NCF Nation: Ethan Hemer

Five questions about LSU-Wisconsin

August, 28, 2014
Aug 28
9:00
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One of college football’s most anticipated openers will kick off Saturday night in Houston, with No. 13 LSU taking on No. 14 Wisconsin -- two programs that might reside in different conferences, but share similar philosophies about playing mean-spirited, physical football.

Both teams have aspirations of competing in the inaugural College Football Playoff, and Saturday’s outcome might eventually rank among the top determining factors in whether they make it into the four-team field.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five questions facing the two teams as their matchup approaches.

[+] EnlargeTerrence Magee
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSenior Terrence Magee should be a key piece to LSU's running game this season.
1. Who gets the most carries?

Those around the LSU program say it looks like it’s only a matter of time before freshman running back Leonard Fournette shows why he was the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit. But will Fournette’s time come in this game? LSU coach Les Miles has praised veterans Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard throughout August. The seniors have earned their touches, too, so it will be intriguing to observe how LSU distributes the carries between the vets and the young phenom.

2. How will LSU fare in the passing game?

Wisconsin has plenty of holes to fill on defense, but the one area with a veteran presence is its secondary (and the Badgers were 17th nationally against the pass last season, allowing 202.5 yards per game). That would seem like an advantage against an LSU offense that must replace not only its quarterback, but the only receivers who did much of anything last fall, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.

The Tigers have some super-talented youngsters like freshmen Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, but many of the team’s wideouts will be playing their first college games. Keep an eye on whether LSU uses its talented group of tight ends and running backs in the passing game. The tight ends will almost certainly get more looks as pass-catchers in 2014 while the young quarterbacks and receivers settle into their roles.

3. Can either team stop the opponent’s run?

Wisconsin obliterated South Carolina’s run defense for 293 yards in its last outing, a 34-24 loss in the Capital One Bowl. Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon ran 25 times for 143 yards in that game. So it would probably be misguided to assume that LSU’s reconstructed front seven is going to completely shut down a Badgers running game that includes Gordon, Corey Clement and four returning starters on the offensive line.

Likewise, Wisconsin lost its entire starting front seven on defense, so the Badgers will probably have some difficulty against an LSU line that also returns four starters -- particularly since backs like Fournette, Magee and Hilliard will be running behind them.

4. How will Wisconsin look up front on D?

Let’s say this one more time: Wisconsin lost every single starter along the defensive line and at linebacker from one of the nation’s best defenses in 2013. We’re talking about standouts like Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland and defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer who helped Wisconsin finish as the nation’s No. 7 defense overall (305.1 ypg) and No. 5 against the run (102.5).

It’s not like the cupboard is bare, though. ESPN Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett listed sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel as a potential playmaker, and the Badgers have others back like linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch and defensive linemen Warren Herring and redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih who should keep defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense clicking.

Asking that many new players to function adequately against a veteran LSU front will be asking a lot, though. Wisconsin’s production along the defensive front might be the determining factor in this game.

5. Who FINISHES at quarterback?

Never mind who starts, who’s going to finish this game at quarterback for either team? That might have a much greater impact on this season than who takes the first snaps for either Wisconsin or LSU.

Miles and Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen have tiptoed around questions asking whether the starting quarterback will be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris at LSU or Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy at Wisconsin. But if this is a close game, their choices on who leads their offenses in the fourth quarter -- and how those players perform in such a situation -- might tell us much more about where these competitions are headed.
Let's look at what to expect this spring in the Big Ten's wild, wild West:

ILLINOIS

Spring start: March 5
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Toughening up on 'D': The Fighting Illini had one of the nation's worst defenses, especially against the run. Tim Beckman brought back defensive coordinator Tim Banks and hopes an extra year of maturity can help strengthen the front seven. Juco import Joe Fotu could win a starting job this spring, and Jihad Ward should help when he arrives in the summer.
  • 'Haase cleaning: Nathan Scheelhaase wrapped up his career by leading the Big Ten in passing yards last season. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt likely takes over the reins, but backups Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey plan on fighting for the job, as well. Bill Cubit's offense should equal big numbers for whoever wins out.
  • Target practice: Whoever wins the quarterback job needs someone to catch the ball, and Illinois' top two receivers from '13 -- Steve Hull and Miles Osei -- both are gone. Junior college arrival Geronimo Allison will be counted on for some immediate help.
IOWA

