NCF Nation: Sam Arneson

Wisconsin Badgers season preview

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Wisconsin Badgers:

2013 overall record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)

Key losses: RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OG Ryan Groy, DE Pat Muldoon, DT Beau Allen, LB Chris Borland, S Dezmen Southward

Key returnees: RB Melvin Gordon, OT Rob Havenstein, OG Kyle Costigan, OT Tyler Marz, CB Sojourn Shelton, S Michael Caputo

Instant impact newcomer: Safety Lubern Figaro. If you're from outside the Badger State, you're probably asking, "Who?" After all, Figaro was just a three-star recruit and enrolled over the summer -- but he's already projected to start in the opener. Part of the reason is reportedly an injury to safety Leo Musso, but Figaro has already done plenty to separate himself. In the first scrimmage this preseason, he returned a pick for a touchdown. DB Sojourn Shelton made an impact last season when he was a true freshman; now it looks as if it's Figaro's turn.

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

Offense: QB: Joel Stave, RS Jr., 6-5, 220; RB: Melvin Gordon, RS Jr., 6-1, 213; FB: Derek Watt, RS Jr., 6-2, 236; WR: Alex Erickson, RS So., 6-0, 196; WR: Reggie Love, RS So., 6-3, 214; TE: Sam Arneson, Sr., 6-4, 244; OT: Tyler Marz, RS Jr., 6-5, 321; OG: Dallas Lewallen, RS Sr., 6-6, 321: C: Dan Voltz, RS So., 6-3, 311; OG: Kyle Costigan, RS Sr., 6-5, 319; OT: Rob Havenstein, RS Sr., 6-8, 333

Defense: DE: Chikwe Obasih, RS Fr., 6-2, 268; DT: Warren Herring, RS Sr., 6-3, 294; DE: Konrad Zagzebski, RS Sr., 6-3, 277; OLB: Joe Schobert, Jr., 6-2, 240; ILB: Marcus Trotter, RS Sr., 6-0, 226; ILB: Derek Landisch, Sr., 6-0, 231; OLB: Vince Biegel, RS So., 6-4, 244; CB: Darius Hillary, RS Jr., 5-11, 188; CB: Sojourn Shelton, So., 5-9, 178; S: Michael Caputo, RS Jr., 6-1, 212; S: Lubern Figaro, Fr., 6-0, 179

Specialists: P: Drew Meyer, RS Jr., 6-3, 187; PK: Rafael Gaglianone, Fr., 5-11, 231

Biggest question mark: Can this front seven recover from so many key departures? Of the seven players who started in the Badgers' bowl game last season, only one returns. That leaves quite a few holes, especially when considering the departures of Big Ten defensive player of the year Chris Borland and two All-Big Ten honorable mentions (Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon). Wisconsin's front seven dominated in 2013, as they helped the Badgers rank No. 5 nationally in rush defense (102.5 yards per game) and No. 6 in scoring defense (16.3 points per game). Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is solid, but he's not a magician. Those defensive numbers will almost certainly drop from last season -- but just how much?

Most important game: Nov. 15 versus Nebraska. It's basically a three-team race in the West Division, so this is a must-win if Wisconsin wants a spot in the Big Ten championship game. There's no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule this season, so the Huskers and Iowa Hawkeyes are the teams to beat. Iowa is just as important, but that contest comes a week later, and that won't mean a thing if Wisconsin first can't get past this contest.

Upset special: Nov. 29 versus Minnesota. A lot could be on the line when the Badgers square off against Minnesota in the final game of the regular season. And, depending how Wisconsin's defense progresses, this could be an interesting one. Wisconsin's run defense is a wild card right now, and the Gophers could boast the second-toughest rushing attack on Wisconsin's schedule (outside of Nebraska). No team held Wisconsin to fewer points (20) last season than Minnesota, so there is some potential here. Plus, one has to think the Gophers will be able to manage better than a seven-point offensive effort this time around.

Key stat: Sure, everyone knows the departure of Jared Abbrederis will hurt Wisconsin. But the Badgers actually lost their top four targets, and only one (Jordan Fredrick) recorded catches in the double-digits. And he had just 10. Overall, Wisconsin lost 81 percent of its receiving production, as this year's returners had just 42 combined receptions last season compared with the 217 total catches.

What they're wearing: Wisconsin has come a long way since 2010, because it basically went from rotating between two uniform combinations to doing photo shoots with more than 20 combinations.

