MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen recalls his first game as a starting center at Ricks College with both fondness and a tinge of regret.
“I couldn’t talk for the first quarter at center, and that’s not a good thing when you’re like that,” Andersen said. “I remember my first game playing a Division I football game, it was much of the same.”
Andersen hopes cornerback Sojourn Shelton, the only true freshman listed as a starter on the Badgers’ roster, fares better in Wisconsin’s season opener against UMass on Saturday. And he has plenty of confidence Shelton is ready despite the jitters that will come with making his first start.
“You always worry about putting a true freshman out there,” Andersen said following Thursday’s practice. “But I’ve done that a lot in my career, and he’s earned the spot to have an opportunity to go play and we’ll see. Just because you’re a freshman, it’s really game experience that helps you. There’s some sophomores that are going to go out there that haven’t played a lot of football, too, and even some juniors.
“He’s a tough-minded kid. He reacted well this week in practice when he was challenged once again. I hope it all goes well for him. I’m not going to look back if he doesn’t play well and say, ‘Well we should have done this’ because I believe he’s prepared well. So we’ll see how it goes.”
When Shelton enrolled at Wisconsin one semester early this spring, he fully intended to earn a starting cornerback spot as a true freshman. But he has proven more mature and perhaps more ready than some anticipated. He will start alongside junior Peniel Jean and sophomore Darius Hillary, who is listed as the starting nickel back.
Shelton, a 5-foot-9, 172-pounder from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., was a three-star Scout.com recruit and was ranked the No. 76 cornerback in the country. As a senior at Plantation High, he recorded one interception, 16 pass breakups and 22 tackles.
Andersen said Shelton had gained a level of comfort with his backpedal skills since spring camp ended, as well as a better understanding of man coverage reads.
“He’s really developed that and I think he’s got a sense of the game,” Andersen said. “He still is learning how to read and understand zone coverages. … That’s still a learning process for him. He’s been excited about learning it, which is half the battle and he’s a pretty smart young man. He’s come a long ways. We’ll see. When we wake up on Saturday morning, we’ll see how it goes, and then about 3 or 4 o’clock we’ll really know what happened.”
Andersen said Shelton would be among a group of “five to seven” true freshmen that would play this season, including four in the season opener. In addition to Shelton, he listed cornerback Jakarrie Washington, outside linebacker Leon Jacobs and wide receiver Rob Wheelwright in that mix, noting there was a “70 percent chance” Wheelwright would play in the first game.
Voltz ready: Redshirt freshman center Dan Voltz has missed time this fall camp with a right hamstring injury. But Andersen said Voltz would play “as needed” on Saturday. Dallas Lewallen will get the start at center after sliding over from left guard.
“I hope that we’re in a position to possibly play seven or eight of those kids, and early in the game,” Andersen said. “Maybe a little bit of a rotation there and see how it goes.”
Andersen has said he feels comfortable with nine offensive linemen total, with transfer Chris Gill in the rotation as well. Gill has spent time as the backup center to Lewallen while Voltz recovered from injury.
“He’s gaining momentum now,” Andersen said. “The good thing is we get Dan back, (Gill) can start to absorb some of the guard terminology if you will. And just it’s another body.”
French starting: Kicker Kyle French had an up-and-down fall camp, but he enters the season as the team’s starter for kickoffs and field goals. Andersen said he didn’t want French to spend time being concerned about losing his starting spot to backup Jack Russell, who continues to recover from a right leg injury.
“He’s competed,” Andersen said. “I hate to ever think that anyone is looking over their shoulder because of competition. To me, that’s not what big-time Division I athletics is about. If you’re afraid of the guy behind you, then you’ve got a problem. I understand the kicking thing is a little bit different. But I would hope that would not bother him. He’s going to kick the first balls.”
French made 10 of 16 field goal attempts last season, while Russell finished the year 0 for 2. Andersen jokingly suggested that if French and Russell struggled, he would consider putting linebacker Chris Borland in to kick. During a game in 2009 against Hawaii, Borland actually kicked — and made — three extra point tries.
“You never know,” Andersen said. “He’s pretty good at it.”
Family tour: Utah State opened its first season without Andersen in charge since 2008 when it played Utah on Thursday night. One of Andersen’s sons, Keegan, is a tight end for the Aggies, and Andersen said he spoke with him before Wisconsin’s practice.
Andersen said his wife, Stacey, and son, Chasen, flew to Salt Lake City to watch the game.
“They get on a plane and come back here tomorrow, so they’re going around the country watching football,” Andersen said. “But I will watch it. I’ve got it DVR’d. The minute my radio show is over, I’ll be on my way home to sit in a quiet corner and watch that game, so it should be interesting.”