Big Ten: Zach Azzanni

The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's latest feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: Tennessee having tremendous success in the junior college ranks is a good thing for the Volunteers, Michigan's attempt to crack Ohio State’s Glenville pipeline, and why Florida State landing a player in Maryland is bad news for the rest of the ACC.

Tennessee rebuilds with juco players

At his introductory news conference a week ago, new Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen described the team's offensive coordinator post as a great job, not merely a good one.

"They'll line up a thousand deep if you want them to," Andersen said.

Andersen likely didn't interview 1,000 candidates for the post. Instead, he will reportedly turn to a familiar name in Andy Ludwig, who served as San Diego State's offensive coordinator the past two seasons.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported that Wisconsin is set to hire Ludwig as its new offensive coordinator. Because of hiring rules for state employees, Ludwig won't be officially on board until the job posting expires. He attended Wisconsin's pre-Rose Bowl practice Friday in Los Angeles.

Andersen and Ludwig served as Utah's coordinators -- Andersen defense, Ludwig offense -- from 2005-08, helping the Utes to a 13-0 season and a Sugar Bowl championship in 2008. While Andersen moved onto the top job at Utah State, Ludwig went to Cal, where he struggled as offensive coordinator for two seasons before taking the same post at San Diego State.

Ludwig has bounced around quite a bit, serving as offensive coordinator at San Diego State (2011-12), California (2009-10), Utah (2005-08), Oregon (2002-04) and Fresno State (1998-2001). He initially went to Kansas State after Utah but was hired away by Cal before coaching a game.

The guy is clearly in demand as an offensive mind and runs a pro-style system, but he hasn't led a top-25 offense since the 2005 season (Utah finished 12th nationally). His San Diego State offense ranks 38th nationally in scoring (32.9 points per game) and 64th in total offense (396.6 yards per game) this season. As someone who follows Cal football somewhat closely from a distance, I wasn't overly impressed by Ludwig, but he definitely brings experience to the position and inherits a talented group in Madison.

Andersen wisely is retaining running backs coach Thomas Hammock, and it would be a smart move if he kept offensive line coach Bart Miller as well. Wisconsin has lost three offensive assistants in recent weeks: coordinator Matt Canada (NC State), tight ends/fullbacks coach Eddie Faulker (NC State) and receivers coach Zach Azzanni (Tennessee).
Wisconsin athletic director/interim football coach Barry Alvarez met with local reporters Sunday after practice and discussed his search for a new head coach.

Alvarez said he has one more coaching candidate to meet with before deciding "on the best person." He reportedly has met with two candidates -- Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and recently named South Florida coach Willie Taggart. Tucker said early last week that he's not interested in the position, although his name keeps coming up. It seems unlikely Taggart would make another move after accepting the USF job on Dec. 7.

[+] EnlargeBarry Alvarez
AP Photo/Morry Gash"For those that are panicking, don't panic. We'll take care of business here and this program will be in excellent hands," AD Barry Alvarez said.
Would Alvarez consider returning to the sideline on a permanent basis? He said Sunday that he thought about the possibility for "like a day" last week, noting that he felt badly for some of the assistant coaches he wants retain but who received offers elsewhere and tight deadlines to decide their futures.

"I was thinking of doing it myself just to keep them," he said. "But if I did it for a year we'd be in the same situation next year."

(Alvarez could coach for a year and name a coach-in-waiting to stabilize recruiting. Say, former assistant and ace recruiter Joe Rudolph? Just sayin' ...)

Alvarez acknowledged that several potential candidates on his short list already had been hired by other programs, while other coaches he had interest in are remaining loyal to their respective programs. Although he didn't mention any names, potential targets like Pitt's Paul Chryst, Miami's Al Golden and Oregon State's Mike Riley all are staying put.

Although angst is building among Wisconsin fans the longer the program is without a head coach, Alvarez doesn't sound worried. He noted that university policies prevent him from hiring anyone until later this week (Thursday specifically). He also pointed out that it's a dead period in recruiting at the moment and that Wisconsin's verbal commits for 2013 appear to be on board.

"We're spoiled here because we were probably one of the most stable programs in the country with me being here 16 years and elevating an assistant [Bret Bielema] for seven years," he said. "This happens around the country. I'll hire a good coach. This program will continue being very good. For those that are panicking, don't panic. We'll take care of business here and this program will be in excellent hands."

