Big Ten: P.J. Hill

Rose Bowl regrets? Wisconsin's Montee Ball has a few.

On the very first play from scrimmage against TCU, Ball raced 40 yards before being tracked down by safety Tejay Johnson. Most saw the run as an emphatic opening statement against the nation's No. 1 defense.

Ball saw it as a missed opportunity.

"Now," he said, "I'd probably take it to the house."

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMontee Ball spent the offseason working to improve on a breakout 2010 season.
He had another opening on a run in the third quarter, but was tripped up when a TCU defender swiped at his legs. TCU went on to win 21-19.

"I felt like I left a lot of yards on the field," Ball told "I had a bunch of shoestring tackles because I was top-heavy. I would just tumble right over."

Arguably no running back in America finished the season hotter than Ball. He recorded 777 rush yards and 14 touchdowns in his final five games. He racked up 127 rush yards or more in each of the last five contests and reached the end zone multiple times in all but one game -- the Rose Bowl, where he scored once.

Despite all the success, Ball knew he needed to change. After topping out at 233 pounds, Ball transformed his body. He cut his weight considerably and went through preseason camp in the 207-208 range.

"I feel so much better," he said. "It's a complete difference. I just didn't feel comfortable being that big, a big back. I love to make faster cuts and all that stuff, and be a lot faster."

No one asked Ball to lose weight. Wisconsin is a haven for bigger backs, from former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne to former Big Ten Freshman of the Year P.J. Hill to 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player John Clay.

And after the way Ball finished the 2010 season, he didn't exactly need to be fixed.

"I saw him as a guy who was in shape," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "[Head strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert] had some discussions with him, and he just took the initiative upon himself. He knew what he could be.

"Sometimes the elite athletes can feel what their body needs before anybody else."

Ball's premonition seems to be paying off. He performed well throughout the offseason, showing better burst on his runs without losing his power.

The junior will showcase his new physique Thursday night when No. 11 Wisconsin opens the season against UNLV at Camp Randall Stadium.

Ball and sophomore James White are listed as co-starters on the Week 1 depth chart. Bielema plans to "pick one, flip a coin" as games evolve, but Ball looks like he could have a slight edge to be the featured back.

"I feel a lot stronger than last year," he said. "I still have the power, and now I have a lot more speed. Just put both of them together and make it happen."

Opposing defenders should get a sense of the new Ball starting Thursday. Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland provides this preview.

"The angles you have to take on Montee have changed in the last year," Borland said. "He's a step faster for sure, hits the hole, and more so than just physically, it's been a mental boost for him, knowing that he's probably a bit more elusive, a little more explosive."

White's emergence last season also motivates Ball.

It was White, after all, who leapfrogged Ball in the preseason to become Wisconsin's No. 2 running back behind Clay. White brought a new element to Wisconsin's rushing attack with his speed and elusiveness and went on to earn Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors after racking up 1,052 yards on the ground with 14 touchdowns. Only after Clay and White suffered injuries against Iowa did Ball get an opportunity, which he seized.

"My personal goal is to be the starter and to keep James off the field as much as possible," Ball said. "I want more carries than him, he wants more carries than me. That's the healthy competition we have."

Like Ball, White didn't accept the status quo during the offseason and worked on improving his lower-body strength. But White knows he's competing with a different type of player.

"He can do a little bit of everything," White said. "He still has the power, and now he's able to make those cuts in the open field to make people miss.

"There's a big difference between Montee Ball last year and Montee Ball this year."

If Ball and the Badgers exceed what they did last year, they could return to the Rose Bowl with a chance for redemption.
Like most standout players for Florida prep powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas, James White had options for college, and good ones.

[+] EnlargeJames White
Marc Sanchez/Icon SMIWisconsin running back James White has worked his way up the Badgers' impressive depth chart.
The running back could have picked a place and shot to the top of the depth chart as soon as he set foot on campus.

"I probably would have had more playing time [elsewhere], but I wasn't really looking for something like that," White said. "I wanted to go somewhere where I could earn my way to the [top] spot."

He got his wish by choosing to play for Wisconsin.

The Badgers were bringing back John Clay, the 2009 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, as well as veteran reserve Zach Brown and promising sophomore Montee Ball, who backed up Clay at times in 2009. When White arrived for camp in August, he seemed destined for a redshirt season.

After practices started, it became clear White would have none of that.

He surged to No. 3 on the depth chart with an impressive preseason performance. White would be playing in 2010, while Brown, a senior, is the running back planning to redshirt.

White had 11 carries for 59 yards in the season opener at UNLV, as Wisconsin rotated its top three backs. He also caught three passes for 37 yards.

"I didn't expect it," White said of his rapid rise. "I really didn't know what was going to happen. If I had to wait my turn, I didn't have a problem with that."

Coach Bret Bielema knew what he had in White from a speed and athleticism standpoint, but the freshman also showed excellent instincts early in camp. White admitted the blocking assignments were tough at first, but he picked it up by the end of the preseason. He also showed potential on special teams and is listed as the team's No. 2 punt returner behind David Gilreath.