One possible new look includes an all-red, jersey-pant combo (not to be confused with Nebraska's all-red getup):

Team's top Twitter follows: Head coach Gary Andersen (@UWCoachAndersen) joined Twitter just a few weeks ago, but he pumps out unique tweets and is a great follow. The official Wisconsin football account (@BadgerFootball) tweets like crazy and is always on the ball. As far as players, running back Melvin Gordon (@Melvingordon25) is a no-brainer, while cornerback Sojourn Shelton (@SDS1_) definitely deserves a few more follows. There are quite a few good follows for your coverage needs -- besides us, of course -- including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) and SB Nation blog Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q).

They said it: "No question there's a temptation to run him every time." – Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen on running back Melvin Gordon

Stats & Info projection: 9.29 wins

Wise guys over/under: 9.5 wins

Big Ten blog projection: Ten wins. Wisconsin has a lot of question marks, but it also has a lot of talent. The rushing offense should be one of the nation's best and, while this defense will undoubtedly take a step back from last season, it shouldn't free-fall with Dave Aranda at the helm. Wisconsin's schedule is pretty favorable, as it doesn't play any of the big names from the East, and it's possible it could be favored in every game from Week 2 on. Wisconsin's getting the benefit of the doubt here, but if it can manage a win against LSU in the opener, that bandwagon is going to get big in a hurry.

INDIANAPOLIS -- They came in droves, as family members, friends and colleagues embraced Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada on what had become a field of dreams at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"That," Canada told one group of well-wishers, "was fun."

It hasn't been a fun season at times for Canada, his staff or the Badgers' players. Of the six assistants Wisconsin lost following the 2011 season, four were on the offensive side, including longtime coordinator Paul Chryst. Another staff change occurred after Week 2 this fall, as Wisconsin dismissed offensive line coach Mike Markuson and promoted a graduate assistant, Bart Miller, to the crucial role.

The Wisconsin offense -- one that had a whole lot of fun the previous few seasons -- stopped and started. It looked great against weaker opponents (Purdue, Illinois, Indiana) and inefficient against better ones (Oregon State, Michigan State). At times, it showed both of its faces in the same game (Nebraska Part 1, Ohio State, Penn State). Canada, the primary playcaller, took his share of heat, even in recent weeks.

"It's been a long year," Canada said. "I'm just really proud of the way our guys stuck together. ... We kept working and kept grinding, and our players kept believing."

The work and the belief culminated Saturday night, as Wisconsin put on a clinic in dismantling Nebraska 70-31 in the league title game. Wisconsin (8-5) is heading back to the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive year -- the Badgers will be the first five-loss team to play in the game -- and the Badgers punched their ticket in style.

Wisconsin racked up a team-record eight rushing touchdowns and 539 rushing yards, 25 shy of the team record set in the Badgers' previous trip to the Hoosier State (Nov. 10 at Indiana). The Badgers had three running backs eclipse 100 rushing yards for the first time in team history, with freshman Melvin Gordon (9 carries, 216 yards, 1 TD), senior Montee Ball (21 carries, 202 yards, 3 TDs) and junior James White (15 carries, 109 yards, 4 TDs). They averaged 10.8 yards per carry (11.8 yards through the first three quarters).

"I'm just happy they're with us," a beaming Thomas Hammock, the Badgers' running backs coach, said on the field afterward. "They compete hard, and they kept the same level of intensity all season. It obviously showed today."

[+] EnlargeChris Borland, Montee Ball
AP Photo/Michael ConroyLinebacker Chris Borland, left, and running back Montee Ball get their hands on the Big Ten hardware.
Although Wisconsin's 70 points tied for the second most in team history in the modern era, the Badgers aren't strangers to big numbers, even in this rocky season. What made Saturday night's performance unique is the variety of plays Canada called and the players executed to perfection.

It started with Gordon, an immense talent from whom Badgers fans have clamored for more, lining up at wide receiver to begin the game. Wisconsin ran both runs and a pass -- White connecting with Sam Arneson for a touchdown -- out of its "Barge" formation. Canada put his spin on the swinging-gate play in the first quarter as quarterback Curt Phillips found fullback Derek Watt while seven of their teammates lined up on the other hashmark. Wisconsin also hit on a wide receiver pass as Jared Abbrederis found a wide-open Phillips to set up a second-quarter touchdown.

"We practiced 99 percent of what they showed us today," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said.

It certainly didn't look like it, as Wisconsin repeatedly used its standard plays -- like the jet sweep -- to set up its exotic ones.

