Wisconsin's offense has put up record-setting numbers in each of the past two seasons, surviving key personnel losses after the 2010 campaign, only to reload in 2011. The Badgers have ranked in the top 25 nationally in rushing in each of the past five seasons, replacing productive running backs and offensive linemen almost every year. The one constant throughout had been offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, but he's no longer in Madison after taking the head-coaching job at Pitt.
Bret Bielema selected Northern Illinois offensive coordinator Matt Canada to replace Chryst. Canada, one of six new Badgers assistants for the 2012 season, returns to the Big Ten after spending seven seasons at Indiana from 2004-10, the last four as IU's offensive coordinator. While he ran a spread offense at both Indiana and NIU, he'll direct a pro-style system in Madison that has become Wisconsin's identity. Canada's biggest priority: keep the momentum going.
ESPN.com recently caught up with Canada. Here are his thoughts:
You expressed a lot of excitement about this job when you were hired. What has it been like being in Madison these last few weeks?
Matt Canada: I'm still real excited. It's a great place, and I continue to enjoy the opportunity that's been presented. I'm really excited about getting to know the players, and very, very happy with what great kids we have here in the program. Obviously, there's a reason for the success that's going on here. We've got great players, and [Bielema] has put together a really good staff. I'm excited about getting to know all the staff, focusing with the offense, obviously, and reconnecting with a couple guys I knew and getting to know a couple guys I don't. It's been a really, really good month.
What was your perception of Wisconsin from the outside, and how has that changed being on the inside?
MC: My perception is it's a very physical program. They're going to come in and run the football and stop the run. They do the things the right way. They're very, very sound. They don't beat themselves. And you come in and study the film, and it's exactly what I thought it was. I've played against them for a lot of years and been around the program as an opponent, so I've spent time studying it because it's a program you look at and want to emulate in why they are so successful. I don't think it's anything different [being there]. Things are even better than you thought they might be.
Bret wanted to bring in assistants from different backgrounds and different parts of the country. How many of the offensive assistants did you know and how many were you involved in bringing in?
MC: Well, I knew all but one, and the other one, I had a chance to be involved in the interviewing process. Thomas Hammock, obviously I coached when he was a running back at Northern Illinois. I was involved in recruiting Thomas and then coached him as a position coach for a couple of years, so I've known him a long, long time. Eddie Faulkner, who we hired, I worked with last year at Northern Illinois. Zach Azzanni, I've known through recruiting, so not as well, and then Mike Markuson, I was simply involved with [Bielema] on making that decision. I've known two really well, if you want to be specific.
You have a varied background, running some spread, running some pro-style. I know Bret wants to keep the pro-style in place. How do you blend your background with what Wisconsin has done and what it wants the identity to be?
MC: The identity won't change. There's no question what this place is about. Our job as coaches is putting our kids in positions to make plays and utilize the talent you've got. We certainly have talent on this team to continue to run what is considered a pro-style, downhill offense. We're going to continue to do that. Our recruiting base gives us a chance to recruit those types of players, so we're going to continue to be what Wisconsin has been. There's a reason I wanted to be here so bad. I certainly am well aware of what has gone on here. We're not going to come in here and change something that's not broke. Obviously, there's going to be nuances and little things. We all coach in our own way, we all have our own tendencies and things that we like, but the general rule is it's going to stay the same.
Is the Northern Illinois offense you coordinated in 2003 the most similar to what you want to do with Wisconsin now, rather than what you did at Indiana or NIU the second time?
MC: I would say so. We had a real special back [Michael Turner]. We had [Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle] Doug Free on the line. He was a young kid then. We had some pretty good linemen. We had some good tight ends, both went on to play in the league. So we had a real good program and real good players that year. It was such a special year. I feel good about what we've done in the sense that at certain times we used our talent as what it was. Obviously, we had a great runner in Michael and were able to utilize him. We go to Indiana and had some success with Kellen Lewis, who people considered a running type of quarterback. Ben Chappell was a drop-back guy. And you go to Northern and we rushed for 250 yards a game for the majority of the season in a different way. So we're going to maximize our talent. We've got a really good staff on offense, guys who are going to find ways to use what we've got, matchups and all the things that come along with it. We certainly understand how the system is going to work.
