NCF Nation: Jake Byrne

Notes from Wisconsin practice

August, 17, 2011
8/17/11
8:00
AM ET
MADISON, Wis. -- Some notes and thoughts after watching Wisconsin's extensive full-pads practice Tuesday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium.

  • Russell Wilson looks like the real deal. The quarterback transfer from NC State displayed impressive arm strength and touch and repeatedly extended plays with his feet. While he likely won't be as accurate as his predecessor Scott Tolzien, he might not be too far off and makes the difficult throws with ease. Wilson hit wideout Jared Abbrederis for a 25-yard touchdown during team drills and, aside from a poorly thrown shuffle pass, looked extremely polished. The offensive structure didn't look dramatically different with Wilson, who played in a pro-style system at NC State and seemed comfortable.
  • [+] EnlargeMontee Ball
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMontee Ball, who rushed for 996 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, stood out in practice on Tuesday.
  • The other player who really stood out was junior running back Montee Ball. He has dropped significant weight, checking in at 207 pounds, and makes much crisper cuts. Ball reaches the second level faster and should record more explosion plays this season. Fellow running back James White also looked sharp on several cuts. While the coaches say they'll go with the hot hand at running back, Ball looks like he has the inside track.
  • Both Ball and White likely will be significant factors in the passing game. Wisconsin lacks depth at wide receiver -- top target Nick Toon sat out Tuesday's practice -- and while tight ends Jacob Pedersen and Jake Byrne will be involved, Wilson likes checking down to his backs, both of whom have good hands. The Badgers could use a No. 3 receiver to develop and rotated several players Tuesday, including freshman Connor Cummins. I liked several of the freshmen receivers and tight ends, including Sam Arneson.
  • The Badgers likely won't have a J.J. Watt or an O'Brien Schofield along the defensive line, but they hope to make up for it with improved depth. Wisconsin will use a larger rotation up front this fall, and I like the options at defensive tackle with Patrick Butrym, Ethan Hemer and Beau Allen.
  • No surprise here, but Chris Borland makes a huge difference for the Badgers defense. The middle linebacker had a pass breakup during 7-on-7s and constantly was around the ball. Borland's health after multiple shoulder injuries could be the key to the season. Mike Taylor sat out Tuesday's workout, so I didn't get a read on what the starting linebacker corps will look like.
  • Strong safety is an open competition between Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson, although Johnson appears to have an edge right now. Wisconsin is hoping Marcus Cromartie can shore up the No. 3 cornerback spot.
  • The offensive line is a bit banged up but still had a mostly strong performance Tuesday, opening up some huge holes for Ball and White. Coach Bret Bielema said the injuries both last year and during the offseason have helped get more players ready for possible game action.
  • Freshmen Melvin Gordon and Jeff Lewis are in the mix for the No. 3 running back spot, and both had ups and downs Tuesday. Wisconsin always seems to have a freshman back blossom, so it'll be interesting to see who keeps the trend going.
  • Backup quarterback Jon Budmayr remained out with an elbow issue, so Joe Brennan and Joel Stave took reps behind Wilson. Brennan displayed nice touch on passes to White and Jordan Fredrick, but also got intercepted by Derek Watt, J.J.'s brother. There's still a pretty significant gap between Wilson and the other quarterbacks, so getting Budmayr healthy is vital.
As promised, it's time to rank the Big Ten's top tight ends entering the 2011 season.

Unlike wide receiver, a position loaded with clear-cut No. 1 options, the tight end group has a few more question marks. Standout players like Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks, Michigan State's Charlie Gantt and Iowa's Allen Reisner have departed. While the wide receivers list was based heavily on past performance, this one leans more on potential for the upcoming season.

Here's your top 10 for '11 (Update: Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner has been included in the rankings. Apologies for the oversight):

[+] EnlargeKyler Reed
John S. Peterson/Icon SMIKyler Reed had 22 catches for 395 yards and eight TDs last season.
1. Kyler Reed, Nebraska, junior: Here's a name Big Ten fans need to know. Why? He might terrorize your team's defense when it goes up against Nebraska this fall. Reed is a gifted pass-catching tight end who averaged 18 yards per reception and scored eight touchdowns in 2010. The Huskers lack proven depth at receiver, so Reed should be a focal point of the passing game in Tim Beck's offense.

2. Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern, senior: If Dunsmore can stay healthy, he'll contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. He didn't have the monster season some expected in 2010, although he still recorded 40 receptions for 381 yards and five touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall wants to feature Dunsmore as much as possible, so if the senior avoids the injury bug, he'll have a chance to put up big numbers.

3. Jake Stoneburner, Ohio State, junior: Stoneburner has been discussed as a potential breakout player for some time, and this could finally be his season to shine. Ohio State enters the season with no proven depth at receiver, while Stoneburner has been in the system for a while and recorded 21 receptions for 222 yards and two touchdowns in 2010. The Buckeyes have seemed hesitant to feature the tight end in the passing game, but Stoneburner could be the man to change things this fall.

4. Ted Bolser, Indiana, sophomore: Bolser quietly turned in one of the best seasons among Big Ten freshmen in 2010. He started seven games and averaged 15.1 yards per reception, recording 27 catches and five touchdowns. Indiana has enough depth at receiver to occupy opposing defensive backs, so Bolser should find some openings to make plays. He boasts excellent size at 6-foot-6, 240.

5. Eric Lair, Minnesota, senior: After recording just one reception in his first two years, Lair had somewhat of a breakout season in 2010. He ranked among the Big Ten's most productive tight ends with 39 receptions for 526 yards, an average of 13.5 yards per catch. The Gophers need more pass-catching options alongside Da'Jon McKnight, and Lair could see an even bigger role this fall.

6. Brian Linthicum, Michigan State, senior: As Gantt departs, Linthicum is the obvious candidate to move into the No. 1 role for an offense that doesn't ignore the tight end position. Linthicum started five games in 2010, recording 18 receptions for 230 yards. He has 19 career starts for two AQ teams (Clemson and Michigan State), so he's no stranger to the spotlight. But Linthicum can't afford a drop-off as talented sophomore Dion Sims rejoins the team.

7. Kevin Koger, Michigan, senior: Experience isn't an issue for Koger, who has started 19 games in his first three seasons. He didn't quite meet expectations in 2010, as his numbers fell a bit even though Michigan's offense made significant strides. The good news is Koger should see an increased role in Al Borges' offense. Borges said this spring Koger can catch at least 30 passes this fall. If so, he'll be in the mix for All-Big Ten honors.

8. Brad Herman, Iowa, senior: Herman has only 10 career catches, but several factors suggest bigger things are ahead. Iowa always seems to produce one of the Big Ten's best tight ends, and the program's recent track record of sending tight ends to the NFL speaks for itself. Herman knows he's the next in line, and he showed big-play ability in 2010, averaging 15.7 yards per catch. Like Linthicum, he faces pressure to perform as a dynamic young player (C.J. Fiedorowicz) is right behind him.

9. Jake Byrne, Wisconsin, senior: Byrne's selection is similar to Herman's. Like Herman, Byrne lacks impressive numbers (only five receptions in 2010), but he also plays for a program that loves to feature its tight ends. Plus, Byrne was one of the most impressive players I saw this spring in my tour around the league. Known for his blocking, Byrne showed this spring he can get open in the middle of the field. Wisconsin lacks depth at receiver, so Byrne should be a big part of the passing attack.

T-10. Evan Wilson, Illinois, sophomore: Like several tight ends on this list, Wilson could benefit from his team's lack of depth at wide receiver. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has made strides as a passer and needs other options to emerge alongside A.J. Jenkins. Wilson started 11 games as a true freshman and made 10 catches, two for touchdowns. He's a good blocker who should get better and better in the passing game.

T-10. C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa, sophomore: Maybe I'm buying into the hype, but Fiedorowicz has a chance to claim a significant role in Iowa's passing attack this fall. Herman doesn't have an extensive track record, and Marvin McNutt is the Hawkeyes' only proven receiver. The 6-foot-7, 250-pound Fiedorowicz is big and athletic, and he boasts the skills to become a true pass-catching threat. This is a total projection pick, but I think Fiedorowicz does big things this fall.
We've been ranking each position group in the Big Ten, and so far we've looked at running backs and quarterbacks. Today, let's finish off the offensive skill positions with receivers and tight ends.

The Big Ten is blessed with plenty of standout wide receivers, but remember these rankings heavily account for overall depth at the position, not just isolated star power. We're also including the tight ends in this group while acknowledging that the best ones aren't necessarily big-time pass-catchers.