"We've been practicing this stuff," Canada said. "That was the beauty of where we were. We felt like we had a chance to run some plays. We really didn't add a lot of plays this week."

Phillips insisted Wisconsin hadn't held back its creativity in recent games against Ohio State and Penn State. But the Badgers were determined to give Nebraska a vastly different look than the one it saw Sept. 29 in Lincoln.

"It was fun," Phillips said. "We practiced a lot of that stuff all season long. We just hadn't necessarily had an opportunity to use it. We had no reason to hold anything back."

Wisconsin undoubtedly was the looser team, in part because no one expected much from a squad that had lost five games and found itself in the title game only because both Ohio State and Penn State had been hit with NCAA sanctions. But no Big Ten team has been in more big games in recent years than the Badgers, who met the moment, especially on offense.

"The expectations were extremely high coming in, no doubt about it," Canada said. "If you want to do it, jump in the deep water with the big sharks and go get it."

Even a freshman such as Gordon understood the magnitude of Saturday's game.

"I kept telling myself, 'This is a big game,'" said Gordon, who averaged 24 yards a carry. "I wanted to install some trust in my coaches and teammates. All practice, all week, I told myself, 'Go hard, go hard, go hard. Something good is going to come out of it. This is a big stage. Make something happen.'"

Although Gordon had much of Badger Nation buzzing, Ball turned in another signature performance, setting the NCAA career rushing touchdowns record (76 total) and tying the NCAA mark for multiple-touchdown games (25). He eclipsed 190 rushing yards for the third time in four games and eclipsed 5,000 rushing yards for his career.

"Hopefully, this performance propels him to the top of the Doak Walker [Award]," head coach Bret Bielema said, "because he's a guy that deserves it in every way."

Many will say Wisconsin doesn't deserve a third straight trip to Pasadena, a first in the Big Ten since Michigan went from 1977 to '79. Some will say Saturday night's offensive explosion was an aberration and that Stanford's defense will provide a reality check Jan. 1.

Wisconsin's response?

"We're better than what our record shows," Gordon said. "We know that. We just came up short a couple times. I hope this puts any critics to rest about us being a bad team."

The criticism won't go away, but neither will Wisconsin. The Badgers are headed back to Pasadena.

Fun times, indeed.

INDIANAPOLIS -- A five-loss Wisconsin team that didn't win its division and, according to many, didn't belong in the Big Ten championship game dominated No. 12 Nebraska from the onset. The Badgers punched their ticket to the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive year in by far their best performance of the season.

Some quick thoughts from a mostly stunned Lucas Oil Stadium following Wisconsin's 70-31 victory.

It was over when: Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, exploiting Nebraska's game-long inability to defend the edge, scored on a 16-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter to put the Badgers up 35-10. Yes, this game was over that early, if not sooner. The Badgers had weathered a small Nebraska rally after scoring two touchdowns in the first 2:07 and reclaimed a commanding lead on Ball's run. Just in case Nebraska had any notions of another second-half rally, Ball raced 57 yards to the end zone in the third quarter, posterizing Huskers nickelback Ciante Evans along the way.

Game ball goes to: Wisconsin's running backs. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada was masterful in mixing and matching the Badgers' three top backs -- Ball, junior James White and freshman Melvin Gordon -- each of whom eclipsed 100 rushing yards. Ball (202 rushing yards, 3 TDs) stole the show in the third quarter, while Gordon (216 rushing yards, 1 TD) set the tone with a 56-yard touchdown on the fourth play of the game. White had a rushing touchdown and a passing touchdown out of the Barge formation in the first half and added another rushing score as Wisconsin stormed out to a 42-10 halftime lead. He finished with 109 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns along with his passing score.

Stat of the game: There's something about Wisconsin's rushing offense and the state of Indiana this season. Despite an inconsistent rushing attack all season, the Badgers went nuts in their three games in the Hoosier State. They had 467 rushing yards and four touchdowns Oct. 13 at Purdue, a team-record 564 rushing yards and seven touchdowns Nov. 10 at Indiana and 539 rushing yards and eight touchdowns Saturday night.

Best call: There are so many to choose from, as Canada saved all his tricks for Saturday night. We saw the Barge a bunch, including White's pass to Sam Arneson at the end of the first half. But we'll go with a pitch from quarterback Curt Phillips to receiver Jared Abbrederis, a high school signal-caller who threw back to Phillips for a 27-yard gain. White scored from a yard out on the next play.