Spring start: March 27 or 28
Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • A new big three: The Hawkeyes begin the process of trying to replace their three standout senior linebackers from last season: James Morris, Anthony Hitchens and Christian Kirksey. They were the heart of the defense in 2013, and now guys such as Quinton Alston, Reggie Spearman and Travis Perry need to make major leaps forward in the spring.
  • Develop more playmakers: Iowa was able to win the games it should have won last year, but struggled against those with strong defenses because of its lack of explosiveness. Sophomore Tevaun Smith and junior Damond Powell showed flashes of their potential late in the year at wideout. They need to continue to develop to give quarterback Jake Rudock and the offense ways to stretch the field.
  • Solidify the right tackle spot: The offensive line should once again be the team's strength, but the departure of veteran right tackle Brett Van Sloten means someone has to take on that role. Whether that's senior Andrew Donnal or redshirt freshman Ryan Ward could be determined this spring.
MINNESOTA

Spring start: March 4
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Mitch's pitches: Philip Nelson's transfer means redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner enters spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback. He's a load to bring down when he runs, but Leidner needs to improve his passing accuracy after completing 55 percent of his passes in the regular season and only half of his 22 attempts in the Texas Bowl game loss to Syracuse. Added experience should help. If not, he's got some talented youngsters such as Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy aiming to dethrone him.
  • Mitch's catchers: Of course, part of the problem behind the Gophers' Big Ten-worst passing offense was a lack of threats at receiver. Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones showed promise as true freshmen and should only improve with an offseason of work. It's critical that they do, or else Minnesota might have to count on three receiver signees early.
  • Replacing Ra'Shede: The Gophers only lost four senior starters, but defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman might be the most difficult to replace. The first-team All-Big Ten selection created havoc inside defensively, and there aren't many athletes like him floating around. Scott Ekpe could take many of Hageman's reps, but the defensive line overall will have to pick up the slack.
NEBRASKA

Spring start: March 8
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Tommy's turn: Sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. entered the offseason as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the first time after taking over for the injured Taylor Martinez (and splitting some snaps with Ron Kellogg III) last season. Armstrong showed maturity beyond his years in 2013 but needs to continue developing as a passer and deepen his understanding of the offense. Redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton could push him in the spring.
  • Get the OL up to speed: Nebraska loses a lot of experience on the offensive line, including both starting tackles (Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale), plus interior mainstays Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez and Cole Pensick. The Huskers do return seniors Mark Pelini, Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy, junior Zach Sterup, plus three freshmen and a junior-college transfer who redshirted last year. A strong group of incoming freshmen may also contribute. Big Red usually figures it out on the O-line, but there will be a lot of players in new roles this season.
  • Reload in the secondary: The Blackshirts have plenty of experience in the front seven, but the defensive backfield has a new coach (Charlton Warren) and will be without top playmakers Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans. The safety spot next to Corey Cooper was a problem area last season, and the Huskers are hoping Charles Jackson takes a major step forward. Warren has talent to work with but must find the right combination.
NORTHWESTERN

Spring start: Feb. 26
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Trevor's time?: Trevor Siemian split reps with Kain Colter at quarterback the past two seasons, serving as sort of the designated passer. Siemian threw for 414 yards in the season finale against Illinois and has a clear path toward starting with Colter gone. That could mean more of a pass-first offense than Northwestern ran with Colter. Redshirt freshman and heralded recruit Matt Alviti also looms as an option.
  • Manning the middle: Northwestern brings back a solid corps on defense but lost middle linebacker Damien Proby, who led the team in tackles the past two seasons. Pat Fitzgerald has some options, including making backups Drew Smith or Jaylen Prater a starter or moving Collin Ellis inside. He can experiment and find the best match this spring.
  • Patch it together: The Wildcats' health woes from 2013 aren't over, as 11 players will be held out of practice for medical reasons, including star running back/returner Venric Mark. Add in that the school doesn't have early enrollees, and the team will be trying to practice severely undermanned this spring. The biggest key is to get through spring without any more major problems and to get the injured guys healthy for the fall.
PURDUE

