While defending Big Ten Conference champion Wisconsin returns some key pieces from last year's squad, the Badgers still have some big questions left to answer after wrapping up spring practice.
Armed with another stacked running game and defensive front seven, Wisconsin is hoping incoming transfer quarterback Danny O'Brien can replicate some of Russell Wilson's magic and guide the Badgers to another conference title and Rose Bowl berth.
Over the next few weeks, HuskerOnline.com will go in-depth on NU's 12 opponents coming out of the spring and what their strengths and weaknesses are heading into the 2012 season. Today, we caught up with BadgerBlitz.com publisher Jon McNamara to get his thoughts and perceptive on the Badgers coming out of spring ball.
Seeing how O'Brien won't officially join the team until this summer, it sounds like Wisconsin didn't get many answers at the quarterback position this spring.
"It was pretty shaky this spring because you only had two guys healthy in Joe Brennan, who's going to be redshirt sophomore next year, and Joel Stave, who's going to be redshirt freshman in the fall. So it was really just two healthy bodies that they had. Brennan was pretty disappointing again, but Joel Stave showed some pretty decent signs. He kind of ended spring camp as the No. 1 guy, but all signs kind of point to Danny O'Brien. He's coming in June 1, so he'll have the summer and the fall to kind of get acquainted and stuff like that. All signs kind of point to him being the starter. Obviously no one's going to name him the starter this early, but everyone kind of expects him to come in and win that job.
"If he's going to get some competition, it'll likely come from Joel Stave, who had a pretty good spring for just being a true freshman. The other guy is Curt Phillips, who's going to be a senior next year, and he's coming off three knee surgeries, so you don't know what you're going to get out of him. Jon Budmayr, he's been injured since he's been on campus at quarterback. Those two, you don't know what you're going to get out of them, so right now they're pretty much expecting to have three quarterbacks healthy for fall camp, and all signs kind of point to Danny O'Brien being that starter once fall roles around."
I'm assuming the plan will be to lean on the running game while O'Brien settles into the offense, like they did with Wilson last year?
"Running back is by far their strongest position. Montee Ball is back. James White is back. Behind those two, Melvin Gordon had an excellent spring camp. In the spring game, he carried the ball 20-plus times and I think he had 130 yards and a touchdown. He was certainly one of the standouts for spring camp, and I think he's going to push for that No. 3 spot. Even behind him, there's Jeffrey Lewis, who's certainly capable of contributing. So they've got four guys at tailback that can contribute this season. Obviously Montee Ball is going to get the bulk of the carries. They'll probably try to give him a Heisman push and give him as many touches as they can early on. So that's the strongest position probably on the team for 2012."
Wisconsin also lost three starters on the offensive line from last year, including a couple NFL draft picks. How did the Badgers look up from this spring?
"The offensive line should be pretty solid even though they lost three starters. Ricky Wagner at left tackle, I think he'll be on the Outland Trophy list and probably he'll get on there as the list trims down throughout the year. A lot of people think pretty high things about him out here. He should be pretty good at left tackle. Then you have Travis Frederick at center. He's another guy who should be really solid for Wisconsin up front. He'll probably be one of the leaders on this team."
Aside from quarterback, what's the next biggest question mark for this team right now?
"Wide receiver is probably another question mark too. Jared Abbrederis comes back, but he sat out all spring camp. Behind him, they're just begging for someone to step up. Marquis Mason, Chase Hammond, Isaiah Williams, Jeff Duckworth - all those guys have shown signs this spring, but no one's separated from the pack. That'll be a big issue in fall camp; who's going to step up and be that No. 2 and No. 3 option behind Abbrederis? At tight end they should be pretty strong. They have Jacob Pedersen coming back, and then Brian Wozniak coming back along with Austin Maly and Austin Traylor, the redshirt freshmen who will be able to compete for some time as well. That's another position that's pretty well stacked for them."
How about on the other side of the ball? Would you say the secondary is the biggest issue for the defense right now?
"They'll have Shelton Johnson coming back at safety, and opposite of him is most likely going to be Dezmen Southward, but he's been inconsistent as well. They're looking for a little bit more out of that position. Cornerback should be OK. They get Marcus Cromartie back. He was a starter last season, and Devin Smith will be back. He actually redshirted last season after breaking his ankle. They should be alright at cornerback, but it's certainly not expected to be a strong position for them. That secondary is going to be a little shaky, and they're going to look to fix things up in fall camp.
Any other areas of concern coming out of spring ball?
"A big issue for Wisconsin that a lot of people aren't talking about is they have to replace their long snapper, their punter and their place kicker from last year. They were all seniors, and they're all fighting for an NFL job right now. Drew Meyer, who's a true freshman and will be a redshirt freshman this fall, he's expected to take over the punting job, and Kyle French at kicker and James McGuire at long snapper are the guys penciled in right now. But there's definitely some question marks there, and they were kind of spoiled last year having three seniors at their specialist positions."
The coaching staff took a huge hit this offseason as well. How have the new coaches settled in with the team so far?
"Yeah, obviously they lost six guys, which is the biggest turnover really since Bielema has been here, and even when Barry Alvarez got here, when that staff turned over there was about the same amount of guys. I think a lot of guys are still getting their feet wet and still kind of learning their recruiting territories. But he hired some young, energetic coaches that seem to be fitting in really well. I think you'll be able to see a little more during fall camp and as the season unfolds just how strong they are. One guy, Mike Markuson on the offensive line, he seems to be doing a real good job. They haven't lost a beat yet. He's coming from the SEC (Arkansas and Ole Miss) where he has a ton of experience.
"Some of the other guys like Ben Strickland, who played at Wisconsin and was a G.A., he's stepping into the secondary role with the defensive backs. He's an unproven guy. This is his first year, so he's got a lot to prove. He's got pretty high expectations, so we'll see what happens. There's still some strong numbers from the staff last year with Thomas Hammock at the running back spot and Charlie Partridge on the defensive line and Chris Ash as the defensive coordinator. So there's some guys who have been around the culture, but there's certainly some new guys who need to learn things on the fly because they had such a turnover in the offseason."
With all the questions you've mentioned and the players and coaches Wisconsin lost from last season, are the expectations still that this team can compete for another Big Ten championship this year?
"I think a lot of people that follow the program think that this is a team that can compete for another Big Ten title, specifically with Nebraska. That's going to be a very challenging game, and people out here know that. I think a lot of people in Nebraska can't wait for Wisconsin to come to them this year, and that should be an excellent game. But realistically, I think especially with Danny O'Brien coming in, I think a lot of people think he'll come in and solidify that quarterback position, not to the same effect that Russell Wilson did because he did such an unbelievable job, but I think if you get some stability there for Danny O'Brien, he can make those plays and manage the game for you. A lot of people think Wisconsin could be another Big Ten contender this year. This team is certainly not going to be a national title contender, but they could probably sneak into the Rose Bowl if things go right for them this year."