Second guessing: Down 49-10, the Huskers showed some life when Jamal Turner appeared to score on a 55-yard reception early in the third quarter. But the play was brought back when officials flagged Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell for unnecessary roughness on a block against Wisconsin's Devin Smith. Bell led with his shoulder, and while the play looked ugly, it seemed like a clean hit.

What it means: Wisconsin becomes the first five-loss team to punch its ticket to the Rose Bowl. While the Badgers undoubtedly saved their best for last, their advancement likely will increase criticism and mockery of the Big Ten after a rough season. After a wildly inconsistent season on offense, the Badgers had everything click in their most important game of the season. Nebraska, meanwhile, had its worst performance since an Oct. 6 beating at Ohio State. The game certainly raises questions about the Huskers, which were far from dominant in Legends Division play and overcame sloppiness with second-half fortitude. After so many escapes, the Huskers dug themselves way too deep a hole against Wisconsin. Nebraska is still searching for its first conference title since 1999.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema addressed his team Friday night, he read a list of approximately 20 teams that recently had been among the nation's elite but had fallen on hard times.

Teams like Wisconsin. Teams with worse records than the Badgers.

"The one thing I've constantly got to be aware of as a head coach is the temperature of my team, what are they feeling," Bielema said. "They were unranked and lost a heartbreaker to Michigan State. But what I was trying to stress was the character of this room would show [Saturday]. ... I rattled off a bunch of BCS teams that are in the thick of it but are 6-3 or [worse]. I wanted to remind them that teams either quit, or they battle forward.

"Obviously, they answered the bell today."

Wisconsin's road back to Indianapolis has been filled with obstacles this season, but the final leg proved to be surprisingly easy as the Badgers ensured they'll be back at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 1. Behind a dominant offensive line and a stable of dominant running backs, led by Montee Ball, Wisconsin crushed Indiana 62-14 at Memorial Stadium.

A program known for its ground game piled up more rushing yards (564) than it ever has before, tying for the sixth-highest total in Big Ten history and the highest in a league game since 1975 (Michigan, 573 yards). Little about Wisconsin's offense resembled the record-setting units of 2010 and 2011, but it felt like old times Saturday as the Badgers, despite playing with their third starting quarterback (Curt Phillips), took control immediately and never looked back.

Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2) looked like Wisconsin. And Indiana (4-6, 2-4) looked like Indiana.

"It did a little bit," said tight end Sam Arneson, who recorded his first career touchdown on his second career catch on Wisconsin's second possession. "When you're rolling and they can't really slow you down, it feels pretty good."

As much turmoil as Wisconsin has been through this season -- nearly being shut out at Oregon State, firing offensive line coach Mike Markuson after two games, enduring a miscommunication at the end of the Nebraska game, losing top quarterback Joel Stave in the Michigan State loss -- the Badgers found a way to fulfill the consensus preseason expectation of reaching Indianapolis. They've lost three games by a total of nine points, dominated the teams they were supposed to beat and, at times, looked like the team we'd grown accustomed to seeing the past two years.

Wisconsin beat Indiana 83-20 in 2010 and 59-7 last year. The Hoosiers, while exposed Saturday, are undoubtedly a better team, and Wisconsin still rolled.

"This is the group I've coached for seven years," Bielema said. "I know this record may not be as high as it has in years past, or our ranking, but we're a really good football team."

[+] EnlargeCurt Phillips
AP Photo/Darron CummingsQuarterback Curt Phillips did his share to help Wisconsin in his first career start on Saturday.
The Badgers looked like it Saturday, mounting eight-play touchdown drives on their first two possessions. Even when Indiana showed some life in the second quarter, Wisconsin removed any doubt as James White raced in from 69 yards out on third-and-16.

And while Wisconsin didn't put too much on Phillips' shoulders, the senior made some nice contributions in his first career start, namely a fourth-down conversion early in the second quarter and a 52-yard run to set up a field goal. Phillips has overcome three ACL surgeries since the spring of 2010.

"The plan was to not put a lot on Curt," Bielema said. "And obviously it worked very, very well."

After finishing with 19 net rush yards in the Michigan State loss, Wisconsin averaged 8.8 yards per attempt Saturday, nearly setting another team mark (8.91 yards per carry against Hawaii in 1996).

"It's the same formula we've had any time we've run the ball successfully," guard Ryan Groy said. "It's getting on blocks, being assignment-sound, and it's finishing. It's simple concepts, but it's everybody doing their part."