Alvarez expressed some frustration at the quick deadlines given to assistant coaches for other jobs. Wisconsin has lost five assistants from Bielema's staff -- defensive coordinator Chris Ash, co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, offensive coordinator Matt Canada, wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni and linebackers coach Andy Buh. Both Ash and Partridge joined Bielema's new staff at Arkansas, and Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock reportedly also has an offer from Bielema.

All the assistants will remain with the team through the Rose Bowl, and there's some talk Ash could be in the mix for Wisconsin's top job.

"I'd like for them to stay, but they had to protect their families," Alvarez said. "A coach says you’ve got 24 hours to make this decision or the job isn't there, they have to do something. I couldn't promise them that the next coach would retain them. ... I couldn't have sped the process up. I have to get to the people that I want to talk to. I just have to do it right. I feel bad for losing some very, very good coaches."

Alvarez didn't rule out the possibility of Wisconsin trying to bring back some of the assistants it will lose after the head coach is named.

Several of the departing assistants also spoke Sunday, including Canada, who sounded particularly peeved at how things have played out.

"There is some frustration with the way all this went down," Canada told reporters. "... I came here with the intention of being here for a long, long time. That's what we came here for. That was the plan. Sometimes plans change and you have to trust that and move forward."
Wisconsin's coaching staff will have a dramatically different look for the second consecutive year. Depending on the next head coach, it could have a completely different look.

There are more staff departures to report as co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Charlie Partridge rejoined former boss Bret Bielema at Arkansas. Partridge spent the past five seasons in Madison, mentored stars such as J.J. Watt and spearheaded Wisconsin's recruiting efforts in Florida. He's a significant loss but not a surprising one as the Badgers have yet to name a head coach.

Linebackers coach Andy Buh is leaving to become Cal's defensive coordinator. And the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Badgers running backs coach Thomas Hammock is weighing an offer to join Bielema at Arkansas. Hammock would join former Bielema aides Partridge and defensive coordinator Chris Ash. Buh also had an offer from Bielema, according to the Journal Sentinel.

Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni has accepted the same job at Tennessee, reuniting with former boss Butch Jones. Both Azzanni and Buh are in their first seasons at Wisconsin.

Here's the list of Wisconsin assistants who have accepted other jobs:

Defensive coordinator Chris Ash -- Arkansas
Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks Matt Canada -- NC State
Co-defensive coordinator/defensive line Charlie Partridge -- Arkansas
Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni -- Tennessee
Linebackers coach Andy Buh -- Cal

That leaves Hammock, tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner, offensive line coach Bart Miller and secondary coach Ben Strickland.
Wisconsin's search for a head coach remains somewhat mysterious at the end of its second week, but there is some news about the school's assistant coaches.

Defensive coordinator Chris Ash recently accepted the same position on Bret Bielema's staff at Arkansas, but reports surfaced Friday that Ash is considering applying for Wisconsin's head-coaching vacancy. Although athletic director/interim coach Barry Alvarez said he planned to target sitting head coaches for the job, he didn't rule out qualified coordinators. Ash has done a nice job in his three seasons on Wisconsin's staff, the past two as defensive coordinator.

Wisconsin reportedly will lose wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni to Tennessee, where he'll rejoin former boss Butch Jones with the Vols.

Two other top Badgers aides, offensive coordinator Matt Canada and co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, are reportedly weighing offers from other programs. Both men appear to want to wait for Wisconsin's head coach search to play out before making their decisions.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel also reports that Wisconsin linebackers coach Andy Buh has interviewed for the defensive coordinator job at Cal.

It's not surprising that the assistants have other offers, and it's likely others will leave. But it's also notable that several assistants want to wait on the Wisconsin search, indicating their desire to stay.

Coaches like Miami's Al Golden and Oregon State's Mike Riley aren't candidates for Wisconsin's vacancy, and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said he spoke with Alvarez but isn't interested in the job. Is Toledo's Matt Campbell a candidate? We could find out after Toledo's bowl game today.

One possibility I wouldn't dismiss is Alvarez naming himself coach for a year and bringing in a coach-in-waiting, which could help stabilize recruiting. It's probably not the first option, but I've heard all week that this isn't out of the question.

Big Ten lunchtime links

August, 22, 2012
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T-minus eight days ...
Four Big Ten teams had massive coaching staff overhauls during the offseason. Three lost their head coaches. One won the Big Ten championship.

