Wisconsin signed a big class of 25 scholarship players, plus four preferred walk-ons, on Wednesday. I caught up with Badgers head coach Gary Andersen for this Q&A about the class:
With one of the larger classes the Badgers have signed in a while, how did that affect your strategy?
Gary Andersen: The mindset walking into it, when we knew we would have a pretty big number with so many seniors leaving, was simply to look and see what position groups we needed and even our numbers. We wanted to even up our numbers in the classes as much as we could, but still use the opportunity to take care of what we need in our deficiencies. We got that done.
We got five wide receivers, five defensive backs and six offensive linemen -- those were tagged early on as we've got to get quality kids in that area. From there we just kind of fit in where we needed. We had to solidify the youth at the running back position and we needed to get an athletic quarterback who can do some things that we may want to move to as we go forward. We had inside linebacker tagged as taking two or three, but with the walk-ons we got and the ability to move Joe Schobert inside, we just took one inside linebacker. Which in turn gave us a chance to get another defensive tackle, and we got three of those kids.
The offensive line depth concerned you last year. Does this class now allow you to sleep better at night?
GA: It does. The numbers are better. But they're not going to be better in spring ball. We're down both our centers in spring ball, so Michael Deiter will walk in here as a true freshman and line up as the starting center for Wisconsin, and that's a unique opportunity. But we're evening out those numbers. Our goal is to be at 16 scholarship offensive linemen. We should be at 14 next year. So the waters are calming, but we've still got work to do. The challenge now is to find at least a couple of those young men who can challenge and back up next season. That will be big part of the 2014 season for us.
With Jared Abbrederis gone, do you expect some of these incoming receivers to play right away?
GA: I do. This group is very competitive. They're tough-minded kids. You're going to get the same-old from other people recruiting them, "Oh, why would you go to Wisconsin? They don't throw the ball." But they showed us their toughness and want-to and belief in the direction we want to head offensively by sticking with us, and I respect those kids for that. In turn, they're going to have that opportunity to compete.
But we all know that. Anybody who watched Wisconsin football last year can say Jared ended up getting double-teamed, and they ganged up on us in the box and wanted to stop the run and our offense became very difficult at times. Hopefully, a couple of those kids can come in here and help us. We're counting on that.
Will D.J. Gillins get a chance to compete right away at quarterback?
GA: That is the goal. We're walking into spring practice with a bunch of quarterbacks who we're going to try and get reps. That's a tremendous challenge for us as coaches to give them all an opportunity to compete, and we'll tweak some practice schedules. We want D.J. to be able to compete. That was the mindset of getting him in early, to give him an opportunity to compete in spring ball. Joel [Stave] is the starter, he started all our games last year. But you want to create competition at the quarterback spot just like you want to at every position. So it will be a competitive spring.
What do you like about the defensive backs you brought in?
GA: As a whole, I would use the word competitive, and I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but they are. And we need three of those five to come in and compete and play as freshman. I'm not going to say they're going to come in and start, but they've got to come in and compete. Austin [Hudson] is here, and he's really the one I'd look at and say he's definitely a true, true safety. Lubern [Figaro] and Serge [Trezy] are tabbed as safeties, but they have the ability to play corner. With [Tanner] McEvoy moving back to quarterback and obviously Dez Southward moving on in his career to hopefully play in the NFL, the safety spot is wide open, so Austin will have some opportunities this spring.
All the kids can run, all are good athletes and I think they all have good ball skills. Hopefully they can all break into what Sojourn [Shelton] did a year ago. Of course, the kids in our program here are working hard to make sure that doesn't happen, and that's what you want.
Do you feel like you've added speed to the perimeter with this class?
GA: That really was one of our major goals, and I think we've accomplished that at the wide receiver and the corner spot. And I feel really good about the speed and the versatility of the three running backs we've signed. I'd also say on the defensive line, they're all very talented athletes that run very well. So hopefully our athleticism shows up next year on the field and in years to come, that we're a team that can make those special plays that really flip a season upside down. That doesn't have one ounce to do with coaching, it has to do with athletic ability. I think we've made progress there, but time will tell.
It seems like you cast a wide net in this class, with players from Hawaii, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee ...
GA: We did. I think when you're at Wisconsin and you walk into any high school in the country or any junior college, and you walk in with motion "W" on your chest, they understand where you're from, understand who you are. Recruiting nationally is something we will do, but we still have our core areas -- which are No. 1, right here in Wisconsin and in the Midwest. But we will branch out nationally when we do have the right kid in the right spot, for sure.
Lastly, running backs coach Thomas Hammock left for the NFL today. Was that a surprise, and what's the plan there moving forward?
GA: We'll make it very peaceful and move through the process I always go through. It's important for me to find a coach that No. 1 is going to take care of the kids and No. 2 is a tremendous recruiter. Thomas was coaching the running backs here at 6:30 in the morning, and he had a decision to make and obviously he made that decision. He wanted to communicate first with the kids, and I think that's so important. It's a decision he and his family made, and I support it. We wish him all the best, but we'll go through the process and get another quality coach here to take care of these kids.