At 5-10 and 198 pounds, White doesn't fit the mold at Wisconsin, which has produced big backs like Clay, P.J. Hill and former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. He looks like a mascot next to Clay (6-1, 255) and Ball (5-11, 236).

And that's why he complements them so well.

"I'd probably describe it as first, second and third gear," Bielema said. "John is a first-down back that can give you a little bit of everything. He's got a power, he does a great job of hitting it up inside, and also has the ability to break it away. Montee is maybe a little bit more on the speed-oriented side, although he can hit it up inside and has been good for us on second and third down.

"And then James is your third-gear guy. He's definitely the fastest of the crew, very shifty, very capable of making guys miss. Even if you don't block a guy and there's still guys standing free, you’re not necessarily going to tackle him."

Informed he's being called Wisconsin's third gear, White laughs. But he doesn't deny it.

"They call me a change-of-pace guy," he said. "I'm probably a step or two quicker than both Montee and Clay. I'll come in and loosen them up, and then they come in and pound 'em.

"It's a great combination."

Big Ten juniors facing NFL decisions

December, 17, 2009
Illinois wide receiver Arrelious Benn on Wednesday became the first Big Ten junior to officially declare for the NFL draft. Odds are, he won't be the last.

We'll almost certainly see more Big Ten juniors put their names in the NFL mix before the Jan. 15 draft deadline.

Which teams should be on alert? I can think of three -- Penn State, Iowa and Ohio State -- though other squads could be impacted as well. Wisconsin's John Clay reiterated to me Tuesday that he'll be back in 2010, so cross him off your list.

Here's a look at the teams and some of the juniors with big decisions to make.


CB Donovan Warren: The first-team All-Big Ten selection has said he's "heavily" leaning toward turning pro. Warren could end up as a first- or second-round selection, and is projected as the nation's No. 2 junior cornerback by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr.


CB Amari Spievey: Spievey certainly has a decision to make after another solid season for the Hawkeyes. Kiper ranks him as the nation's No. 4 junior cornerback. Don't be surprised if Spievey bolts.

LT Bryan Bulaga: Bulaga certainly was on the draft radar entering the fall, and despite some ups and downs this season, he continues to receive tremendous accolades. Bulaga has been named to multiple All-America teams and earned Big Ten offensive lineman of the year honors. Kiper ranks Bulaga as the nation's No. 2 junior tackle prospect.

[+] EnlargeNavorro Bowman
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNavorro Bowman could be a first-round draft pick if he leaves school early.
DE Adrian Clayborn: Clayborn seems to be the least likely to leave Iowa, though he certainly turned heads with his play this season. He was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection. Clayborn doesn't appear on Kiper's list of top 5 junior defensive ends.


DE/DT Cameron Heyward: Head coach Jim Tressel said Monday that he asked the NFL Draft Advisory Board to evaluate about 10 players. Heyward certainly is at the top of the list after dominating the line of scrimmage against Penn State and USC. A source close to the program tells me Heyward is leaning toward staying for 2010.

DE Thaddeus Gibson: Gibson generated less buzz than Heyward this fall, but the same source tells me it's much more likely he declares for the draft than Heyward. Gibson earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after recording 11 tackles for loss, four sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception.

LG Justin Boren: You can bet Boren's name appeared on Tressel's list. He was Ohio State's best lineman this fall and arguably the best lineman in the league. Kiper ranks Boren as the nation's No. 2 junior guard, and a good draft analysis could push him out the door. I bet he stays, though.

CB Chimdi Chekwa: Chekwa quietly turned in a very nice season and has a decision to make before Jan. 15. He said he's "leaning toward coming back" to Ohio State but hasn't made up his mind.


LB Navorro Bowman: Bowman has been simply dominant since claiming a starting role in September 2008, and I'd be stunned if he's back in State College next fall. The two-time All-Big Ten selection ranks as the nation's No. 1 junior outside linebacker, according to Kiper. There's a great chance Bowman goes in the first round if he comes out.

RB Evan Royster: When I spoke with Royster this spring, I got the sense he wanted to come out after the season. And while his numbers this fall have been good, not great, there's still a chance the first-team All-Big Ten selection bolts. Reports out of Pennsylvania suggest as much.

C Stefen Wisniewski: I'd be surprised if Wisniewski leaves Penn State early, given his dedication to academics and his family's legacy at the school. But the consensus first-team All-Big Ten center certainly is on the draft radar. Kiper ranks him as the nation's No. 3 junior center.


LB Greg Jones: This will be a very interesting situation. Jones has been dominant at Michigan State for three years, winning Big Ten co-defensive player of the year honors this fall. But his size (6-foot-1, 228) could be a concern for NFL teams. The All-American ranks third on Kiper's list of top junior inside linebackers.