Wisconsin finds itself in an odd spot, having to replace six assistant coaches despite back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances. Head coach Bret Bielema is firmly entrenched in Mad City, but his program faces significant turnover on the staff as well as other new faces, such as that of new starting quarterback Danny O'Brien.

I write about the Badgers' approach to the transition game for today's Big Ten preview:
Why is Wisconsin so comfortable with all the new faces in the program? For starters, the Badgers don't have an identity crisis. They lost one of the nation's top playcallers in Chryst, but the offensive structure isn't changing. They lost one of the nation's top line coaches in Bostad, but they're still expected to have multiple linemen in the mix for national honors.

"The brand of football we play," Faulkner said, "is not going to change."

Wisconsin has had tremendous stability at the top -- two head coaches since 1990, both of whom are still with the program. Plenty of assistants have left, but the wins keep coming.

"Coaching's overrated at times," Azzanni said. "If you're saying it's all about coaching, then you're saying our players aren't very good. That's how I approach it with our wideouts. If your offensive coaching is so great and now there's new coaches and we're going to be awful, then that means you guys aren't very good either. It's about players. … Coach Bielema and Coach Alvarez have built a machine here.

"We just plug in the right people, the right fits and keep on the same path."
Check out the full story here.

Big Ten lunch links

May, 1, 2012
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Happy May Day.
Two springs ago, a walk-on wide receiver with a funny name began generating buzz at Wisconsin's practice.

Some who watched Jared Abbrederis quickly brought up the name Luke Swan, another Badgers walk-on receiver who eventually became a starter and a team captain. Two years later, the comparisons don't seem far off at all.

"That feels like it was a decade ago," Abbrederis recently told ESPN.com. "It's crazy how it works. I feel so much older, so much more confident on the field and with this team. Now I'm just trying to get better."

[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
AP Photo/Cal Sport MediaJared Abbrederis is now the Badgers' top receiver after starting his Wisconsin career as a walk-on.
He'll start by getting healthy as a toe injury has sidelined him for the start of spring drills. Abbrederis played through the injury for part of last season but will sit for a chunk of spring ball to fully heal.

When he does, he'll move into a new role as Wisconsin's No. 1 wide receiver. The Badgers must replace top wideout Nick Toon (64 catches, 926 yards, 10 touchdowns), and with a new, yet-to-be-named starting quarterback stepping in, they need a big year from Abbrederis, who led Wisconsin with 933 receiving yards and finished second in both receptions (55) and touchdown receptions (8).

While Abbrederis (pronounced ab-bruh-DAIR-is) already has far exceeded expectations for a former walk-on -- he received a scholarship in January -- Wisconsin will lean on the junior even more in 2012.

"I miss not being out there, attacking the defense and having fun, playing football," he said. "I'm excited to get back and be that No. 1 guy."

For now, he's helping Wisconsin's younger receivers and the walk-ons who dream of following his path. He's also getting acquainted with Wisconsin's revamped offensive staff, which features four new assistants, including coordinator Matt Canada and receivers coach Zach Azzanni.

Although the Badgers' offensive structure will remain more or less in place, Azzanni is bringing a different voice to the receiver room.

"He's really big on fundamentals," Abbrederis said. "In order to run a dig, we'll have three different steps into it. It's good to have some new advice coming because I’ve been around the other coaches for three, four years. Now if I get a new set of ideas in here, I can take my game to another level."

Abbrederis elevated his play in 2011, more than doubling his totals for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns from the previous season. Arguably no player benefited more from quarterback Russell Wilson's arrival than Abbrederis, an outside speed threat who thrived in Wisconsin's dynamic downfield passing game. The lone downside: Wilson's arrival from NC State prevented Abbrederis from getting a scholarship sooner.

Wilson is gone now, and while Abbrederis likes what he sees from Wisconsin's quarterbacks early in spring ball, there is plenty of uncertainty under center.

"People are going to grow up, younger guys are going to step up," he said. "That's what college football is all about."

Wisconsin's success is largely about players like Abbrederis, who had no FBS offers coming out of high school despite leading Wautoma High to a state title in football and twice winning state titles and setting the state record in the 110-meter hurdles. Wisconsin invited him to walk on at receiver but also play some quarterback on the scout team.