Here's how we rank them:

[+] EnlargeB.J. Cunningham
Andrew Weber/US PresswireB.J. Cunningham had the best numbers last season among a deep group of receivers and tight ends.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans may lack a true superstar, though senior B.J. Cunningham (50 catches for 611 yards and nine touchdowns in 2010) is pretty darn good. What Mark Dantonio can really count on is depth. Cunningham has good size at 6-foot-2, while Keshawn Martin is a speed-burner. Keith Nichol and Bennie Fowler fill out a solid cast of receivers, and when you throw in Brian Linthicum and Dion Sims at tight end, this group deserves the top spot.

2. Michigan: If Darryl Stonum weren't suspended indefinitely, this group might be No. 1. It's still pretty good as things stand now. Roy Roundtree leads the way after catching 72 passes for 935 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and Junior Hemingway is a strong secondary option for Denard Robinson. Tight end Kevin Koger is a third-year starter who can occasionally make big plays in the passing game.

3. Northwestern: Senior Jeremy Ebert (62 catches for 935 yards and eight touchdowns last season) was a first-team All-Big Ten performer as voted by the media. Demetrius Fields had 25 receptions last year, and the Wildcats are counting on big improvements from sophomores Rashad Lawrence, Tony Jones and Venric Mark. Northwestern uses its superback position as a tight end, and Drake Dunsmore had 40 catches from that spot last year.

4. Indiana: The Hoosiers languish at the bottom of many of these rankings, but receiver/tight end is a point of pride. Senior Damarlo Belcher led the Big Ten with 78 catches last year on his way to 832 yards. Even with the loss of Tandon Doss and Terrance Turner, who each had more than 60 catches in '10, new coach Kevin Wilson has a solid corps behind Belcher with Duwyce Wilson and Kofi Hughes, among others. And Ted Bolser is a highly productive tight end who had 27 catches for 407 yards and five scores a year ago.

5. Penn State: Three of the top four receivers from last year return, including No. 1 target Derek Moye (his 16.7 yards per catch average was second in the Big Ten a year ago). Justin Brown and Devon Smith need to continue moving forward. Will the Nittany Lions get anything out of Curtis Drake, who's trying to return from his second broken leg? Penn State hopes to get something out of the tight end position, where Andrew Szczerba and Garry Gilliam dealt with season-ending injuries last year.

6. Wisconsin: Once we reach the middle of these rankings, the units start to become interchangeable and a little indistinguishable. Wisconsin doesn't have to throw it too much because of its stellar running game, but the Badgers have some solid choices when they do go to the air. Senior Nick Toon has the talent to record more than the 36 catches and 459 yards he produced a year ago. Jared Abbrederis should continue to come along after a nice freshman campaign. There's potential but not much experience among the rest of the receivers. Star tight end Lance Kendricks will be tough to replace, but Jake Byrne is an outstanding blocker and Jacob Pedersen caught two touchdowns last year.

7. Nebraska: Brandon Kinnie is the leader here, and the 6-foot-3 senior isn't afraid to make the big catch. Freshmen Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell had nice springs and could add some playmaking skills to a largely unproven crew around Kinnie. Kyler Reed might be the most dangerous pass-catching tight end in the Big Ten, if not the country, after hauling in eight touchdowns and 18 yards per reception a year ago.

[+] EnlargeMarvin McNutt
Scott Boehm/Getty Images Marvin McNutt will be expected to be the No.1 wideout for the Hawkeyes this season.
8. Iowa: Senior Marvin McNutt is the go-to option after recording 861 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The Hawkeyes will look to junior Keenan Davis to improve and become the No. 2 target. Just about everyone else is green. Tight end is usually a strength for Kirk Ferentz and should be again with senior Brad Herman and a group of talented backups behind him.

9. Ohio State: Seems like we write this a lot, but the Buckeyes would be ranked higher if their star player in this group were available an entire season. But DeVier Posey's five-game suspension means this is an awfully young corps, and that inexperience showed with some inconsistent play this spring. Ohio State will need talented sophomore Corey "Philly" Brown to take a big leap forward and youngsters like Chris Fields, T.Y. Williams and James Louis to contribute in Posey's absence. Tight end Jake Stoneburner might have to become a bigger presence in the passing game.