Spring start: March 6
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Moving forward: Purdue players wore T-shirts emblazoned with the word "Forward" during winter workouts, and no wonder. They don't want to look backward to last year's abysmal 1-11 season. It's time to turn the page and get some positive momentum going in Year 2 under Darrell Hazell. Luckily, optimism abounds in spring.
  • Trench focus: The Boilermakers simply couldn't cut it on the lines in Big Ten play, and Hazell went about trying to sign bigger offensive linemen this offseason for his physical style of play. Both starting tackles and three starting defensive linemen all graduated, and no one should feel safe about his job after last season's performance. Kentucky transfer Langston Newton (defense) and early enrollee Kirk Barron (offense) could push for playing time on the lines.
  • Find an identity: What was Purdue good at last season? Not much, as the team ranked near the bottom of the country in just about every major statistical category. The Boilers found some good things late in the passing game with freshmen Danny Etling and DeAngelo Yancey, but Hazell must do a better job instilling the toughness he wants and locating playmakers.
WISCONSIN

Spring start: March 7
Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Catching on: The biggest concern heading into the spring is at receiver after the team's only dependable wideout the past two seasons, Jared Abbrederis, graduated. Tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was second on the team in receiving yards last season, is also gone. The Badgers have struggled to develop new weapons in the passing game but now have no choice. Gary Andersen signed five receivers in the 2014 class but none enrolled early, so guys such as Kenzel Doe and Robert Wheelwright need to take charge this spring.
  • Stave-ing off the competition?: Joel Stave started all 13 games at quarterback last year, while no one else on the roster has any real experience under center. Yet the redshirt junior should face some competition this spring after the Badgers' passing game struggled down the stretch. Andersen likes more mobile quarterbacks and has three guys in Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy and freshman early enrollee D.J. Gillins, who can offer that skill. Stave must hold them off to keep his job.
  • New leaders on defense: Wisconsin lost a large group of seniors, including nine major contributors on the defensive side. That includes inside linebacker and team leader Chris Borland, plus defensive linemen Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer, outside linebacker Brendan Kelly and safety Dezmen Southward. That's a whole lot of leadership and production to replace, and the process begins in earnest this spring.

Badgers chopping their way to BCS bowl

November, 23, 2013
11/23/13
9:25
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MINNEAPOLIS -- It's tradition in the Paul Bunyan's Axe series for the winning team to grab the axe and hunt down both goal posts for some pretend chopping.

That tradition hit a slight snag on Saturday night. After No. 19 Wisconsin downed No. 25 Minnesota 20-7, the Badgers rushed to the west end zone at TCF Bank Stadium and attacked one of the goal posts. When they carried the axe to the opposite end zone, however, they found the Gophers' players and coaches blocking their path.

Some heated words were exchanged. There was some shoving. Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said a security officer pointed a finger in his face and told his team to leave. The Badgers never got to that goal post.

"It's happened for as long as I've been alive, going to both goal posts," Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Borland said. "They kind of crashed our party."

[+] EnlargeBeau Allen
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsBeau Allen and Wisconsin chopped down Minnesota and the Badgers' BCS bowl hopes are looking up.
For the most part, though, the Badgers simply laughed off the Minnesota blockade. And why not? Nobody has stopped them when it has mattered in nearly two months.

Wisconsin (9-2) has won six straight games since a 31-24 loss at Ohio State on Sept. 28, with all of those wins coming by at least 10 points. If this keeps up, it might prove difficult to keep Andersen's team from crashing the BCS party.

After three straight Rose Bowl trips, the Badgers are left hoping for an at-large bid since Ohio State clinched the Leaders Division spot in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday. They still need a sizable bump in the BCS standings, but perhaps a road win over a ranked team will provide that boost. Oregon's loss on Saturday might have also helped, as the Pac-12 might not get a second bid now.

Andersen has declined to campaign for his team. But they are doing the important work for him.

"When you have nine wins, you're very close to being a great football team," Andersen said. "I'm not so sure we're not a great team right now. If the season were over, I'd probably say they were a great team. But I don't want to tell them that yet."

Saturday's win was more of an efficient bloodletting than a showcase. The Gophers, who had won four straight Big Ten games behind some inspired play, went toe-to-toe with Wisconsin in the trenches early. Borland said it took some time to adjust to Minnesota's physical style, and the sub-zero wind chill didn't make the shoulder-pad slamming any more pleasant.