Three years later, he's the Big Ten's leading returning receiver entering the 2012 season. He also excels as a punt returner, leading the Big Ten and ranking third nationally in average runback (15.8 ypr).

Abbrederis played quarterback and defensive back at Wautoma, and the coaches didn't want to risk him as a return man. Wisconsin had no such reservations, and Abbrederis returned seven punts in 2010 before becoming the primary returner last fall.

"It was kind of like being a quarterback in the shotgun," he said. "You've got all these guys coming to you, and you've got to try and make them miss. Once you make one or two of them miss, you should have the whole field to go score. So it kind of comes natural."

Abbrederis should return to the field before the end of spring practice. He'll then take an important step off the field May 26, when he gets married. Abbrederis has received some marital tips from Wilson, who tied the knot in January. Badgers coach Bret Bielema, whose wedding took place earlier this month, might be another resource.

"We haven't talked about it yet," Abbrederis said. "I figure I'll leave him alone for a little bit. Maybe once I get married, I can take some advice."

Indeed, the spring of 2010 feels long ago. But Abbrederis is focused on the future, and helping Wisconsin maintain the momentum it has generated with back-to-back Big Ten titles.

"Growing up as a Wisconsin kid, you want to see the Badgers do well," he said. "It’s something that weighs heavily on me. I've got to make sure we keep this tradition going."

Abbrederis already has.
Wisconsin assistant Thomas Hammock interviewed for a job with the St. Louis Rams recently. But he ended up staying with the Badgers, and now Hammock has an added responsibility on Bret Bielema's staff.

The running backs coach will serve as Wisconsin's recruiting coordinator, according to a story by Mike Lucas on the school's website. Former assistant Joe Rudolph, who left to join Paul Chryst's staff at Pittsburgh, used to have that title. Bielema told the website that he was impressed with how Hammock performed on the recruiting trail in January, when the Badgers were a little shorthanded after several assistants left for other jobs.

Hammock, 30, is in his second year as a Badgers coach. He played at Northern Illinois, rushing for more than 1,000 yards in 2000. He also spent four seasons on Minnesota's staff.

Bielema also told the Badgers site that the program would explore some new recruiting areas based on the backgrounds of their new assistants. Linebackers coach Andy Buh will work in the St. Louis area and in Texas. New secondary coach Ben Strickland will handle in-state recruiting as well as Atlanta. Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni will have most of Ohio, offensive line coach Mike Markuson will have Minnesota and tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner will take Indiana, Michigan and Cleveland. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada will recruit around the Midwest and specifically handle all quarterbacks.
Wisconsin's offense has put up record-setting numbers in each of the past two seasons, surviving key personnel losses after the 2010 campaign, only to reload in 2011. The Badgers have ranked in the top 25 nationally in rushing in each of the past five seasons, replacing productive running backs and offensive linemen almost every year. The one constant throughout had been offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, but he's no longer in Madison after taking the head-coaching job at Pitt.

Bret Bielema selected Northern Illinois offensive coordinator Matt Canada to replace Chryst. Canada, one of six new Badgers assistants for the 2012 season, returns to the Big Ten after spending seven seasons at Indiana from 2004-10, the last four as IU's offensive coordinator. While he ran a spread offense at both Indiana and NIU, he'll direct a pro-style system in Madison that has become Wisconsin's identity. Canada's biggest priority: keep the momentum going.

ESPN.com recently caught up with Canada. Here are his thoughts:

[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Kelvin Kuo/US PRESSWIRERemember the big-game feel of this past Rose Bowl between Wisconsin and Oregon? That anticipation could diminish with a new playoff system set.
You expressed a lot of excitement about this job when you were hired. What has it been like being in Madison these last few weeks?

Matt Canada: I'm still real excited. It's a great place, and I continue to enjoy the opportunity that's been presented. I'm really excited about getting to know the players, and very, very happy with what great kids we have here in the program. Obviously, there's a reason for the success that's going on here. We've got great players, and [Bielema] has put together a really good staff. I'm excited about getting to know all the staff, focusing with the offense, obviously, and reconnecting with a couple guys I knew and getting to know a couple guys I don't. It's been a really, really good month.

What was your perception of Wisconsin from the outside, and how has that changed being on the inside?