There certainly could be some surprise departures along the way -- I was pretty shocked when Wisconsin's P.J. Hill bolted last year -- but this is a good starting point.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

John Clay's body is both a blessing and a curse.

Not many college running backs look like Clay. Not many 6-foot-1, 248-pound men boast the combination of speed, agility and power that he has. Clay is an impressive specimen. But he's also just a kid.
 Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
 John Clay has rushed for 326 yards in the Badgers' last two games.

"When you met John Clay when he was a sophomore in high school," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said, "he looked like he should be a sophomore in college."

Clay is now a sophomore in college, but he has a hard time convincing people of that fact. He has a grown man's body, and the grown man's expectations that come with it.

"You look at him, you see this big man, and you kind of forget he’s only 20 and still a young guy, so to speak," Badgers running backs coach John Settle said. "You forget he hasn’t been here four years, and there’s some development that needs to take place. Some guys mature and grow faster than others. He was just a guy I felt like needed to come in and have some success early.

"Right now, he's playing with a lot of confidence."

Clay is starting to complement his physical gifts with greater maturity, and the Badgers are benefiting. Big time. The sophomore has combined for 326 rush yards and four touchdowns in his last two games, recording 32 carries in both contests.

He earned Big Ten offensive player of the week honors after exploding for 184 yards and three scores last Saturday at Minnesota. More impressive was the fact that 159 yards came in the second half, as he pounded away at the Gophers' defense.

"I used to focus on running away from people instead of just punishing them," said Clay, who leads the Big Ten and ranks fourth nationally in rushing yards with 584. "But now I’m doing it vice versa, trying to punish them and wear them down and then use my speed to get away."

Clay's emergence comes at the perfect time for Wisconsin, which puts its perfect record on the line Saturday against No. 9 Ohio State in Columbus (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

(Read full post)

Badgers' Clay to start Saturday

September, 14, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
John Clay is starting for the Badgers after a strong showing Saturday.

It took only two games, but Wisconsin running back John Clay is back where most thought he would be entering the season.

At the top of the depth chart.

Clay will make his first collegiate start Saturday against FCS Wofford after exploding for 143 yards on 21 carries, including a 72-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter. The talented sophomore was pegged to take over the starting role after P.J. Hill left early for the NFL draft, but junior Zach Brown outplayed him in camp and won the job outright.

Brown started Wisconsin's first two games and will remain a big part of the game plan.

"Not that anything is disappointing with Zach," head coach Bret Bielema said Monday. "We just felt John, with the momentum he gave us. ... The part I shared with John was: ‘Hey, you got energized. The offense got energized. Our defense went out and played with great energy. Camp Randall went nuts.'"

Clay can be a superstar in this league and Wisconsin fans know it, but he has to perform consistently. After some ups and downs in camp, he has the chance to shine.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin continues to fight the flu bug that swept through the team last week. Several players missed the Fresno State game, and starting cornerback Aaron Henry vomited several times before being pulled off the field.

Bielema said Monday that more than 40 players were sick throughout last week. The worst appears to be over, but two new cases emerged on Sunday.

"You're never going to be totally through this," Bielema said. "Guys that haven't had it, even guys that have had it could get another strain at some point and you've just got to give them plenty of rest at that time. Hopefully, the worst is behind us."
Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

If you picked Scott Tolzien and Zach Brown to form Wisconsin's starting offensive backfield before training camp, hop on the first flight to Las Vegas.

Wisconsin will reveal its depth chart for the season opener at some point this morning, but Tolzien and Brown are expected to occupy the top spots at quarterback and running back, respectively. It's an unlikely pairing, to say the least, and further proves that nothing is guaranteed in preseason camp and strong performances are rewarded.

Both Tolzien and Brown looked like long shots for the starting jobs after the spring.

The quarterback race appeared to be between senior Dustin Sherer, who started the final seven games last fall, and versatile redshirt freshman Curt Phillips. After talking with offensive coordinator Paul Chryst last month, I wasn't surprised to see Phillips leapfrog Sherer in the pecking order. Last week, Wisconsin gave Phillips more reps with the first-team offense. Right around the same time, Tolzien started to make a push. While Phillips continued to struggle with his consistency, throwing four interceptions in Saturday's scrimmage, Tolzien continued his steady play.

Head coach Bret Bielema says he'll likely use multiple quarterbacks in the Sept. 5 opener against Northern Illinois, but Tolzien could walk out there first. Chryst obviously wanted to see more clarity in this year's QB race than last year's, when he "felt it was [won] a little bit by default." With all the shuffling, I'm not sure Wisconsin achieved separation, but Bielema sounded pleased with his quarterbacks following Wednesday's scrimmage.
"It's not like we've got a situation where we don't know who we are putting in there," Bielema said. "We're trying to find the best fit. I'm comfortable with what helps us win. Asked last spring if I'd ever play a two-headed monster at quarterback I said no. That pretty much would be my preference.

