MADISON - Through 14 practices, the Wisconsin football team has been able to practice their craft and hone their skills in anticipation of today's annual spring game. Now, after five weeks of practice, the players have an opportunity to showcase their improvement to the Badger faithful inside Camp Randall Stadium.
Before the day's festivities begin, BadgerBlitz.com focuses on a few themes to watch during the game.
1.) A pressing matter
Remember last year, and even years before that, when the defense would get a team into a third and short situation only to have it's cornerbacks give the opposing team's wide receiver so much cushion that an easy screen pass would be more than enough to pick up the first down?
Well, so does new defensive backs coach Chris Ash. And as a result, Ash has his cornerbacks pressing and jamming receivers at the line at a much more frequent rate.
"That's just his aggressive attitude," UW junior safety Aaron Henry said following a recent practice. "With us being able to press a little more, hopefully we can cause a little more disruption. He's working on those guys as far as their technique and fundamentals off the line.
"If those guys can work on it, and they have been getting better on their press technique, then that could delay the quarterback and hopefully the defensive line can get to the cornerback."
This change in style has been welcomed throughout the secondary. Devin Smith, who admittedly isn't where he wants to be in regards to his technique, is willing to work on getting better.
Antonio Fenelus, a player that calls himself physical is completely in favor of pressing more at the line of scrimmage.
"We're pressing almost every play now," Fenelus said. "I like it because I pressed a lot in high school so it's a big change. I'm a real physical corner so I love pressing."
For a secondary that has developed the misfortune of being labeled inconsistent, the move to press coverage is a welcome sign that a serious self-critique has been put into motion.
It was simply a needed change.
"We have guys, especially coming from the programs they're coming from in high school, that's all they're used to doing," Henry said. "When they come up here and you're taught to play off it's been an adjustment. I understand that guys are going to have different abilities and what not, but if you can get into somebody's grill and press them, maybe not the whole game, but definitely more than we used to do, it can definitely disrupt them."
Today, in essence, will be the first time the more aggressive secondary will be on display.
2.) The quarterback shuffle
No, there is not really another quarterback position battle going on this time around. Instead, there is a bit of a quarterback shortage. With Scott Tolzien and Jon Budmayr the only two quarterbacks, other than seldom-used reserve Nate Tice on the current roster, one could expect plenty of reps for the two signal callers.
However, after Thursday's practice, UW head coach Bret Bielema said Tolzien would start off with the ones before stepping aside for Budmayr later in the game. When Budmayr comes over to the No. 1 unit, Tice will "take it home" for the second stringers.
Without Curt Phillips it has become apparent that the quarterback position is a bit shallow depth wise. While both Tolzien and Budmayr have had plenty of success throughout camp, both have suffered their fair amount of setbacks.
Today, it will be interesting to see if either, or both of them, step up their game in front of a crowd and put a cap on what has been a productive spring camp for each of them.
3.) Position changes
Really, there have only been two legitimate position changes on the team this spring. Junior Kevin Claxton joined the ranks of the linebackers while freshman Conor O'Neill shifted back to the safeties.
In short, both have made strides and should make an impact at their new position by the time their respective career is over. Claxton, who had never played linebacker prior to this spring, proved to be a fast learner. He didn't seem to miss a beat this spring and proved he could be an effective player potentially in nickel situations.
If anything, his big body packs a punch inside the defensive front seven.
At the back end, O'Neill, who is fresh off a redshirt season, has proven he is fast enough to play the safety position. He, like Claxton, seems to be a fast learner and is providing some depth at the position.
When the crowd fills into the stadium, it will be interesting to see whether both players are able to remain focused after practicing the past five weeks in an empty stadium.
When asked what he was hoping to see during today's game, Bielema didn't hesitate with an answer.
"First off," Bielema said. "Everybody that takes the field, I want to come off the field."
For the most part, the Badgers have been able to stay healthy throughout camp and the fifth-year head coach would like to see it stay that way.
Other than a few nicks and bruises, nobody that wasn't expected to has missed a lot of action this spring. It seems as though Nick Toon may be the only player to not suit up for Saturday's festivities after suffering an injury a week ago during a team scrimmage.
However, that injury didn't seem serious and more precautionary than anything else.
Otherwise, both Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt, two players that missed the first half of spring, will be good to go so the full complement of offensive linemen will be on display inside Camp Randall.
With fall camp less then four months away, the last thing anybody following the Badgers wants to see is a serious injury during a meaningless game in April. Knowing that, expect to see the players playing hard during today's game, but not out of control since they are playing against one another.
No injury is a good injury.
The game is set to begin at 2:00 p.m. (central) and can be seen live streamed on BigTenNetwork.com for a fee of $2.99.
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