Ball certainly did his share Saturday, rushing for 198 yards and three touchdowns on 27 attempts in three quarters of work. The senior passed Ricky Williams and moved into sole possession of second place on the NCAA's all-time touchdowns list with 77, one shy of Miami University's Travis Prentice.

The 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist has been at his best during the stretch run, averaging 179.1 yards and three touchdowns in his past nine November games. He has been pretty good in the Hoosier State -- 445 rush yards, six touchdowns against Purdue and Indiana -- and gets one final opportunity Dec. 1 in Indy.

"I didn't even think about that," Ball said, smiling. "Yeah, glad to get back to Indianapolis."

Wisconsin will return to Lucas Oil, but it'll have an asterisk if it doesn't beat Ohio State and Penn State to share the Leaders Division title. If you think the Badgers will pack it in these last two weeks, you're sadly mistaken. Despite Saturday's result, Ball said Wisconsin is "still searching" for a statement win.

Next week against undefeated Ohio State would be the perfect time.

"Certain teams are handicapped, but we want to make sure that we go to Indy because we won every game," Ball said. "That's what we're going to try to fight for."

Indiana is left to fight for bowl eligibility and needs two road wins (Penn State, Purdue) to get there. Despite a very real chance to reach Indianapolis, Indiana showed how far it still must go on both sides of the ball.

Quarterback Cameron Coffman struggled with overthrows and Indiana had just two first downs in the first quarter, the kiss of death for an up-tempo spread offense. The defense showed a bit of life in the second quarter but had no answer for Ball, White (161 rush yards, 2 TDs) and Melvin Gordon (96 rush yards, 1 TD).

"They are a great team," Hoosiers defensive lineman Adam Replogle said. "We knew what they were. It's Wisconsin."

The Wisconsin of old showed up Saturday.

If the same product shows up in the coming weeks, the Badgers' difficult road could lead back to Pasadena.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Wisconsin has been dominant in two games played on Indiana soil. After Saturday's 62-14 drubbing of Indiana, the Badgers have earned a third trip back to the Hoosier State -- for the Big Ten title game on Dec. 1.

Here's a quick look back at Wisconsin's win ...

It was over when: James White broke free for a 69-yard touchdown run on third-and-16 with 13 seconds left in the first half. Wisconsin appeared content to run out the clock following an Indiana touchdown, but White scooted into the open field behind terrific blocking and delivered the death knell to the Hoosiers.

Game ball goes to: Wisconsin running back Montee Ball. The senior established himself early and often and put on a clinic against the overmatched Hoosiers defense. Ball had 198 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries, averaging 7.3 yards per rush. He moved into sole possession of second place on the NCAA's all-time touchdown list with 77.

Stat of the game: Wisconsin ran and ran and ran some more. A program known for its rushing offense never rushed for more yards than it did Saturday, racking up 564. Melvin Gordon gave Wisconsin the record on a 17-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. The team's previous high was 551 yards against Northwestern in 1974.

Best call: Wisconsin opted to go for a fourth-and-2 on its opening possession of the second half, and Curt Phillips stood his ground despite the rush and found fullback Derek Watt in the flat for a 17-yard gain. Wisconsin repeatedly attacked the edges, where Indiana is weak, and maintained momentum with the conversion. Ball scored three plays later to give Wisconsin a 31-7 lead.

What it means: Wisconsin is back in the Big Ten title game for the second straight year despite a turbulent season on offense that included three starting quarterbacks for the first time since 1987. These Badgers aren't as good as they were the past two seasons, but they looked the part Saturday. After beating Indiana 59-7 and 83-20 the past two years, Wisconsin continued its dominance of the Hoosiers. It was a reality check for Indiana, an improved team but one that shouldn't be playing for a league title so early in its development. The Hoosiers needed a much stronger start on offense to keep pace with the Badgers, but quarterbacks Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld looked rattled from the start. Kevin Wilson's team now must sweep its final two games (at Penn State, at Purdue) to become bowl-eligible. Although Indiana's program is on the rise, there's still a long way to go to challenge the Big Ten's upper half.

Unsung hero: Phillips' teammates picked him up big-time in his first career start at quarterback, but the senior made some nice throws and showcased decent mobility despite having three ACL surgeries since the spring of 2010. He completed 4 of 7 passes, including the big fourth-down throw to Watt and a touchdown strike to Sam Arneson. He also had a 52-yard run up the gut in the third quarter and finished with 68 yards on seven carries.
When you think Big Ten football, what usually comes to mind is big, corn-fed Midwestern players and bruising offenses. The kind of place that would be perfect for a tight end.

