Wisconsin begins spring practice armed to defend Big Ten West title

Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale are gone, which should give Bradrick Shaw more opportunities in the backfield. Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire

Wisconsin has proven itself to be one of the most consistent teams in the Big Ten for years. And as the 2017 season approaches, there is little reason to believe the Badgers won't continue their astonishing run of success.

While preseason ballots won't be placed until July, it's a good bet many pundits will pick Wisconsin as the favorite to win the Big Ten West. If that prognostication holds true to form during the season, it would mark the fifth time in the past seven years that the Badgers appeared in the Big Ten championship game.

Badgers coach Paul Chryst enters his third season in charge and, at 21-6 overall, he already has established himself as one of the best coaches in the league. Although he made a couple tweaks to his coaching staff in the offseason, the system and style of play will remain the same. That's good news for Badgers fans, whose team should have an opportunity to win double-digit games for a fourth consecutive season.

The talent is in place. Now, it's up to players and coaches to use the weeks before games arrive in September to hone that skill and prepare to capture the West Division again.

Spring schedule: Wisconsin opens spring practice Tuesday and will follow a Tuesday, Thursday, Friday schedule in most weeks. The Badgers will only practice twice in the first week before taking a spring break hiatus. Wisconsin will hold its annual spring game on Friday, April 21 at 7:30 p.m. ET.

What's new: Former Badgers defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox left after one season to become the head coach at Cal. This season, Jim Leonhard will be stepping into Wilcox's role, and it will be fascinating to see how Leonhard does. Leonhard, at age 34, could be one of the rising stars in the college coaching ranks but is largely unproven in that capacity. He was a three-time All-American safety at Wisconsin and a 10-year NFL veteran who coached the Badgers' defensive backs last season. Although it marked his only year as a college coach, he did enough to impress Chryst, who entrusted Leonhard with taking over the defense. Chryst also hired Bob Bostad to become Wisconsin's inside linebackers coach. Bostad served as an assistant at Wisconsin from 2006-11, but this will mark the first time in his 27-year coaching career that he works on the defensive side.

Three things we want to see:

1. A new left tackle to emerge: Ryan Ramczyk was an athletic, mauling freak of nature who played one season worth of games at the FBS level and established himself as perhaps the top offensive linemen in the upcoming NFL draft. Despite his departure, the Badgers return four starters on the offensive line and several others who gained valuable playing experience. That group includes Jon Dietzen, Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel, Jacob Maxwell, Brett Connors, David Edwards and Micah Kapoi. Edwards was successful as a late-season starter, replacing an injured Maxwell at right tackle. If coaches opt to keep Edwards at right tackle, left tackle could feature a competition between David Moorman and Cole Van Lanen. While Wisconsin won't have a player as physically dominant as Ramczyk, the offensive line should once again be a major unit of strength.

2. How the running backs perform: Wisconsin's top two running backs from a year ago, Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, are gone. Clement produced a solid senior season with 1,375 yards and 15 touchdowns. Ogunbowale added 506 rushing yards with five touchdowns and was Wisconsin's best pass-catcher out of the backfield. Now, it likely will be up to the trio of Bradrick Shaw, Chris James and Taiwan Deal to carry on the Badgers' backfield tradition. Deal will miss spring practice after undergoing offseason ankle surgery. He has been saddled with injuries for much of his college career but is a bruiser who can be effective as part of a rotation. Shaw really wowed as a redshirt freshman a year ago and finished with 457 rushing yards and five touchdowns. James spent last season on the Badgers' scout team while taking a redshirt year after transferring from Pittsburgh. He played in 23 games over two seasons at Pitt and rushed for 690 yards. Running backs coach John Settle has a lot of talent to work with, but none of those players has been a featured tailback in college yet.

How the defense develops under Leonhard: Wisconsin will enter spring with its third defensive coordinator in the past three seasons. The previous two coordinators -- Dave Aranda and Wilcox -- left for better professional opportunities and more money. Leonhard, a Wisconsin native and all-time Badgers great, could be a longer-term solution at defensive coordinator. His football acumen is unquestioned, but this is uncharted territory in many respects for Leonhard, who must continue to build on one of the best defenses in college football from the past few years. The good news is that he has so much returning skill that it should make the transition easier. The entire starting defensive line is back, as are four excellent inside linebackers -- Chris Orr, Jack Cichy, Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards. The biggest question is how Wisconsin replaces outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. Perhaps some combination of Garret Dooley, Zack Baun and junior-college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel is the answer. The Badgers also return two starters in a secondary that Leonhard exclusively coached last season. This defense should again be one of the best in the nation, and how Leonhard puts his own spin on it will be fun to watch.