A lot of people on the outside see Wisconsin and these two record-setting seasons on offense. Now there's all this change with players and coaches. Is it a challenge to keep the momentum going with all the transition?
MC: It's all the way around. They won two Big Ten titles here, so obviously the challenge is to be great today and keep doing everything that's been done. But as a competitor, you have that regardless. I've been very, very fortunate, you look at the last two moves I had to make. I went to a program that won 11 games [in 2010] and we came in and found a way to do it again and go ahead and get the championship and win a bowl game and all those things we wanted to do. You compete against today. You compete against where you are and being great today. That's what we're going to do. We're certainly respectful of what we've done, but we're moving forward and looking ahead to the opportunities we've got and the great players we have that want to play. We have a bunch of great players still here. We're excited about that, and the guys who need to step up, they get a chance to show what they can do now.
Some of those guys are going to be at the quarterback position. Have you reviewed tape of those guys? What type of players are you inheriting?
MC: A little bit. I know some of them through things in the past. We've got a couple guys who have been nicked up, so it's a bit of a clean slate for those guys. We're certainly embracing everybody's concern. Look at what Russell [Wilson] was able to do when he came in here. What a great talent. When you watch the film, my goodness, he made some plays. He made some things happen when they weren't there. Certainly an unbelievable year for him, which led to the success. I told [the quarterbacks] the first day I met them that they play the greatest position in all of sports, and they get to do it at a great place with great players, great running backs and the whole deal. So I'm excited about it. We've got a good group of good kids that get along well, but obviously it's competition and we're excited about getting going with that.
You mentioned some guys are nicked up. How are Jon [Budmayr] and Curt [Phillips] from what you can tell?
MC: Everything is coming along well. This time of year, we're being very, very cautious in trying to get ourselves back, but everything is going well and they're working hard and feeling good about where they are.
You've been around some great running backs. Where does Montee Ball rank in that mix?
MC: I've certainly been fortunate to be around to be around [some good backs]. Thomas was a great, great player, and then Michael was a great player, and on and on. Montee, we're certainly excited he's here. I knew Montee through recruiting, and Montee was the first player I got to meet when I got here. It was over winter breaks, and most of the kids were gone, but he had been honored at the basketball game the night before and came up and said hello. Montee's just proven to be such a great kid, and everything he's seen and done is about the team and the program. He told me he was excited I was here. I certainly reassured him I was a lot more excited he's here. There's no doubt about that.
He's a great ambassador for what our program is about. Everything Coach B talks about in the quality of kids we have, everything he shows is what this place is about. It's going to be fun to watch him really explode into his senior year. I'm fired up to be part of that.
How much of spring practice is going to be the players getting to know you and the other new assistants?
MC: That happens all the way around. We're talking about coming into a place that has unbelievable success. They're going to get to know us, and the great part about it is this is what Wisconsin's about. It's a developmental program where guys are excited to work. They're excited to see how we're going to be, and we're excited to get to coach them. So it's a two-way street in getting to know each other. There's no confusion. We're trying to win a third Big Ten championship and take it from there, and let's go. Let's keep doing what they've been doing.
You're about a month away from spring ball. What will your main objectives be with the unit in the spring?
MC: Just get better every day. We feel we need to find a quarterback. That's one area everybody can talk about. But each day, I would be remiss in imagining I know exactly who we are. There's changes and we've got some guys nicked up, we're finding some guys to step in there currently and then maybe get those guys back. All those things come into spring football. So it's really about embracing the challenge of being great every day, and enjoying and getting to know each other.