But after Minnesota grabbed a second-quarter lead on Aaron Hill's pick-six and then threatened again in Badgers territory, the Wisconsin defense clamped down. Brendan Kelly forced a fumble from quarterback Philip Nelson that Borland recovered, leading to an eventual touchdown. Another quick three-and-out defensive series set up a field goal for a 13-7 halftime lead.

Wisconsin caused a season-high three turnovers and limited Minnesota to just 185 total yards and 3.4 yards per play. For the third straight Big Ten game and the sixth time in 11 games overall, the Badgers defense did not allow an offensive touchdown.

"It's been fun to see this defense develop into what it is," Borland said.

The offense didn't do a whole lot after Joel Stave's third-quarter touchdown throw to Jared Abbrederis for the game's final points. But it says a lot that Wisconsin seemed disappointed with a 197-yard rushing effort.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said earlier in the week that the Badgers had no weaknesses. That's not quite true, as special teams remain shaky. One of kicker Jack Russell's field goal tries took a dogleg left, and Andersen broke out a bizarre fourth-quarter fake-field goal play that lost 7 yards. He said he'd been holding on to that play for weeks, and that he would definitely scrap it now.

Everything else, however, has been going Wisconsin's way. Now it's a wait-and-see game with the BCS standings.

"I think this team has a lot of talent and deserves a little more recognition," defensive lineman Ethan Hemer said. "Hopefully, a win like this will put us in that spot."

On Saturday, the players were just happy to celebrate a 10th consecutive win over Minnesota, the longest by either side in the 123-year history of the rivalry. Borland hoisted freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton on his shoulders, and Shelton held up a whiteboard that read "10 straight." The many Badgers fans who made the trip chanted, "10 more years."

"Ten's a great number," Borland told ESPN.com. "That's a decade of dominance."

The Badgers have been dominating everybody for nearly two months. It remains to be seen whether they can chop their way through the BCS road blocks.

We've become so accustomed to seeing Wisconsin blow out opponents, even excellent ones, at Camp Randall Stadium that many of us assumed the opener against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Northern Iowa would be a laugher.

But the Badgers weren't laughing in the fourth quarter Saturday. They were sweating. Big time.

The surprisingly game Panthers trailed just 26-21 and had the ball on the Wisconsin 41 late in the game. But a fourth-and-1 pass play was tipped away by Ethan Hemer, and the Badgers were able to run out the clock and survive.

It was a head-scratching result, especially since Northern Iowa didn't score during the first half. But the Badgers' defense gave up some big plays late, including a 55-yard touchdown pass and a 31-yard scoring strike on a fourth down that shaved the lead to five.

And while Danny O'Brien had a very efficient debut at quarterback (19-for-23, 219 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions), the Wisconsin offense lacked its normal explosiveness. Montee Ball ran for 120 yards and scored a touchdown for the 21st straight game. But he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, and the Badgers had 168 rushing yards as a team. Credit Northern Iowa's defense, but against a lot of opponents at home, especially FCS ones, you'd expect something like double that number on the ground for Bret Bielema's club.

Remember, though, that this team lost virtually its entire offensive coaching staff and replaced two All-Americans on the offensive line. There might be more of an adjustment period here than some wanted to believe.

The defense, after a strong first half, reverted to its troubling tendency of giving up big plays in the second half. Although Northern Iowa couldn't run the ball at all, quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen threw for 265 yards and three touchdowns, and Wisconsin did not cause any turnovers. The Panthers are a very good FCS team, but the Badgers usually bludgeon anyone who dares come into Madison.

Maybe this team won't have such an easy time this season. Wisconsin clearly has some things to clean up before going to Oregon State next week.
MADISON, Wis. -- The last time we saw Wisconsin's defense in a game, the Badgers were getting steamrolled by Oregon in the Rose Bowl, allowing 621 yards and 45 points.

The Ducks can make many defenses look bad, but a Big Ten champion isn't supposed to get punctured that severely. Badgers defensive coordinator Chris Ash said a handful of his players consistently lined up incorrectly or went to the wrong spots during that 45-38 loss on Jan. 2.

Oregon pulled out a few new wrinkles for the game, but that doesn't fully explain why a veteran defense with a month to prepare could have made so many fundamental mistakes.