"But when you have [multiple] players playing well -- and I'm not saying we're at that point -- but if that is what it is, then that's what it is and you move forward."Brown might have pulled the bigger upset in supplanting John Clay for the top running back job. Though Brown certainly had some solid credentials, Clay finished as the Big Ten's seventh leading rusher last fall and was pegged as the obvious heir apparent to P.J. Hill. Clay's size, ferocious running style and local roots make him a fan favorite, but Brown simply outplayed him this month.

I can't say I saw this coming, but it certainly adds intrigue to the start of a critical season for Wisconsin.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The position rankings switch over to offense. Before examining the all-important quarterback position, which should be better in the Big Ten this fall, here's a look at the running backs.

The Big Ten was absolutely loaded at running back last fall, boasting two of the three finalists for the Doak Walker Award (Shonn Greene and Javon Ringer) and three of the nation's top six rushers. Five of the league's top six rushers depart, and several teams need to find new lead ballcarriers.

I really like the top four groups, and other teams should answer some lingering questions early this season.

  AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
  Evan Royster scored 12 TDs on the ground last season.

1. Penn State -- Evan Royster flew somewhat under the radar last year but turned in a fabulous sophomore season, racking up 1,236 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on just 191 carries. Royster wants a more featured role this fall and might get one, though Penn State has the luxury of spreading out the carries. Stephfon Green should have a better sophomore season as long as his ankle holds up, and sophomores Brent Carter and Brandon Beachum provide depth.

2. Wisconsin -- Despite losing the underappreciated P.J. Hill, Wisconsin once again is stacked in the offensive backfield. John Clay can become a superstar in this league as long as he maintains a decent weight, and Zach Brown might be the league's top backup. The Badgers are also excited about incoming freshman Montee Ball, a very productive high school back. Clay ranked seventh in the league in rushing last fall despite playing behind Hill.

3. Michigan -- This is without a doubt Michigan's strongest unit and one that must perform consistently for the offense to succeed. Senior Brandon Minor looks primed for an All-Big Ten season after a strong finish to 2008, a season during which he played through several injuries. Senior Carlos Brown and sophomore Michael Shaw are also healthy, and freshman Vincent Smith turned heads during spring ball with his quickness.

4. Ohio State -- Replacing Chris "Beanie" Wells isn't easy, but Wells' injury problems created opportunities for his successors to see the field in 2008. Dan Herron and Brandon Saine both performed well in spring ball and will share the carries load, with Herron expected to be the starter. Depth is a bit of concern behind the top two, though heralded incoming freshman Jaamal Berry appears to have avoided major punishment for his marijuana possession arrest and should be a factor this fall.

5. Illinois -- The team that led the Big Ten in rushing in 2006 and 2007 will be back near the top this fall. Sophomores Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both improved physically during the offseason, and head coach Ron Zook isn't counting out senior Daniel Dufrene, who endured some problems last year. New offensive coordinator Mike Schultz has an excellent track record of developing standout backs.

6. Iowa -- I'm a little hesitant to put the Hawkeyes this high without knowing that Jewel Hampton will be good to go Sept. 5 after sustaining a knee injury this summer. Hampton performed well behind Greene last fall and needs to be on the field for Iowa. Reserves Jeff Brinson and Paki O'Meara provide depth, and Iowa's offensive line should be able to create running room for just about anybody.

7. Purdue -- Spring practice certainly lifted my hopes for this unit, as sophomore Ralph Bolden sizzled alongside Dan Dierking. Purdue also gets veteran Jaycen Taylor back and heralded freshman Al-Terek McBurse on the field, and new head coach Danny Hope wisely wants to emphasize the run game in a slightly tweaked offense. A few ifs remain with this group, which needs Bolden to perform in games and Taylor to get healthy, but I like what I see.

8. Michigan State -- The Spartans could climb the rankings this fall, but they have too many unknowns at running back entering camp. No Big Ten offense relied on one player as much as Michigan State did with Ringer last fall, and none of the reserves has really stepped up to claim the starting job. Ashton Leggett or Caulton Ray could emerge during camp, but most believe heralded incoming freshmen Edwin Baker and Larry Caper will emerge as the top backs.

9. Indiana -- The Hoosiers installed the pistol offense primarily to get more out of their run game, which wasn't half bad last season. Marcus Thigpen will be missed, but the offensive line should be healthier and better in 2009. Veterans Bryan Payton and Demetrius McCray get their chance to shine, but most eyes will be on redshirt freshman Darius Willis, a heralded recruit who showed good signs this spring.

10. Minnesota -- Tim Brewster wants to make Minnesota a running back's haven again, and he made several moves to transform the offense, including hiring coordinator Jedd Fisch and line coach Tim Davis. I like Brewster's plan, but it might be a little ambitious to expect major results this season. Duane Bennett's return from a torn ACL should boost Minnesota, and the Gophers boast good depth with DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley, who performed well in the spring game.

