MADISON, Wis. — Of all the position groups to have a depth shortage emerge for Wisconsin’s football team this spring, who’d have thought it would be at running back?
When Wisconsin takes the field at 4 p.m. Saturday for its annual spring game, that’s exactly the predicament that will face the Badgers. Projected starting tailback James White will sit to avoid injury, and third-string running back Jeff Lewis will miss the game while recovering from an apparent right foot injury sustained earlier in the week.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen confirmed the moves to reporters following Wednesday’s spring practice, the last before the team’s Saturday game.
That leaves running back Melvin Gordon as the only regular at the position that will play. Last year, Gordon shined in the spring game when he carried 30 times for 159 yards with a touchdown. White and Montee Ball sat out last season.
Beyond Gordon, Andersen said fullback Derek Watt would take some carries. Safety Kyle Zulegar, who played running back before switching positions this spring, also could handle carries if necessary. Of course, the running back position has traditionally ranked among Wisconsin’s deepest groups in recent years.
Andersen called the depth issue “a little scary.”
“I wish we had another tailback, yes I sure do,” Andersen said. “But we’ll have to just get through it. It’s two quarters, maybe three quarters. It’s not like we’re going to ask everybody to play 80 snaps.”
Andersen noted Lewis would be OK to return when Wisconsin began its summer workouts on June 9.
“He’s really fought through spring,” Andersen said. “My hat goes off to that young man. He’s had a ton of carries, a lot of opportunities. He wrapped his arms around it. He’s been challenged by (running backs coach) Thomas (Hammock) and really the whole offense all spring and did some things and got better. He’ll be fine.”
White is one of six healthy starters who will not play in the spring game, Andersen said. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and left tackle Ryan Groy also will sit out on offense. Free safety Dezmen Southward, linebacker Chris Borland and defensive lineman Ethan Hemer will watch from the sideline on defense.
Explosive plays lacking: Andersen said he had seen some growth in Wisconsin’s ability to create big plays on offense during spring practice. In particular, he cited the play of the Badgers’ tight ends. But he also noted what was painfully evident last season about the team’s wide receivers: After Abbrederis, nobody has stepped up as a big play receiver.
“We need to continue to develop that,” Andersen said. “The young men are working hard. It’s just a matter of getting ourselves in position to make those plays down the field. We’ll make some here and there but then we’ll see critical drops or things that come our way. That falls on me. That’s not the kids’ problem. I’ve got to help get them better.”
Andersen said he would provide incoming freshmen wide receivers Jazz Peavy and Rob Wheelwright ample opportunities to step in and contribute in 2013.
“A lot of times development-wise they’re closer than an offensive lineman or a defensive lineman, sometimes even the linebackers,” Andersen said. “I would sure think that’s their mindset. Creating competition is what makes a good team great and an average team good in my opinion.”
As a senior at Walnut Ridge High School in Columbus, Ohio, this past season, Wheelwright caught 48 passes for 874 yards with nine touchdowns. Scout.com rates him as a four-star prospect, the No. 28 receiver in his class.
On Wisconsin: Andersen has been forcing his players to learn the school fight song “On Wisconsin” this spring for a reason. He intends to have the entire team sing it after every game next season.
“Regardless of the outcome, whether we’re at home or whether we’re on the road, that will be something I think the kids will wrap their arms around,” he said. “We sang it again today in the team meeting to make sure we’re getting the hang of it and it’s coming around. We’re starting to get it there. I want to start that tradition. The kids are excited about it, so away we go.”
Although players may have a difficult time finding the enthusiasm to sing after a potential road loss, Andersen said fans had earned the right to hear it.
“They travel and spend money,” he said. “The support is awesome that they give us, and win or lose they deserve that in my opinion from all of us in the program to show our respect for not just them but the university.”
Kick return man taking shape: It appears as though wide receiver Kenzel Doe has the inside track on returning kicks for Wisconsin next season. Andersen said Melvin Gordon, James White and Jared Abbrederis all had great hands, but he was hesitant to use his starters in another role during games. He also mentioned freshman defensive back Sojourn Shelton as a possible kick return candidate in the future.
Andersen has first-hand knowledge of Doe’s punt returning prowess. Doe brought back a punt return 82 yards for a touchdown last season when Andersen’s Utah State team played at Wisconsin. The score swung momentum and ultimately helped Wisconsin to a 16-13 comeback victory.