of inside linebackers Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter. This year, it’s back to the 2013 model, though without Chris Borland to anchor the linebackers. Instead, Aranda looks to Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel on the outside, the Badgers’ “best options by far,” Aranda said this spring. The emergence last year of the inside linebackers provides hope that another untested defender is waiting to break out. Watch Leon Jacobs and T.J. Edwards for a clue about how Wisconsin will play defensively in 2015.
The aggressiveness of cornerback Sojourn Shelton: Strange to suggest, but the veteran Shelton has shown perhaps as much growth as any Wisconsin defender this spring. Shelton slumped last season as a sophomore, failing to intercept a pass after he collected four picks in a standout freshman season. He has been jumping routes and catching balls this spring, perhaps impacted by the return to more “exotic” looks in the secondary that Aranda has helped design because of inexperience among the front seven. Whatever the reason, the Badgers welcome Shelton’s renewed energy, which bolsters a strong group of defensive backs directed by safety Michael Caputo and cornerback Darius Hillary. Converted quarterback Tanner McEvoy has performed well in his return to the defensive backfield alongside Caputo. The key to the secondary, though, and a solid portion of the defensive success rests with Shelton’s ability to give the Badgers a pair of lockdown corners.
Decisions made by every quarterback: It’s not all about Joel Stave, who began the spring and likely exits it as the clear-cut favorite to retain his starting position. The fact is Stave has endured struggles to go with his 20-6 record over parts of three seasons at the helm of the offense for the Badgers. Wisconsin has worked hard in practice this spring to get a look at every player in its quarterback stable. Frankly, it has been an up-and-down experience, with Stave showing his experience but also fighting some consistency issues. The problems, Chryst said, largely involve the positions around him, primarily receiver and three spots on the offensive line. But the Badgers want their fifth-year senior needs to rise above the other offensive inefficiencies and lead this group. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has looked long at junior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins. The surprise of the group through 14 practices was true freshman Alex Hornibrook, the former Pitt pledge who followed Chryst to Madison. Hornibook has looked sharp and self-assured, earning reps over fellow newcomer Austin Kafentzis.
Cohesion on the offensive line: Melvin Gordon didn't run for all those yards by himself. He averaged 7.8 yards per attempt over four years with a big assist from the big Badgers up front. Gone this year are Rob Havenstein, Kyle Costigan and Dallas Lewallen. Center Dan Voltz, in and out of practice with injuries this spring, and left tackle Tyler Marz are back as leaders, and redshirt freshman Michael Deiter has a chance to be “that next guy,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. Deiter has split time between center and left guard, while tackle Hayden Biegel and Ray Ball man the right side. Guard Walker Williams also has spent time with the top unit. So can these guys come together in the offseason. The spotty practice schedule of Voltz, a junior who suffered a leg injury in the Outback Bowl and has bothered by ankle issues, has hindered the ability of this group to jell. The upcoming months are important.
The Badgers have a new head coach and have to replace Melvin Gordon, but the defense might be the unit to watch.