MADISON, Wisc. -- Just thinking about all the talent Wisconsin has lost in the past two years can be a little daunting.
The Badgers saw four first- or second-team All-Americans leave after the 2010 season (Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, Lance Kendricks and J.J. Watt) and two more depart after last season (Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler), along with their NCAA record-breaking transfer quarterback (Russell Wilson). Many programs would expect a dip after having so much star power leave town, but Bret Bielema is feeling fine.
"I used to freak out when we lost players, too," Bielema said. "But we do a good job of just developing. We always talk about being a developmental program, and I think it truly is that type of program now."
Wisconsin's ability to keep reloading will be put to the test in 2012. The team returns just 11 starters from last year's Big Ten champions, and six assistant coaches -- including almost all of the offensive brain trust -- left for other jobs in the offseason. Yet many still predict the Badgers will repeat as Leaders Division champs.
They will need new starters to emerge at receiver, on the right side of the offensive line, on the defensive line, in the secondary and of course at quarterback, where Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien could plug the hole. But O'Brien is the exception, as Wisconsin usually just brings along the next man on the depth chart.
"There are All-Americans sitting behind All-Americans, especially at spots like offensive line and running back," linebacker Chris Borland said. "Like last year, having lost Moffitt and Carimi, and then our line was arguably better. I think it speaks more to the development than it does to the players."
Madison might well be the world's leading producer of offensive linemen, and the running back tradition is just as strong. But other positions are becoming known for their string of successes as well, including tight end and safety. In each of the past two years, Wisconsin has lost an all-conference safety -- Jay Valai in 2010 and Aaron Henry in 2011. But Bielema says this year's pair of starters, Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson, might be his best duo yet.
"A guy might not be good enough to play right away, but a lot of times he'll develop for a year and come on the scene when a guy leaves or gets injured," said Jared Abbrederis, who's gone from former walk-on to one of the league's best wideouts. "That's kind of how it goes around here."
What's most impressive about the Badgers' recent run is that they've done it without many high-profile recruits. Bielema mostly signs three-star types and rarely brings in the true blue-chipper that gets scouting services drooling. Even though the program's exposure has increased of late, he still has little interest in trying to recruit much outside of a few key areas.
"We do what we can with what we've got," Bielema said. "I don't think we want more national recruits. A lot of times, those guys come with some issues you don't want to deal with. I take a lot of pride with the way our guys go about their business and handle themselves."
Player development is going to be key for Wisconsin's immediate future, because a cavalry of help isn't coming. The team signed only 12 players in February and expects to bring in an even smaller class next year. The reason? So few players have left before their eligibility ended.
"A lot of places sign 24 or 25 kids every year, so something is happening to those kids," Bielema said. "Of the last 66 kids we signed, 64 of them are still on campus, which is an unheard of number."
Last year's Rose Bowl team had only 24 juniors and seniors, and the rest were underclassmen. If those youngsters develop the way their predecessors have, then the Badgers will have a deep and experienced team soon. In fact, when O'Brien -- who has two years of eligibility remaining -- came on his visit, Bielema told him, "I think we'll be really good this year. But next year, on paper, might be the best team I've ever had."
That's a big statement, given how much talent -- both players and coaches -- has exited Madison in the past two years. But Wisconsin is confident in its ability to reload from within.
"We realize we're a developmental program," athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "We don't have the access to a lot of five-star guys. We might have a Joe Thomas coming out of the state or get a Ron Dayne because of his ties to the area. But for the most part, we develop players. And I think we have the right formula."