MC: My perception is it's a very physical program. They're going to come in and run the football and stop the run. They do the things the right way. They're very, very sound. They don't beat themselves. And you come in and study the film, and it's exactly what I thought it was. I've played against them for a lot of years and been around the program as an opponent, so I've spent time studying it because it's a program you look at and want to emulate in why they are so successful. I don't think it's anything different [being there]. Things are even better than you thought they might be.

Bret wanted to bring in assistants from different backgrounds and different parts of the country. How many of the offensive assistants did you know and how many were you involved in bringing in?

MC: Well, I knew all but one, and the other one, I had a chance to be involved in the interviewing process. Thomas Hammock, obviously I coached when he was a running back at Northern Illinois. I was involved in recruiting Thomas and then coached him as a position coach for a couple of years, so I've known him a long, long time. Eddie Faulkner, who we hired, I worked with last year at Northern Illinois. Zach Azzanni, I've known through recruiting, so not as well, and then Mike Markuson, I was simply involved with [Bielema] on making that decision. I've known two really well, if you want to be specific.

You have a varied background, running some spread, running some pro-style. I know Bret wants to keep the pro-style in place. How do you blend your background with what Wisconsin has done and what it wants the identity to be?

MC: The identity won't change. There's no question what this place is about. Our job as coaches is putting our kids in positions to make plays and utilize the talent you've got. We certainly have talent on this team to continue to run what is considered a pro-style, downhill offense. We're going to continue to do that. Our recruiting base gives us a chance to recruit those types of players, so we're going to continue to be what Wisconsin has been. There's a reason I wanted to be here so bad. I certainly am well aware of what has gone on here. We're not going to come in here and change something that's not broke. Obviously, there's going to be nuances and little things. We all coach in our own way, we all have our own tendencies and things that we like, but the general rule is it's going to stay the same.

Is the Northern Illinois offense you coordinated in 2003 the most similar to what you want to do with Wisconsin now, rather than what you did at Indiana or NIU the second time?

MC: I would say so. We had a real special back [Michael Turner]. We had [Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle] Doug Free on the line. He was a young kid then. We had some pretty good linemen. We had some good tight ends, both went on to play in the league. So we had a real good program and real good players that year. It was such a special year. I feel good about what we've done in the sense that at certain times we used our talent as what it was. Obviously, we had a great runner in Michael and were able to utilize him. We go to Indiana and had some success with Kellen Lewis, who people considered a running type of quarterback. Ben Chappell was a drop-back guy. And you go to Northern and we rushed for 250 yards a game for the majority of the season in a different way. So we're going to maximize our talent. We've got a really good staff on offense, guys who are going to find ways to use what we've got, matchups and all the things that come along with it. We certainly understand how the system is going to work.

A lot of people on the outside see Wisconsin and these two record-setting seasons on offense. Now there's all this change with players and coaches. Is it a challenge to keep the momentum going with all the transition?

MC: It's all the way around. They won two Big Ten titles here, so obviously the challenge is to be great today and keep doing everything that's been done. But as a competitor, you have that regardless. I've been very, very fortunate, you look at the last two moves I had to make. I went to a program that won 11 games [in 2010] and we came in and found a way to do it again and go ahead and get the championship and win a bowl game and all those things we wanted to do. You compete against today. You compete against where you are and being great today. That's what we're going to do. We're certainly respectful of what we've done, but we're moving forward and looking ahead to the opportunities we've got and the great players we have that want to play. We have a bunch of great players still here. We're excited about that, and the guys who need to step up, they get a chance to show what they can do now.

Some of those guys are going to be at the quarterback position. Have you reviewed tape of those guys? What type of players are you inheriting?

MC: A little bit. I know some of them through things in the past. We've got a couple guys who have been nicked up, so it's a bit of a clean slate for those guys. We're certainly embracing everybody's concern. Look at what Russell [Wilson] was able to do when he came in here. What a great talent. When you watch the film, my goodness, he made some plays. He made some things happen when they weren't there. Certainly an unbelievable year for him, which led to the success. I told [the quarterbacks] the first day I met them that they play the greatest position in all of sports, and they get to do it at a great place with great players, great running backs and the whole deal. So I'm excited about it. We've got a good group of good kids that get along well, but obviously it's competition and we're excited about getting going with that.

You mentioned some guys are nicked up. How are Jon [Budmayr] and Curt [Phillips] from what you can tell?

MC: Everything is coming along well. This time of year, we're being very, very cautious in trying to get ourselves back, but everything is going well and they're working hard and feeling good about where they are.