10. Purdue: The Boilermakers have some decent depth but no proven stars. Antavian Edison is the leading returning receiver with just 314 yards last year, though the junior does have good speed. Justin Siller is talented but has had trouble staying healthy. Purdue lost two solid veterans at tight end in Kyle Adams and Jeff Lindsay and added a couple of potential replacements, including former basketball player Patrick Bade, this summer.

11. Minnesota: Da'Jon McKnight tied for second in the Big Ten last year with 10 receiving touchdowns. But the Gophers' second-leading receiver last season was MarQueis Gray, who's now their starting quarterback. Brandon Green could help after an injury-plagued season. Tight end Eric Lair can grab a few passes, as he did 39 times in 2010.

12. Illinois: The good news: A.J. Jenkins is a reliable weapon who had 746 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The bad news: There's not much experience behind him. Perhaps Ryan Lankford, who starred in the spring while Jenkins was out with an injury, will emerge as a star his sophomore year. Evan Wilson is back at tight end after starting 11 games as a freshman.
Wisconsin's offense isn't new. It's just better. A lot better.

The Badgers have been rooted in the same offensive principles for years: the power run, bruising line play, an effective play-action game, efficient quarterbacking, tight ends and receivers who catch (passes) and throw (blocks).

"When we go recruit these guys, they know who we are," offensive coordinator Paul Chryst told me this week. "We haven't changed."

What has changed this season are the results. Wisconsin's offense has gone from pretty good to virtually unstoppable.

[+] EnlargeScott Tolzien
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe efficient play of Scott Tolzien is one reason the Wisconsin offense has been on a roll this season.
The numbers don't lie (thanks to the Wisconsin sports info staff for these notes):

  • Wisconsin leads the Big Ten and ranks seventh nationally in scoring at 40.9 points per game. The Badgers will easily eclipse the team single-season scoring record of 34.3 points per game set in 2005.
  • The Badgers are even more potent in Big Ten play, averaging 41.7 points. Since 1936, only four Big Ten teams have averaged at least 40 points per game for an entire conference season. Wisconsin has scored on 45 of 71 possessions (63.4 percent) in league play, not including five possessions on which it ran out the clock to end the half or a game.
  • During its current six-game winning streak, Wisconsin has outscored its opponents by more than 22 points per game (44.7-22). The Badgers have averaged 240.7 yards on the ground, while quarterback Scott Tolzien has completed 78.6 percent of his passes. Wisconsin has converted 54.1 percent of its third downs (33-of-61) and scored touchdowns on 83.9 percent of its red zone opportunities (26-of-31).
  • Wisconsin ranks second nationally in red zone touchdown percentage (79.3 percent). In Big Ten play, the Badgers have converted 28 of their 33 red zone trips into touchdowns (84.8 percent). Wisconsin ranks ninth nationally in red zone scoring (91.4 percent) and has gone 41-for-42 in its last eight games.
  • The Badgers lead the Big Ten and rank 10th nationally in third-down conversion percentage (51.3).
  • Wisconsin already has set a team record with 41 rushing touchdowns

How has this happened? Here are three reasons.

1. Experience and depth


The Badgers aren't lacking in any area of their offense.

They have three senior starters along the offensive line in left tackle Gabe Carimi, left guard John Moffitt and center Bill Nagy. Carimi, an Outland Trophy finalist, and Moffitt have combined to start 87 games in their careers.

The receiving corps also boasts experience with tight end Lance Kendricks, a fifth-year senior, as well as receivers David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson, Kyle Jefferson and Nick Toon, who have combined for 67 starts.

Top running back John Clay has started for two seasons. Same goes for Tolzien.

The Badgers also have had plenty of players step up when others go down, whether it's running back Montee Ball, receiver Jared Abbrederis or tight ends Jake Byrne and Jacob Pedersen.

"The neat thing about it is it takes everyone to be a part of it," Chryst said. "Everyone can really take ownership for what's happening."

2. Running back depth

Most teams would be in trouble if they lost the league's offensive player of the year for a few games. Not Wisconsin.

Clay's knee injury hasn't slowed down the Badgers' run game one bit. In fact, Wisconsin is putting up even better numbers without him -- not a knock against Clay, just a fact -- by rushing for 695 yards and 12 touchdowns in wins against Indiana and Michigan.