11. Northwestern -- History favors the Wildcats, who have churned out excellent backs throughout the spread offense era (2000-present). But Northwestern returns virtually no experience at the position after losing four-year starter Tyrell Sutton and backup Omar Conteh. Junior Stephen Simmons boasts top-end speed and I liked what I saw from Jeravin Matthews this spring, but the Wildcats' backs have a lot to prove this fall.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Biggest reason for hope -- John Clay and the run game

Wisconsin can always fall back on its offensive line and power run game, and the 2009 season should be no different. P.J. Hill's early departure to the NFL clears the way for Clay, who was very impressive in spurts last season as a backup. Clay finished seventh in the league in rushing (68 ypg) and had a sparking 5.7 yards-per-carry average as a redshirt freshman. If he can maintain a decent weight (235-240 pounds) and avoid further ankle problems, he should have a breakout season this fall. Wisconsin loses a few key pieces up front, but always seems to reload on the O-line.

Biggest reason for concern -- Holes on defense

Most would list the quarterback position as Wisconsin's biggest concern, but the passing game shouldn't be as big of a problem this fall with improved play from the wide receivers. The defense, meanwhile, loses its top two linebackers (DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas), its top pass defender (corner Allen Langford) and three multiyear starters on the line (Matt Shaughnessy, Mike Newkirk, Jason Chapman). It could signal problems for a unit that struggled in the red zone and in the fourth quarter of games in 2008. Wisconsin should be pretty solid up front this fall, but there are questions elsewhere.

Recapping the hope and concern series:

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

After a brief break, the rundown of the Big Ten's top 30 players continues with ...

No. 16

John Clay, RB, Wisconsin, So., 6-2, 247


Why he's here -- Nothing against P.J. Hill, who turned in a solid career at Wisconsin, but it was hard not to focus on Clay last fall. There simply aren't many young college running backs who look like him. Blessed with excellent size and a ferocious running style, Clay shows all the signs of being an elite running back in the Big Ten.

He averaged 5.7 yards a carry and rushed for 884 yards and nine touchdowns as Hill's backup in 2008. With Hill leaving early for the NFL, Clay moves into a featured role in an offense built around the run game. He should have a better grasp of his assignments on offense after going through a full season.

Weight remains a concern for Clay, who got too big at times last fall and would be most effective between 235-240 pounds. If he can trim down a bit and limit the pressure on his ankles, Clay could push Penn State's Evan Royster in the race to be the league's top back.

The Rundown

  • No. 16 -- John Clay, RB, Wisconsin
  • No. 17 -- Garrett Graham, TE, Wisconsin
  • No. 18 -- Adam Weber, QB, Minnesota
  • No. 19 -- Jammie Kirlew, DE, Indiana
  • No. 20 -- Pat Angerer, LB, Iowa
  • No. 21 -- Brad Phillips, S, Northwestern
  • No. 22 -- Brandon Minor, RB, Michigan
  • No. 23 -- Ricky Stanzi, QB, Iowa
  • No. 24 -- Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
  • No. 25 -- Traye Simmons, CB, Minnesota
  • No. 26 -- Thaddeus Gibson, DE, Ohio State
  • No. 27 -- Stefen Wisniewski, C, Penn State
  • No. 28 -- Matt Mayberry, LB, Indiana
  • No. 29 -- Martez Wilson, LB, Illinois
  • No. 30 -- Trevor Anderson, DE, Michigan State

Wisconsin spring wrap

May, 6, 2009

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Wisconsin Badgers
2008 overall record: 7-6

2008 conference record: 3-5

Returning starters

Offense: 6; Defense: 5; Special teams: 2

Top returners

QB Dustin Sherer, RB John Clay, LT Gabe Carimi, TE Garrett Graham, DE O'Brien Schofield, LB Jaevery McFadden, CB Aaron Henry, K Philip Welch

Key losses

RB P.J. Hill, G Kraig Urbik, G Andy Kemp, TE Travis Beckum, DE Matt Shaughnessy, DT Mike Newkirk, LB DeAndre Levy, LB Jonathan Casillas

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: P.J. Hill (1,161 yds)
: Dustin Sherer* (1,389 yds)
Receiving: Garrett Graham* (540 yds)
: Jaevery McFadden* (84)
: O'Brien Schofield* and DeAndre Levy (5)
: Niles Brinkley* (4)

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5 Northern Illinois
Sept. 12 Fresno State
Sept. 19 Wofford
Sept. 26 Michigan State
Oct. 3 at Minnesota
Oct. 10 at Ohio State
Oct. 17 Iowa
Oct. 24 BYE
Oct. 31 Purdue
Nov. 7 at Indiana
Nov. 14 Michigan
Nov. 21 at Northwestern
Nov. 28 BYE
Dec. 5 at Hawaii

Spring answers

1. Toon time -- After struggling at receiver in 2008, Wisconsin might have identified a top wideout this spring, and he has a familiar name. Sophomore Nick Toon, the son of former Wisconsin great and three-time All-Pro Al Toon, blossomed during spring ball. Toon brings both speed and size to the outside receiver spot. He had a game-high four receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.