You've been around some great running backs. Where does Montee Ball rank in that mix?

MC: I've certainly been fortunate to be around to be around [some good backs]. Thomas was a great, great player, and then Michael was a great player, and on and on. Montee, we're certainly excited he's here. I knew Montee through recruiting, and Montee was the first player I got to meet when I got here. It was over winter breaks, and most of the kids were gone, but he had been honored at the basketball game the night before and came up and said hello. Montee's just proven to be such a great kid, and everything he's seen and done is about the team and the program. He told me he was excited I was here. I certainly reassured him I was a lot more excited he's here. There's no doubt about that.

He's a great ambassador for what our program is about. Everything Coach B talks about in the quality of kids we have, everything he shows is what this place is about. It's going to be fun to watch him really explode into his senior year. I'm fired up to be part of that.

How much of spring practice is going to be the players getting to know you and the other new assistants?

MC: That happens all the way around. We're talking about coming into a place that has unbelievable success. They're going to get to know us, and the great part about it is this is what Wisconsin's about. It's a developmental program where guys are excited to work. They're excited to see how we're going to be, and we're excited to get to coach them. So it's a two-way street in getting to know each other. There's no confusion. We're trying to win a third Big Ten championship and take it from there, and let's go. Let's keep doing what they've been doing.

You're about a month away from spring ball. What will your main objectives be with the unit in the spring?

MC: Just get better every day. We feel we need to find a quarterback. That's one area everybody can talk about. But each day, I would be remiss in imagining I know exactly who we are. There's changes and we've got some guys nicked up, we're finding some guys to step in there currently and then maybe get those guys back. All those things come into spring football. So it's really about embracing the challenge of being great every day, and enjoying and getting to know each other.
Bret Bielema made a rapid rise up the college coaching ladder.

Big Ten position coach at 26 ... Big 12 co-defensive coordinator at 32 ... Big Ten defensive coordinator at 34 ... Big Ten head coach at 36.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireWisconsin coach Bret Bielema says he isn't upset after losing 11 assistants in the past three seasons.
Bielema's ambition helped put him on the fast track. And when he's hiring assistant coaches at Wisconsin, he wants to see the same qualities.

"When you talk to a coach, if he doesn’t want to advance in this profession, we probably won’t talk very long," Bielema told ESPN.com on Thursday. "I want guys that want to be coordinators, or guys that are coordinators who want to be head coaches. If they don't want to sit at the front of the room, we're probably dealing with the wrong type of coach. I want guys who want to advance."

Bielema has had plenty of assistants advance in recent years.

He lost two after the 2009 season, one of whom, Randall McCray, went from position coach to coordinator. He lost three after the 2010 season: defensive coordinator Dave Doeren became head coach at Northern Illinois, while running backs coach John Settle and nickel backs coach Greg Jackson both departed for posts in the NFL.

Wisconsin has lost six assistants in recent weeks, a number that has raised eyebrows in college football circles. The team is coming off of back-to-back Big Ten titles and back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances. Bielema's job is very secure. While one assistant (Paul Chryst) left for a head-coaching job and two others (Bob Bostad, Dave Huxtable) went from position coaches to coordinators, the exodus has left some wondering whether there's something wrong at Wisconsin.

Bielema views things differently.

"It's really not that unusual," he said. "It's unusual at a program that has as much success as we've had, where we're able to keep that continuity of winning in place. I take it as a compliment to what we've been able to do. All those coaches are moving on. Two of them didn't get coordinator jobs, but everybody else got coordinator jobs or titles that made it significantly better for them where they were going.

"To me, it's a tremendous challenge that I love, I embrace and I have a lot of fun with it."

Bielema has filled two vacancies with offensive coordinator Matt Canada and wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni. After an extensive interview process for the coordinator job, Bielema went with Canada, in large part because Canada has called plays in different systems (spread, pro style) and can adapt.

"I interviewed a lot of coaches of different levels: NFL, college, big college, small college," he said. "I'm not a résumé guy. I want a football coach. And as this thing gets moving forward, I kept coming back to him. I just think he’s going to be a great fit for what we're going to blend together at Wisconsin. I'm going to hire four new offensive coaches that are going to come from different areas of the country and come together and play the style of football we like at Wisconsin."

Wisconsin's staff will be two-thirds new in 2012, but Bielema won't be surprised if he's doing more hiring a year from now.