Wisconsin is the only FBS team to have three backs with at least 600 rushing yards: Clay (929), freshman James White (895) and Ball (686). All three players have recorded 13 rushing touchdowns this season.

While White has emerged as the Big Ten freshman of the year front-runner, Ball has provided the biggest lift. An afterthought in the first half of the season, Ball stepped in after injuries to both Clay and White and has 467 rush yards and nine touchdowns in his last three games.

"Montee was a big part of what we were doing in the second half of last season, and Montee has continued to improve," Chryst said. "You've got to give him a ton of credit for not getting caught up where he is on the depth chart and keeping his focus."

3. Scott Tolzien

Wisconsin has mass-produced elite offensive linemen, running backs and tight ends in recent years, but the quarterback position has been more of a headache.

Tolzien came out of nowhere to win the starting job in 2009, and he has taken his game to another level this fall. The senior leads the nation in completion percentage (73.9) -- he completed 24 consecutive passes before an interception last Saturday -- and has completed 78.6 percent of his passes during the current win streak.

Tolzien is on pace to set team records for career pass efficiency (151.2 rating) and career completion percentage (68.2). He has done his best work in clutch situations, completing 23 of 27 passes with 12 touchdowns and only one interception in the red zone, and completing 40 of 57 passes for 492 yards on third down (rating of 150.8).

"He's playing his position as good as anybody in college football," head coach Bret Bielema said. "What he's done in the red zone, it's just unbelievable. And ball-security wise, being able to come through in clutch situations, has been really unparalleled by anything I've ever witnessed."
Montee Ball appreciated the honesty in the summer, and he does so even more these days.

Ball knew when he signed up to play running back at Wisconsin, he would be in a constant competition. Badgers running backs coach John Settle simply doesn't do entitlement.

When Settle called Ball into his office in preseason camp, he told the sophomore what he needed to hear, not what he wanted to hear. Despite being the backup to Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay in 2009, Ball had been bypassed on the depth chart, by a true freshman (James White), no less.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Michael ConroyMontee Ball's role in Wisconsin's offense is rapidly expanding.
"That's a good thing about here, the coaches are very honest with you," Ball said. "They'll tell you how it is. If you're not producing, they'll let you know, and if you are, they'll most definitely put you pretty high on the depth chart. That lets you know where you're at, and it tells you you're not preparing hard enough.

"That's what I took it as when I was third string; I wasn't preparing hard enough. So I made sure I got on top of it."

Ball never stopped preparing despite the demotion, and his patience has paid off for the Badgers in their last two wins. After coming up big on Wisconsin's game-winning drive at Iowa, recording a fourth-down reception and an 8-yard touchdown run, Ball took on an even larger role last week against Purdue.

The 5-11, 236-pound sophomore relieved the injured Clay and rushed for a career-high 127 yards and two touchdowns as Wisconsin rallied for a win to keep the Rose Bowl in its viewfinder.

"I just kept preparing during practice, kept my head up and just kept fighting," Ball said. "I knew my number was going to be called, and I wanted to be able to produce. I didn't want to let my team down."

Ball remembers the preseason conversation with Settle, who tried to gauge how the news would affect the running back. Ball's response: I’m not going anywhere. I'm here to stay.

He upgraded the way he prepared for games, spending more time in the film room. Ball took things to a new level last week as he knew White wouldn't be able to play because of a sprained knee.

"Like coach [Bret Bielema] always says, when you ask a player what they did this week to play well, the player says they watched more film than they ever have," Ball said. "That’s what I did the week before Purdue. I knew that I was second string going into that game, and I knew for sure I was going to get a lot of carries, so I made sure I prepared.

"Once John got a little nicked up, I knew that the team's going to look at me to carry the load. I wasn't surprised at all because I prepared well that week."

Ball is one of several Wisconsin offensive reserves who has stepped up when needed this season.

Jared Abbrederis filled in for Nick Toon at receiver. Jake Byrne and Jacob Pedersen filled in for Lance Kendricks at tight end. Bill Nagy has filled in along the offensive line, most recently after starting center Peter Konz hurt his ankle at Purdue.

Ball saw how his teammates prepared for bigger roles and did the same.

"He understands that for him to have success, he needs to come to work every day," Bielema said. "Montee knew that James was getting those reps because of the production he was having on the field. ... Now Montee has earned his own and probably is poised to make his first start of the season this week."

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