But the 2011 season was a little lackluster for that position in the league, at least as far as the passing game goes. Sure, Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore and Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen were Mackey Award semifinalists, but those two and Michigan State's Brian Linthicum were the only two tight ends in the conference to record more than 25 catches. Some guys we expected to have big years, like Nebraska's Kyler Reed, Minnesota's Eric Lair and Indiana's Ted Bolser, were nearly invisible on the stat sheet. And there was certainly no one who rose the level of recent Big Ten stars like Dallas Clark, Matt Spaeth, Travis Beckum, Lance Kendricks or Dustin Keller.

[+] EnlargeJacob Pedersen
AP Photo/Matt SaylesJacob Pedersen led the Big Ten's tight ends with eight touchdown catches last season.
Dunsmore, who won the league's inaugural Kwalick-Clark tight end of the year award, and Linthicum have both graduated. Yet 2012 is shaping up as a potentially big season for tight ends across the league.

Some of it has to do with changing offenses and playcallers who love utilizing the tight end. Urban Meyer made a star out of Aaron Hernandez at Florida and could do the same with Jake Stoneburner, who started off blazing hot last year before the Ohio State offense forgot about him. With the Buckeyes searching for playmakers, expect Stoneburner to be utilized heavily in 2012.

"Seeing Hernandez make all those plays makes someone like me pretty happy," Stoneburner told Adam Rittenberg last month. "It's something I've been waiting for since I graduated high school, being able to go out there knowing you're going to get the opportunity to get the ball more than once or twice a game. "

Bill O'Brien coached Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski as offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, which featured the tight end as much as anybody in football. Now O'Brien is at Penn State, where tight ends have mostly been an afterthought. That will change quickly.

"That’s a very important part of what we’re going to do offensively,” O’Brien told reporters in March. “Obviously, the last two years in New England taught me a lot about the use of a tight end, multiple tight ends.”

At Iowa, new offensive coordinator Greg Davis is raving about sophomore C.J. Fiedorowicz, a 6-foot-7, 265-pounder who began to emerge late last season as a weapon. With an uncertain running game and an excellent passer in quarterback James Vandenberg, Fiedorowicz could follow in the footsteps of Clark and Tony Moeacki as breakout Hawkeyes tight ends. Coincidentally, Iowa's new offensive line coach is Brian Ferentz, who coached the tight ends with the Patriots last year.

“You’ll see the tight ends playing outside sometimes,” Davis told the Des Moines Register during spring practice. “Used to seeing them in motion, but there will be motion in wide receiver sets in some situations because they’re tough match-ups.”

Wisconsin returns one of the best tight ends in the country in Pedersen, who had led Big Ten tight ends with eight touchdown catches a year ago. Bret Bielema is also excited about the depth at the position, with veterans Brian Wozniak and Sam Arneson, redshirt freshmen Austin Traylor and Austin Maly and Pittsburgh transfer Brock DeCicco. Given the inexperience at receiver outside of Jared Abbrederis, the Badgers could look to throw to their tight ends even more this season.

Indiana's Bolser had only 14 catches last year, but he was one of the stars of the spring for the Hoosiers. An improved passing game should help him become more of a factor. Purdue likes the depth it has at tight end, led by Gabe Holmes and Crosby Wright.

“A year ago it was one of the leanest positions on our football team," Boilers coach Danny Hope told reporters in the spring, "and now I think going into the season that the tight end position is going to be one of our strengths.”

Reed's numbers dropped last year, but he still led Nebraska with an average of 17.1 yards per catch. He and fellow senior Ben Cotton form a nice tandem of targets for Taylor Martinez. Michigan State must replace Linthicum but is optimistic about 6-foot-5, 280-pound Dion Sims, who practiced this spring with a cast on his hand. Sims could provide a safety valve for new quarterback Andrew Maxwell early on as the Spartans break in some green receivers.

Minnesota's Moses Alipate will at least be a curiosity as a former quarterback who grew to 290 pounds. Michigan needs Brandon Moore or someone else to step in for Kevin Koger, while Illinois' Jon Davis could have a different role in the team's new spread offense after a promising freshman campaign. Whoever replaces Dunsmore for Northwestern should get a lot of touches.

Tight ends could play an important part of many Big Ten teams' attacks this fall. Just as it should be.

Notes from Wisconsin practice

August, 17, 2011
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.