MADISON, Wis. -- The seeds for Wisconsin's turnaround in 2009 were planted long before the team hit the field Sept. 5.
A lack of cohesion had doomed the Badgers in 2008, sending them from the top 10 of the national rankings to a 7-6 finish that left many questioning head coach Bret Bielema and the program's direction.
"That was probably one of my most talented football teams," Bielema said, "but talent doesn't always equal chemistry."
Wisconsin found its chemistry again during the next offseason, beginning with winter conditioning and carrying it through spring practice into the summer. The Badgers played more as a unit in 2009, recapturing the core values that made the program a force in the 1990s.
Wisconsin is back on the practice field for spring ball, and on this day, players will put on pads for the first time, much to the delight of senior safety Jay Valai.
"The offense gave it to us a little yesterday," Valai said, grinning. "There's some people that play 7-on-7, and there's other people who play football. We'll get the pads on, and we'll see who's who."
But before the hits start coming, players go through a series of meetings. As the Badgers learned the past two years, what takes place in these sessions often translates, positively or negatively, between the lines.
Wisconsin let ESPN.com tag along last week as it prepared for Practice No. 3 of the spring.
Team Meeting, 3 p.m. CT, McClain Center
Players file into the first rows of a 150-seat auditorium, while the assistant coaches and support staff sit in the back. A clock counting down to the 2010 season opener -- 172 days, four hours, 12 minutes -- is mounted on a wall at the front of the room.
Bielema begins by checking any absentees.
"Know about Isaac?" he asks, referring to senior receiver Isaac Anderson.
"He's got a test," a player responds.
Bielema playfully teases defensive end David Gilbert, who appeared to suffer a serious injury in practice the previous day. It turned out to be a false alarm.
"I've got to apologize to David," he says, smiling. "I thought he hurt his shoulder."
Several players start laughing.
"You hurt your what?" Bielema asks.
"Man purse," Gilbert says, sending howls through the room.
"I've heard it called a lot of things," Bielema says. "Man purse is not one of them."
Every Monday and Tuesday during spring ball, Bielema lets two of his assistants speak during team meetings. The talks address both on-field and off-field issues.
Coordinators Paul Chryst and Dave Doeren have the floor today. As Chryst is introduced, the players clap once in unison.
"There is no 'I' in team," Chryst begins. "Jay, have you heard of it?"
"Yes, sir," Valai responds.
"Raise your hand if you believe there's no 'I' in team," Chryst says.
Eighty hands go in the air.
"You're all f----- up," Chryst says, eliciting laughs. "The best part of the team is the individual. You guys make this team."
Chryst explains that the team is built on the strength of its players. Each man has his good moments and bad moments, and the object is to get as much of the good to show up on game days.
He reminds them that while selfishness isn't tolerated and no one is above the team, each player must focus on himself.
"In spring football, everyone has a chance to improve and get better at their craft," Chryst says. "We need as many good yous as possible."
Chryst heads back to his seat as the players salute him with one clap.
Doeren is up next, and he tackles a very different topic.
"Anything we do is national news," the defensive coordinator begins.
He starts reading a list.
"Seventeen arrests over nine months."
"Twenty-seven arrests over five years."
"Ten arrested in the last 18 months."
He continues for several minutes.
"These are all college football programs, Division I programs," Doeren explains. "All I did was Google 'college football' and 'arrests,' and there were 30,000 hits I could go to. It's all over ESPN.com, SI.com. Who did those players represent? The university.
"You represent, I represent, all our coaches represent something bigger than us."
Doeren reminds the players how many alumni Wisconsin has, people who might help them get jobs some day. He mentions the two prominent alums whose names are on the door to the auditorium where the meeting is being held.
"Would you like them to hire you?" he asks. "You want your last name to mean good things. All it takes is one stupid mistake, one stupid decision. That's what life is, decisions."
Doeren heads back to his seat as players clap once.
Bielema briefly talks about some of his former players who veered off track after football, and how he wished he could have done something to help them.
"We want to see you succeed," he says. "Guess what? We want to win a s---load of games, too. But we want you to go on and do great things."
For today's practice, everyone will wear pads, even the injured players. The team is holding its first spring practice in Camp Randall Stadium.
Before sending the players off to position meetings, Bielema reminds them of their sparkling home record during his six years in Madison (36-4).
"If you're not chomping at the bit to go out there today, you need to be," Bielema says. " Buy into that. We're practicing in Camp Randall. That's your house."
The meeting ends and players break into position groups.
Linebackers Meeting, 3:30 p.m., McClain Center
Before taking their seats, the linebackers check two charts mounted on a wall. The charts record big plays and bad plays for every player at every practice session.
Doeren, who coaches the linebackers, reminds them that while it's important to see their name on the big plays chart, he doesn't want guys to appear high up on both charts. "You need to be consistent," he says.
Doeren turns on the projector, which displays his notes for the day's workout. At the top, it reads: "Honor those who wore the W before you! Privilege not a right."
Doeren hammers home his message from the team meeting, telling the linebackers, "It's a privilege to be here. It can be taken from all of us."
They begin by reviewing coverage schemes and assignments before moving on to the day's installation package, which consists mainly of stunts.
Doeren then puts on the film from the previous day's practice.
"We went from four loafs to one loaf," he says. "That's good to keep going down."
Loafs, not surprisingly, are plays that display a lack of effort, which aren't tolerated.
Doeren goes through individual assessments, praising Blake Sorensen for his alignment on one play. Kevin Claxton, a converted safety, showed a good jam on a pass play but didn't turn his head in time to see the ball.
"The day before, you were flat as hell, so this is a good sign of improvement," he says.
Each video clip has a brief critique at the bottom: 3 call, good drop at WLB Frontside really good, FLB see your triangle Nice break, feel drive concept.
The coaches input the critiques so that players have a sense of how they fared when they review film on their own.
Doeren plays a clip that shows the quarterback running free around the end.
"You cannot lose contain on a blitz, men," he says. "That's a cardinal sin right there."
The players now watch a series of clips from games in 2009 as Doeren reviews the basic Cover 2. They see themselves against Purdue, Indiana and Michigan State.
Doeren addresses the middle linebackers, telling them they need to protect the deep middle.
"We ought to look for the goal posts as our aiming position," he says.
To make his point, Doeren shows a clip of Sorensen executing the Cover 2 perfectly against Michigan State last year, taking away a route to the tight end.
After a brief review of tackling techniques, Doeren shuts off the projector.
"On the field in 15," he says.
Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.