"I've been searching for answers for a few months on that one," Ash told ESPN.com last week.

[+] EnlargeMike Taylor, Chris Borland
Richard Mackson/US PresswireWisconsin linebackers Mike Taylor, left, and Chris Borland combined for 293 tackles in 2011.
Mysteriousness surrounds much of what happened to Ash's side of the ball last season. The numbers say Wisconsin had a fantastic season on defense, as it finished 15th in the FBS in total defense and 13th in points allowed. Yet the lasting images of the Badgers' season revolve around the long passes given up at the end of losses to Michigan State and Ohio State and that Rose Bowl fiasco.

Last year's breakdowns hover over the team this spring and in some ways are guiding how the players are approaching this offseason preparation.

"Those things are fresh in our minds a little bit still," defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said. "We're definitely focusing more on the little things, making sure you're stepping right, you're in position, minimizing your missed alignments. We all realize that one play can make a big difference, and that requires us to be even sharper than we've been in the past. We don't want to be that team that gives up the big play."

This spring is about building depth as much as anything for the Badgers' defense. Only six starters return, while injuries have either shelved or slowed leading tacklers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland and projected starting defensive end David Gilbert. Starting cornerback Devin Smith is working himself into shape after a foot injury cost him most of 2011.

Borland and Taylor, who combined for 293 tackles last season, provide two anchors as one of the best linebacker combos in the country. Another strength could be at defensive tackle, where Hemer, Beau Allen and the emerging Warren Herring have all played well this spring. The defensive line still needs an explosive player on the edge, but the team is hopeful that Gilbert -- who played only four games last year and is out this spring with a foot injury -- can be that guy when healthy.

"When he got hurt, he was really starting to play at a high level," Ash said. "He's really one of the few guys we have who's naturally a pass-rusher."

The secondary lost two starting seniors in Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus, but Ash thinks Smith can be an all-conference cornerback this season. Dezmen Southward has replaced Henry at safety and continues to come along. He de-cleated running back Melvin Gordon on a crushing tackle during Saturday's scrimmage.

"We know we have to be the backbone of the defense," cornerback Marcus Cromartie said of the secondary. "We want to be the reason to win. We don't want to be a liability."

Wisconsin's defense has often been overshadowed by the team's offense, and last year the unit embraced its no-name status. This season, though, the players believe they have enough talent to forge their own identity.

"We feel like we deserve to be a defense that's on the radar," Smith said. "It starts with practice and film, but I think we can be one of those type defenses everybody talks about, like LSU and Alabama. We have to earn that respect."

It's a respect they'll have to earn by not allowing big plays and mental breakdowns to become the lasting images of 2012.
We covered all the offensive position groups in our postseason rankings series here, here, here and here. Now it's time to turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive tackle was the strongest position in the league in 2011, so that makes this a competitive situation. There are some major changes from our preseason order as well. Remember this is about overall production, and depth matters along with star power. The top four on this list are really, really strong.

Here we go:

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesWilliam Gholston and the Spartans' defensive line helped key a Michigan State win over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans finished with the top total defense in the Big Ten and one of the best in the nation, and it all started with a dominant front. All-American tackle Jerel Worthy commanded extra attention inside and was joined by Kevin Pickelman and Anthony Rashad White as forces inside. William Gholston was brilliant at times, never more so than in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia. And freshman Marcus Rush turned in an outstanding season at the other defensive end spot. The Spartans had no weaknesses at this position in 2011.

2. Michigan: We projected the Wolverines would make a significant leap in '11, but the amount of improvement still surprised us. The combination of head coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, both defensive line coaches at heart, and valuable seniors Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen made this the backbone of Michigan's Sugar Bowl run. The Wolverines were especially tough in short-yardage situations because their defensive front was so stout.

3. Penn State: Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still wrecked just about everybody's game plan with a huge senior campaign. Jordan Hill had a solid, underrated year next to him inside. Jack Crawford stayed healthy and contributed 6.5 sacks, while Eric Latimore and Sean Stanley combined for another 7.5 quarterback takedowns.

4. Illinois: Defensive end Whitney Mercilus was a consensus first-team All-American who led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles. Nobody saw that coming. He had good company along the line as well, with guys like Akeem Spence inside and Michael Buchanan at the other end spot. The Illini may have faltered down the stretch as a team, but the D-line stayed strong throughout the year.

5. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn't have many household names on the defensive line, and certainly no one stood out like J.J. Watt the year before. But Bret Bielema relied on a solid group of veterans that helped the team finish third in the league in total defense and fifth in sacks. Patrick Butrym, Louis Nzegwu, Brendan Kelly and Ethan Hemer were part of a group that played better than the sum of its parts.

6. Ohio State: The Buckeyes had one of the best defensive players in the league in John Simon, who had 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks in a breakout season. Tackle Johnathan Hankins emerged as a disrupter at 335 pounds. But Ohio State didn't get its usual production elsewhere on the line, got beat up as the season went along and lacked depth, which is one reason why Urban Meyer went out and signed so many pass rushers in his first recruiting class.

7. Nebraska: The biggest disappointment from the preseason, as the Huskers tumbled from their No. 1 ranking last summer. Jared Crick's season-ending injury hurt the production, but he was not putting up huge numbers before he tore his pectoral muscle. Cameron Meredith, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin had some nice moments, but Nebraska wasn't nearly as fierce up front as we thought it might be.

8. Purdue: Kawann Short turned in his best season, with 17 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks from his interior spot, while Bruce Gaston and Gerald Gooden provided solid support. But the Boilermakers' pass rush off the edge lacked explosiveness until freshman Ryan Russell started to come on late in the season. Everyone except Gooden returns, and with a new position coach Purdue hopes this unit can go from decent to great in 2012.

9. Iowa: Another disappointing crew, as the Hawkeyes proved it's not easy to replace three draft picks off the defensive line and simply reload. Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns were the senior anchors, but Iowa's pass rush was sluggish until late in the season. And there wasn't a whole lot of depth behind them. This group loses three starters and will be extremely young in 2012.

10. Northwestern: We ranked the Wildcats 10th in the preseason as well, but we still expected better things out of this group. Northwestern generated very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks and ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks. Vince Browne, a projected all-conference pick in the summer, had a subpar season with only 3.5 tackles for loss after putting up 15.5 in 2010. It's clear this group needs to get better for Northwestern to take the next step.

11. Minnesota: The Gophers weren't as terrible on the defensive front as they were in 2010, when they finished last in the nation with only nine sacks. In fact, they more than doubled that total with 19 last season. Still, it was a mostly anonymous crew that gave quarterbacks too much time to carve up the secondary in the passing game. Jerry Kill still needs to find more playmakers at this position.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers had problems all over the defense, and the line was no exception. Adam Replogle and Larry Black gave the unit some veteran leadership in the middle, but Indiana resorted to playing a lot of kids at the defensive end spots. The results were about what you'd expect.

Wisconsin-Michigan State pregame

October, 22, 2011
10/22/11
7:45
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- A few notes from warmups as we get set for No. 6 Wisconsin at No. 16 Michigan State.
  • Wisconsin top wide receiver Nick Toon went through warmups and didn't seem limited. Toon missed last week's game against Indiana with a left foot injury and had surgery on the foot during the offseason.
  • Badgers starting defensive tackle Patrick Butrym also warmed up but seemed to be favoring his left ankle, which he injured last week against Indiana. Butrym worked alongside fellow starter Ethan Hemer. Jordan Kohout likely would be the next man in at defensive tackle.
  • As expected, sophomore Denzel Drone worked as the starting defensive end in William Gholston's spot. Corey Freeman likely would be the next man in behind Drone.

Much more to come from Spartan Stadium. Don't forget to chat with us throughout the game.
Wisconsin had few surprises on its Week 1 depth chart, starting with the quarterback position.

NC State transfer Russell Wilson is listed as the Badgers’ No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart, released Monday night. Sophomore Jon Budmayr, who has been battling elbow problems and could need surgery, is listed as the backup.

Wilson has taken most of the reps with the first-team offense during preseason practice, drawing excellent reviews from his coaches, teammates and media members allowed to watch the workouts. He started the past three seasons for NC State and was named runner-up for ACC Offensive Player of the Year in 2010. Wilson threw for 8,545 yards and 76 touchdowns with 26 interceptions in his NC State career.

Wisconsin players voted Wilson a co-captain for the season even though the quarterback only joined the team in early July.