2. Phillips emerges -- Wisconsin wanted to find another quarterback to challenge projected starter Dustin Sherer, and redshirt freshman Curt Phillips emerged late in spring ball. Phillips finished with a flourish, completing 10 of 16 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. The Tennessee native might not be a textbook passer, but he brings playmaking ability to the pocket.

3. High Wattage -- Opportunity abounds on the defensive line, which loses three multiyear starters, and end J.J. Watt seized it this spring. The Central Michigan transfer earned a starting spot opposite O'Brien Schofield and has the versatility to play both line positions after transforming his body during the last year. Watt's presence elevates expectations for the Badgers' pass rush.

Fall questions

1. Quarterback clarity -- The big dilemma in Madison is this: Will Wisconsin go with a more experienced player in Sherer and live with another one-and-done situation at quarterback, or will the coaches take a risk with Phillips? Sherer had a solid offseason and played well at points last season. He likely remains the team's best option, but Phillips could provide continuity for the future.

2. Secondary shuffle -- At least two starting defensive back positions and possibly three are unsettled entering the summer. Hard-hitting junior safety Jay Valai must fend off senior Aubrey Pleasant for a starting spot, while Niles Brinkley, last year's interceptions leader, is being pushed by sophomore Devin Smith. Senior Shane Carter is listed as a backup safety on the post-spring depth chart, but he could push Chris Maragos.

3. Clay's conditioning -- There's little doubt that sophomore John Clay possesses the skills to be a first-team All-Big Ten running back in 2009. But Clay has struggled with his weight, which exceeded 250 pounds late last season. He also has had recurrent ankle problems, so maintaining a healthy weight (235-240 pounds) will be vital through the summer and into preseason camp.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

The 2009 NFL draft was a fairly forgettable one for the Big Ten, which didn't have a top-10 pick for the first time since 2002 and had fewer first-round picks (4) than the SEC, ACC and Big 12. Michigan didn't have a player drafted until the fourth round (defensive tackle Terrance Taylor), while hoops powerhouse Connecticut already had four players drafted by that point.

The Big Ten had 28 players drafted overall and 15 in the first three rounds, the second-highest total for a league.

Here's the team-by-team breakdown of draft picks, which looks pretty good if you're an Ohio State fan.


Picks: 7


Picks: 5

  • Defensive end Aaron Maybin, Bills (1st round, No. 11)
  • Wide receiver Derrick Williams, Lions (3rd round, No. 82)
  • Wide receiver Deon Butler, Seahawks (3rd round, No. 91)
  • Guard Rich Ohrnberger, Patriots (4th round, No. 123)
  • Center A.Q. Shipley, Steelers (7th round, No. 226)


Picks: 4


Picks: 4

  • Defensive end Matt Shaughnessy, Raiders (3rd round, No. 71)
  • Linebacker DeAndre Levy, Rams (3rd round, No. 76)
  • Guard Kraig Urbik, Steelers (3rd round, No. 79)
  • Tight end Travis Beckum, Giants (3rd round, No. 100)


Picks: 3


Picks: 2


Picks: 2

  • Defensive tackle Terrance Taylor, Colts (4th round, No. 136)
  • Cornerback Morgan Trent, Bengals (6th round, No. 179)


Picks: 1

Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana did not have any players drafted this year.

Notable Big Ten players not drafted included: Iowa defensive tackle Mitch King, Ohio State offensive tackle Alex Boone, Michigan State quarterback Brian Hoyer, Penn State defensive end Maurice Evans, Purdue running back Kory Sheets, Northwestern running back Tyrell Sutton, Wisconsin running back P.J. Hill and Michigan State safety Otis Wiley.

A few final thoughts from the draft.

  • Wells entered the 2008 season as a sure-fire top-10 pick, but his injury history dropped his stock a bit. He still ended up in a pretty good spot and should have an excellent pro career if he stays healthy.
  • The draft reiterated how bad the Big Ten is at the quarterback spot, with only one signal-caller selected (Painter).
  • The Giants will get a steal in Beckum if the former All-American stays healthy. I also liked Seattle's move to land Penn State's Butler, a reliable and quick target. The Bears could get a steal at linebacker with Freeman, who would have been the top defender on most college teams.
  • It will be fascinating to see how Greene and Ringer perform in the pros after carrying their respective college teams last fall.
  • I was shocked not to see Iowa's King get drafted. He might not fit the NFL "measurables," but he creates havoc in the middle of the defensive line and might have been the Big Ten's defensive MVP last fall.
  • As I wrote in November, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald and Michigan State's Mark Dantonio deserved Big Ten Coach of the Year honors more than Joe Paterno. Fitzgerald guided Northwestern to a 9-4 mark without a single NFL draftee on his roster, while Dantonio posted the same record with only one draftee (Ringer).

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Wisconsin put a bow on spring ball Saturday with its annual spring game at Camp Randall Stadium. Not surprisingly, the Cardinal team, made up of the starting offense and starting defense, beat the second stringers from the White team 56-20.

Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst wanted to narrow the team's quarterback competition from four players to two by the end of spring ball, and he might have gotten his wish. Redshirt freshman Curt Phillips made a strong push last week and performed well in the spring game, leading the offense to touchdowns on four of six possessions.

Phillips completed 10 of 16 pass attempts for 122 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for a score.

"He's a lot further along right now," head coach Bret Bielema told reporters. "In one of our early practices I said how is this year different than last year. And he said, 'Coach I was saying words in the huddle I didn't even know what they meant.' So he is just that much further along understanding what we are doing offensively."

The starting quarterback spot likely will come down to Phillips, junior Scott Tolzien and frontrunner Dustin Sherer, who led two touchdown drives but also threw an interception in the spring game.

Other notes from Wisconsin's spring game:

  • Despite P.J. Hill's early departure to the NFL, the Badgers should once again have one of the Big Ten's deepest rushing attacks. In addition to powerful sophomore John Clay, junior Zach Brown stood out with 110 rush yards and a touchdown on only 14 carries. Redshirt freshman Erik Smith turned in a strong spring and gives the Badgers a little different look. Smith had 66 rush yards on eight carries in the spring game.
  • Nick Toon might have established himself as the team's No. 1 wide receiver this spring. Toon finished a stellar spring with four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. Wisconsin's tight ends also will continue to play a major role in the passing game, as both Garrett Graham and Lance Kendricks are viable pass-catching options.
  • Defensive end O'Brien Schofield had to play with the second-team defense after showing up two minutes late to a meeting Friday. Accountability is a much larger theme for Wisconsin this spring, and Schofield responded with two sacks against the first-team offensive line in the spring game.
  • Bielema awarded scholarships to safety Chris Maragos and defensive end J.J. Watt, both of whom transferred to Wisconsin from MAC schools (Western Michigan and Central Michigan). Maragos started several games last fall and will be in the mix at safety, while Watt has established himself as a starter at end opposite Schofield.
  • After a hot start to the spring, freshman quarterback Jon Budmayr slowed down a bit. Budmayr went 0-for-5 with an interception in the spring game and could be heading for a redshirt season.
  • Safety Jay Valai, a projected starter, sat out the spring game as he continues to recover from sports hernia surgery.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin went through a full-pads practice Thursday afternoon at the McClain Center, and I was there for almost the entire workout (had to step out to interview Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman, and a friend called informing me the Bears had traded for Jay Cutler, woo hoo!).

All four candidates for the Badgers' starting quarterback spot got plenty of work, as did an improved wide receiver corps led by Kyle Jefferson and Nick Toon, the son of former NFL star and Badgers great Al Toon. The younger Toon has been one of Wisconsin's spring standouts, and he didn't disappoint today, hauling in several receptions. He also nearly made a circus catch, only to cough up the ball to safety Aubrey Pleasant for a turnover.

"It's growing pains," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "Nick has a big-time play and then puts the ball on the ground. Is that a good thing? Yeah, he got there, made it, got big, but bad that he didn't finish. So shoot, that's spring ball."

Here are some other observations from the Badgers' workout:

  • Everyone wants to hear about the quarterbacks, so here goes. All four are receiving about equal reps, but I'd give a slight edge to fifth-year senior Dustin Sherer, who looks more comfortable with his throws and moving in the pocket. Sherer has shortened his throwing motion and found Toon for several completions. He also threaded the needle to tight end Garrett Graham midway through team drills.
  • From talking with several Wisconsin beat writers, Scott Tolzien had arguably his best practice of the spring, hitting several different receivers, including David Gilreath on a deep ball. Tolzien also found Toon for a leaping grab toward the end of practice.
  • Curt Phillips, who wore No. 19 instead of his usual No. 10 because his jersey was reportedly "too tight," has an unorthodox throwing motion but gets the job done most of the time. He seems to shot-put the ball, but he connected on several nice throws, including a deep fade route to Isaac Anderson. Phillips also is clearly the most athletic of the four candidates, and his scrambling ability should help his cause.
  • Freshman Jon Budmayr didn't have his best practice, from what I was told, but he still showed why people are buzzing about him this spring. Budmayr isn't very big -- generously listed at 6-foot-1 -- but he's got a very live arm. Not surprisingly, the Illinois native is a Rex Grossman fan but seemed excited about the Bears acquiring Cutler. Budmayr might not win the starting job this year, but he'll be on the field soon. There were some growing pains for Budmayr, including an interception to linebacker Tony Megna.
  • Chryst and head coach Bret Bielema want to narrow the quarterback pool to two by the end of the spring. I'd be stunned if Sherer isn't one of them, but the other spot is unclear.
  • The Badgers wide receivers are much, much better, which isn't saying much after last year. They caught the first six passes during team drills, an excellent sign after been plagued by drops in 2008. Toon and Jefferson look like the top two wideouts, though Anderson and Gilreath also had their moments. The wideouts caught several deep balls and more important, the intermediate routes over the middle. Tight end Graham looked to be in All-Big Ten form Thursday, but this team needs the wideouts to step up.
  • The first-team defensive line consisted of senior O'Brien Schofield and Central Michigan transfer J.J. Watt at the ends and seniors Jeff Stehle and Dan Moore at tackles. Moore, a converted end, looks undersized at the tackle spot, but Wisconsin might need to go that route after losing three starters.
  • Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren came over to chat briefly during the water break. Doeren is working with a pretty green linebacker corps but likes the development of junior Culmer St. Jean. He seemed most excited about Watt, whom he called "a beast" and a future star along the defensive line.
  • Why is weight always an issue with Wisconsin running backs? P.J. Hill isn't around any longer, but John Clay will need to manage his size as the season nears. Clay apparently eclipsed 250 pounds last season and is listed this spring at 247 pounds but looks bigger. The sophomore can be one of the best running backs in the Big Ten next fall, but he'll be at his best closer to 235-240 pounds.
  • Former Badgers coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez stopped by the practice for a few minutes to chat with Bielema. Alvarez showed off his speed as Toon nearly took him out after catching an out route near the sideline.
  • Hard-hitting safety Jay Valai, who underwent sports hernia surgery during the offseason, was held out of most contact drills. You can see it's killing him not being able to crush somebody.
  • Defensive end Louis Nzegwu was on crutches Thursday after tearing his MCL at the end of Tuesday's workout. Bielema said Nzegwu, who had been coming along nicely this spring, will miss 6-8 weeks.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

