MADISON, Wis. -- The Wisconsin Badgers are on the practice field (thankfully inside the McClain Center) right now, and I'll post a list of observations and other nuggets Wednesday morning.
I had a chance to visit with head coach Bret Bielema, assistants Paul Chryst and Charlie Partridge and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym today. Wisconsin is aware of all the stars it loses from the 2010 team, but the coaches are confident they can fill the gaps, pointing to their track record of developing players. This isn't a program that can survive lapses in leadership and work ethic (see: the 2008 season), but it seems like those areas have been strong so far. Butrym and safety Aaron Henry are taking charge on defense, while receiver Nick Toon and fullback Bradie Ewing are two potential leaders for the offense.
Here are a few notes:
Jon Budmayr entered the spring as the favorite to land Wisconsin's No. 1 quarterback spot, and nothing really has changed. Although Budmayr has had his ups and downs, Curt Phillips is still recovering from ACL surgery and it's hard to call Joe Brennan or Joel Stave legit threats for the top job right now. Budmayr has taken the bulk of the reps, and barring a setback this summer or a truly incredible surge by Phillips, I'd be surprised if he doesn't start Sept. 1 against UNLV. "You don't have a true competition with veteran guys," Chryst said. Chryst added that while a starter will be named at some stage, the race isn't a huge focal point right now. "We don't spend as much time on that as we do with each guy [saying], 'How can you get better today?'" he said.
The other big hole comes at defensive end, where Wisconsin must replace All-American J.J. Watt. Three players have separated themselves: redshirt senior Louis Nzegwu, who started opposite Watt last season, and juniors David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly. While Nzegwu and Gilbert were expected to step up, Kelly has really come on strong this spring after redshirting in 2010 and missing time in both 2009 and 2008 with injuries. I remember the hype around Kelly as a true freshman in 2008 until he hurt himself against Ohio State. The good news is Wisconsin boasts plenty of options inside, led by Butrym. "Probably as deep at D-tackle as we've been since I've been here," Bielema said.
The two players currently limited by injuries who really need to come back strong are Toon and linebacker Chris Borland. Wisconsin is extremely thin at receiver. Jared Abbrederis has had a good spring and provides a nice No. 2 option, but the coaches want to see more from Jeff Duckworth and others. Toon had somewhat of a disappointing junior season, but he has All-Big Ten capabilities. Borland can help with the versatility and playmaking Wisconsin loses with Watt's departure. He also would solidify the linebacking corps with Mike Taylor and Kevin Claxton. The recurring issues are a concern, but Borland can provide a major boost on defense if he can stay healthy.
The coaches don't want to minimize the losses of players like Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, John Clay and Bill Nagy, but Wisconsin is very confident in its ability to run the ball at a high level this fall. Running backs Montee Ball and James White both have had strong springs, and Kevin Zeitler, Ricky Wagner and Peter Konz will lead the way on the offensive line. "Up front, we're going to be very, very good," Bielema said. "No question we have guys who can step into the roles that Gabe and John and Bill left."
Wisconsin seems to have moved on well from the Rose Bowl, although there are still reminders of the 21-19 loss to TCU in Pasadena. "Watching ESPN and Gruden Camp [Monday] night and they had [TCU quarterback Andy Dalton] on there, and it's all about the Rose Bowl and I'm like, 'Aw, jeez!'" Bielema said. "Makes me want to turn it off." We hope you keep watching, Bret.
I'll have more on the Badgers in the coming days, so stay tuned.