Other notes from the Badgers’ depth chart:
  • Josh Oglesby is listed as the starter at right tackle ahead of freshman Rob Havenstein.
  • Junior Shelton Johnson has won the starting strong safety spot after competing with Dezmen Southward throughout camp. He’ll play alongside Aaron Henry.
  • Sophomore Ethan Hemer is listed as a starting defensive tackle ahead of classmate Jordan Kohout.
  • Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie are listed as co-starters at cornerback opposite All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus. Smith entered camp with the inside track for the job but has been pushed by Cromartie, a talented junior.
  • Two other co-starters are listed: running backs Montee Ball and James White (no surprise) and kickers Philip Welch and Kyle French (bigger surprise). Welch is a three-year starter who coach Bret Bielema still likes to push in practice. Listing French as a co-starter seems like one way to light a fire.
  • White also is listed as a starting kick returner with receiver Jared Abbrederis. Is this too risky with the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year? Perhaps, but Wisconsin could use White’s speed as it replaces David Gilreath.

Notes from Wisconsin practice

August, 17, 2011
8/17/11
8:00
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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.
MADISON, Wis. -- A layer of snow or freezing rain or something yucky covered the Camp Randall Stadium field on Tuesday afternoon. Thankfully, Wisconsin held its practice inside the McClain Center, and I was there for most of it.

Some quick thoughts and notes from the Badgers' 13th workout of the spring.
  • Quarterback Jon Budmayr had a live arm and he showcased it several times during the practice, especially in team drills. Budmayr made a nice throw to a leaping Kenzel Doe, and he also found Jared Abbrederis for a good gain. The downside is he often looked hesitant in the pocket, which will cost him in games. Although he moves decently and can extend plays, he needs to get rid of the ball faster. It's important to note that top receiver Nick Toon isn't practicing following offseason foot surgery, and Budmayr doesn't have a ton of options at his disposal. Some will point to Budmayr's lack of size as a concern, but he can get it done if his decision making gets a bit better.
  • I don't think Budmayr will be pushed much for the starting job. Although redshirt freshman Joe Brennan and true freshman Joel Stave both have nice size and can spin it, their youth shows up at times and both players threw interceptions. Unless Curt Phillips makes amazing progress by fall camp, this will be Budmayr's team.
  • Senior cornerback Devin Smith had a very impressive practice. Smith, who served as Wisconsin's nickelback last season after starting in 2009, stepped in front of a receiver to intercept a Stave pass. Moments later, he won a 50-50 ball against Abbrederis for another interception. The Badgers should have the Big Ten's top cornerback tandem this fall with Smith and All-Big Ten selection Antonio Fenelus. Aaron Henry enters his second full season at safety, while sophomore Dezmen Southward seemed to get the most time as the second first-team safety, while second-team cornerback Peniel Jean recorded an interception. The secondary could be Wisconsin's strongest unit on defense this fall.
  • Wisconsin likely will account for its lack of wide receivers with more tight ends on the field this fall. Toon and Abbrederis are the team's only proven receivers, and I didn't see a clear No. 3 option Tuesday. The good news: there are quite a few options at tight end. Sophomore Manasseh Garner stood out to me Tuesday. Listed as a tight end, the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Garner can play on the edges and made several nice catches. The Badgers will use him as a pass-catcher.
  • Speaking of tight ends, no player impressed me more Tuesday than senior tight end Jake Byrne. He made several nice plays on vertical passes in the middle of the field. Byrne can really stretch the defense. Wisconsin should feature multiple tight ends a lot this fall as Byrne, Jacob Pedersen and Garner all are good options.
  • The pass game only needs to be serviceable because Wisconsin's rushing attack once again should be scary good. Top backs Montee Ball and James White looked good Tuesday, along with the mammoth offensive line. Both Ball and White transformed their bodies during the winter -- Ball slimmed down to 214 pounds and White strengthened his lower body -- and the gains are noticeable when you see them.
  • For depth chart aficionados, the first-team defensive line typically consisted of Louis Nzegwu and Brendan Kelly at the end spots and Patrick Butrym and Ethan Hemer at the tackle spots. Defensive end David Gilbert seemed to be dealing with some sort of ailment. The top linebackers were Mike Taylor, Kevin Claxton and redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter, a star of the spring who made some nice plays.

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