Posted on 16 April 2010.
Camp Randall will be alive with the sights and sounds of football for Saturday's spring game.
By: Brian Mosgaller
Much ado about something relatively unimportant. While that may not roll off the tongue quite like the title of the Shakespearean comedy, I think it aptly describes the fanfare surrounding the ritual that is the spring game.
Now, it’s understandable that football-starved fans behave like teen girls at a Justin Bieber concert when presented with their first real football action in months. For better or worse, football has usurped baseball as America’s sport and, as such, people simply can’t get enough. It’s the sole reason why Mel Kiper and Todd McShay have logged more TV face time in the last month than Kim Kardashian (and, yes, I did just drop Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian in the same paragraph).
Plus, there’s nothing Playboy’s recently-tabbed No. 3 party school loves more than an excuse to tailgate (read: drink all day long).
But although fans may get their Badger undies in a bundle over the cardinal-and-white scrimmage to be played tomorrow at Camp Randall (kick at 2 p.m.), the unavoidable truth is that no matter what transpires, it will be blown out of proportion.
For evidence, recall then-redshirt-freshman Curt Phillips’ maestro performance in last year’s contest: Phillips completed 10-of-16 passes for 122 yards and two scores, springboarding the much ballyhooed QB to a breakout year. Oh wait. That’s right. Phillips ended up throwing 12 passes in 2009.
With the vacuum between bowl games and the start of the season in August, it’s natural for people to overanalyze, scrutinize and dissect the small sample they have to go on. Yet, the fact is, what we’re getting tomorrow afternoon is but an indication.
Between now and the first week of September (when UW kicks off its year in Vegas against UNLV), any number of things could happen. Injury, improvement or idiocy could radically alter the course of the upcoming year. You never know when a Curt Phillips will tear up his knee, or when a liquored up linebacker will ill-advisedly hop on his moped (sorry, Mr. Casillas, low blow).
Moreover, both No. 1 running back John Clay and No. 1 receiver Nick Toon (both redshirt juniors) will sit out Saturday’s scrimmage, lending even less credence to the exhibition.
The point is, take the action with a grain of salt. Regardless of what happens tomorrow, the Badgers will bring some of the highest hopes in program history into the 2010 season. The team returns 18 of 22 starters from a 10-3 team which capped its season by dispatching an athletically superior Miami squad in the Champs Sports Bowl. They should be pretty damn good this season and the spring game won’t change that.
Now, having said all that, the spring game is nevertheless moderately valuable in that it can raise important questions about a team’s shortcomings. Despite bringing back an entire offensive line, an entire wideout corps, three quality running backs (and one Heisman candidate) and a quarterback with a full season under his belt, the offense will lose Garrett Graham, the departed tight end who will be playing on a different weekend day come fall. And on defense, as most fans know, there are lingering questions/problems that need to be upgraded before this team can make a run at immortality.
Which is why I’ll be closely watching tomorrow to gain insight, if only a limited amount.
And here’s what I’ll be watching for…
The performance of Jon Budmayr
When Curt Phillips tore his ACL early in spring ball, vaulting Budmayr into a backup role, it really didn’t create all that much of a stir. Sure, losing Phillips takes away a potential offensive weapon and a solid replacement option were Scott Tolzien to get hurt, but Phillips hardly saw the field last year. If this team is to reach the promised land, it will likely be largely on the shoulders of the unassuming senior quarterback.
At the same time, however, Phillips’ injury reminds us of the fragility of football. It is not at all out of the realm of possibility to imagine Tolzien getting rolled up and rolled off, putting an untested Budmayr at the helm.
Therefore, Budmayr has the opportunity tomorrow to reassure fans that all is not lost if Tolzien goes down. Conversely, a poor performance could cause hyperventilation with every Tolzien dropback come fall. The buzz out of last week’s tune-up scrimmage was that Budmayr had thrown three interceptions – one to linebacker A.J. Fenton and two to cornerback Marcus Cromartie. A repeat performance like that could very well shake the confidence of the redshirt freshman, as well as Badger fans.
Montee Ball and Jared Abbrederis
Though Ball and Abbrederis aren’t names that resonate with your casual fan like, say, Clay and Toon, they could be the difference with this offense being good and great. At times last year, Ball (then a freshman) showed talent that was hard to keep off the field. When thrust into full-time duty at Indiana last November, Ball responded with 115 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries.
Considering senior Zach Brown, who started five games last season returns as well, the emergence of Ball as a consistent home-run threat running and receiving could give the Badgers one of the most feared backfields in all of college football.
Ball is a little banged up due to a Jay Valai hit (if you aren’t quite sure why that could go without saying, please YouTube Mr. Valai), but I’m still eager to see his decision-making against the first-team “D.”
Unlike Ball, Abbrederis has yet to prove himself in live game action, as he was redshirted last season. But the 6-foot-2, 181-pound receiver from Wautoma, Wis., has been the talk of the spring. A state-champion hurdler, Abbrederis has shown off game-breaking speed in spring camp, while also reportedly developing a bond with Budmayr. With Toon, Isaac Anderson, Kyle Jefferson and David Gilreath all returning, the addition of a dynamic speedster could really open up offensive coordinator Paul Chryst’s attack.
O’Brien Schofield that is. Without Schofield, the all-Big Ten defensive end who finished second in the country last season with 24.5 tackles for loss, I don’t want to think about where the Badger “D” would have been. Head coach Bret Bielema even said the team’s best option to pressure the quarterback was, at times, not to blitz anyone, but to simply let OB loose.
Well, OB is now gone. As is defensive tackle Joe Stahle. In fact, the D-line may be the biggest question mark of all heading into the 2010 year.
Therefore, my eyes will be on redshirt junior Louis Nzegwu, a 6-foot-4, 247-pound defensive end, who will be counted on to diminish the impact of Schofield’s departure, and redshirt freshman Jordan Kohout, a highly-touted 6-foot-3, 292-pound defensive tackle. We know J.J. Watt will be a solid anchor on the defensive interior, but if Nzegwu and Kohout can make a seamless transition, Schofield’s absence could be an afterthought.
The Defensive Backfield
For what seems like, well, since the days of Jamar Fletcher and Mike Echols, the Badgers secondary has been suspect. In particular, susceptibility to big plays has been one of the team’s Achilles’ heels for at least three years. And it doesn’t help that senior captain and leader Chris Maragos has used up his eligibility.
Yet, there is hope. Aaron Henry, primarily the team’s nickel corner last year, will make the move to safety to replace Maragos. Although trepidation naturally ensues when such a move is announced, Bielema said that when he recruited Henry he envisioned using him as a safety. Additionally, anyone who has Henry knows he has the athletic capacity to facilitate such a switch. Personally, I am quite intrigued by the potential of a Henry-Valai safety duo.
On the outside, there is a four-way competition for PT. Devin Smith, the only one who started more than six games in 2009, Niles Brinkley, Antonio Fenelus, and Cromartie, all could earn the starting nod. Whoever it is, though, improvement is required. Even if 217.5 passing yards surrendered per game isn’t abominable, it isn’t good. And the 21 touchdowns allowed through the air is downright turribull (as Sir Charles would say).
The talent is on the roster to do better. Hopefully it starts tomorrow.
But either way, let’s remember, take it with a grain of salt.