"I have every year," he said. "Usually the NFL takes two, took two from me last year. It’s just one of those things, the beauty of the beast here at Wisconsin."
Wisconsin has found its replacement for Paul Chryst, and he's a familiar name for those who follow football in the Midwest.

Matt Canada is joining Wisconsin as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach after spending the 2011 season in the same capacity at Northern Illinois. Canada, who worked under former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doeren at NIU, returns to the Big Ten after serving as offensive coordinator at Indiana, his alma mater, from 2007-10.

The interesting thing about the hire is that while Canada has run spread offenses in recent years, he'll lead a pro-style offense with the Badgers. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema made it clear in the release announcing Canada's hiring, saying, "I know he is very excited about running a pro-style offense and handling a game the way we typically have at Wisconsin."

Canada has run a pro-style offense before, during a previous stint at Northern Illinois' offensive coordinator in 2003. That year, the Huskies ranked 26th nationally in scoring offense (32.2 ppg) but just 60th in total offense (378.9 ypg). NIU put up big numbers under Canada this past season, finishing 11th nationally in total offense and 12th in both scoring and rushing offense. NIU and Wisconsin were two of just five FBS teams to average at least 230 yards both rushing and passing in 2011.

Canada inherited an excellent quarterback in Chandler Harnish at NIU and helped take the unit to the next level, but he'll be facing some different challenges with Wisconsin.

"In the system we ran, I thought he was as good as they get," Doeren told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "We ran as many plays as we humanly could in a game out of as many personnel groups as we could. We were nothing like [Wisconsin], other than we ran zone and power like them. We had a mobile quarterback that we used in the run game, and he was our leading rusher, so we had a lot different system."

It's interesting that Bielema has hired two assistants -- Canada and receivers coach Zach Azzanni -- with backgrounds in the spread offense. But he says in the release that his offensive staff will "come from different directions to come together to play football the way Wisconsin has traditionally played."

Doeren is confident Canada can make the necessary adjustments.

"He's extremely intelligent," Doeren said. "Obviously, Bret wanted him to do whatever he thinks they're supposed to do, so that's what he's going to have to prove to everybody, obviously. I know he's extremely excited about that challenge. He's really competitive."

In 2007, Canada's first season as Indiana's offensive coordinator, the Hoosiers scored a team-record 412 points. But the offense backslid a bit during his final three seasons, and some Indiana fans voiced their displeasure about Canada.

He inherits a Wisconsin offense coming off of two record-setting seasons. The Badgers lose All-Big Ten quarterback Russell Wilson, All-America center Peter Konz and top wide receiver Nick Toon. Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball returns at running back along with other weapons like receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen, but the quarterback position will be Canada's biggest priority from now until Sept. 1.

Bielema still has two offensive staff vacancies (line, tight ends) to fill and one on the defensive side (linebackers).

Big Ten lunch links

January, 17, 2012
1/17/12
12:00
PM ET
Tom, we're already late. Now be a man and sit on that girl's lap!
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has filled the first of five staff vacancies with Zach Azzanni, who will work with the Badgers' wide receivers.

Azzanni comes to Madison from Western Kentucky, where he spent the 2011 season as offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach. He served as Florida's receivers coach/passing game coordinator in 2010 and also has coached receivers at both Central Michigan and Bowling Green. He has coached several standout MAC receivers such as Central Michigan's Bryan Anderson and Bowling Green's Charles Sharon.

Azzanni replaces DelVaughn Alexander, who left this month for a position with Arizona State.
"Zach is a great fit for Wisconsin," Bielema said in a statement. "He is a terrific coach who stresses fundamentals and is also a great recruiter. His coaching philosophy, personality and character fit perfectly with what we do here and how we do it. I've known Zach for a number of years and I'm very excited to be able to add him to our staff."

The Big Ten has filled up with members of the Urban Meyer coaching tree this offseason, and Azzanni is among them. Not only has Meyer brought some of his former assistants to Ohio State, but Illinois head coach Tim Beckman, a former Meyer assistant, named Billy Gonzales as his co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach. Gonzales and Azzanni have very similar profiles, and Azzanni replaced Gonzales at Florida after Gonzales left for LSU.

This looks like a solid hire, as Azzanni has risen quickly up the coaching ranks and should help Wisconsin's recruiting efforts.

Four more to go for Bielema ...

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