For better or for worse, Bret Bielema became a college football coach last season. He faced his first real bout with adversity and criticism, guided Wisconsin back to a bowl game and finished on a sour note against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.

  David Stluka/Getty Images
  Things didn't go as planned for Bret Bielema and the Badgers in 2008.

After a charmed 17-1 start at Wisconsin, Bielema has gone just 11-10 since and comes off a very disappointing campaign last fall. He has earned his own fire-me Web site, a rite of passage for coaches these days, and needs to show progress in Year 4. The 39-year-old made several key offseason changes in hopes of getting Wisconsin back on track.

I caught up with Bielema while the coach was driving back from a brief vacation in Wisconsin Dells. Here are his thoughts on 2008, his outlook for spring ball and the 2009 season.

Is this an exciting time for you, especially after the way things ended last fall?

Bret Bielema: It is. You keep saying to yourself all the time during the fall that you always have next week, you get another game to go out and prove, another opportunity. But when you end the bowl game in a way that doesn't sit well with you, as coaches you can't wait to get back out in spring ball. I really have enjoyed the players. I sat down with all of them, 98 guys went through my office. There have been some changes in the weight room and the strength and conditioning department, and those guys are all very eager to see the rewards.

Ever since I've been here, we've always had spring ball before and after spring break. But as I've witnessed as a coach, you get your biggest gains during the summer. So we tried to create two summers. When we got back from winter break, we gave our guys a seven-week window, just like we do during the summer. We started off with very little running. We emphasized more on strength and speed and size. And that period took us up all the way until last Friday.

And did you make those changes because the strength and speed last year wasn't up to your standards?

BB: More than anything, after the season we took a look at where we were. All the guys in my staff room have worked in all different parts of the country, and they all had a preconceived notion about Wisconsin before they came here and started working. I said, 'What is it? What made Wisconsin tick?' And they always said, 'Physical, tough, a mental toughness, do things right, do things harder than the other guy.' We just want to get back to those core basics of Wisconsin football.

Did you guys get away from some of those fundamental values last year, and can you pinpoint why?

BB: It wasn't so much getting away from the fundamentals. The things that were getting us, any time we had a penalty before the snap, offense or defense, it wouldn't put ourselves in a positive light. We've always prided ourselves at Wisconsin on doing things right consistently, and a lot of that gets down to self discipline and mental toughness. That's really what we tried to emphasize during these winter conditioning months.

(Read full post)

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Former Wisconsin running back P.J. Hill was arrested during the weekend on a drunken driving charge after allegedly leading police on a chase before crashing his car in Madison, Wis.

Hill, who decided to forgo his senior season at Wisconsin to enter the NFL draft, faces tentative charges of drunken driving, fleeing police, second-degree reckless endangerment, driving without headlights and reckless driving. He spent two nights in jail after his arrest early Saturday and will formally be charged in the next few weeks.

Hill, ranked No. 3 on Wisconsin's all-time rushing list, surprised some by not running the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine. This latest arrest can't help his already shaky draft stock.

"Hill also has charges pending against him in Scottsdale, Ariz., including drunken driving, unreasonable speed and making unsafe lane changes, Arizona court records indicate. He is due back in court in Arizona on Thursday.

Hill said earlier this month that he had been training in Arizona to improve his draft prospects."

Meanwhile, the Big Ten might want to send out a memo to its future NFL draft hopefuls after both Hill and former Ohio State tackle Alex Boone were arrested during the highly scrutinized pre-draft period.