CHICAGO — Questions abound at this stage of the college football season, and Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen is no different than many fans in his desire to find some answers about his team. Who will play quarterback? Who will start opposite Michael Caputo at safety? Who will emerge as a third running back behind Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement to provide his stars some relief?
But Andersen’s biggest question mark entering the season is more broad-based, at least for the time being: How will the youth on his team handle the grind of Big Ten football? And which of those young players will develop into viable candidates to help the team this year?
"We don’t need 15 of them to play, but we need to rely on a few of those kids," Andersen said Monday during the Big Ten media days.
The official Wisconsin roster features 108 players and is composed of 30 freshmen, 15 redshirt freshmen, seven sophomores and 15 redshirt sophomores. Underclassmen, then, will make up 62 percent of the roster.
It is a significant change in Year 2 of the Andersen era at Wisconsin. One year after he inherited a team with 26 seniors, he now has only 16.
The area in which Andersen could need the most help if Wisconsin is to achieve its objective of winning a conference title is at wide receiver. And, not surprisingly, he’ll need a considerable boost from underclassmen.
Specifically, Andersen pointed out sophomore Rob Wheelwright and redshirt freshman Jazz Peavy. Wheelwright, a 6-foot-2, 201-pounder, caught two passes for nine yards last season and appears to be in position to become the team’s big-play threat to replace Jared Abbrederis.
"I wouldn’t say he’s our No. 1 wideout by any stretch of the imagination," Andersen said. "There’s three kids on the team that have playing experience that are definitely ahead of Robert at this point because they’ve played. Kenzel (Doe), Alex (Erickson) and Jordan (Fredrick) have all played in games and have had productive moments. But I would say this: It is Robert’s time. Spring hindered him. He had an injury and appears to be better. I’m very excited to see him and Jazz, to see how far they’ve come."
It is no secret Wisconsin’s wide receiving corps has been in desperate need of an upgrade. Doe, Erickson and Fredrick combined to catch 26 passes for 290 yards and no touchdowns last season, while Abbrederis caught 78 passes for 1,081 yards and seven touchdowns.
Peavy, a standout receiver at Kenosha Tremper (Wis.) High School, could help create depth, and Andersen was high on his talent level Monday.
"His ability to be involved in the offense this summer was impressive," Andersen said. "I think he’s grown in that area. His route running is definitely more crisp as he went through, just his change of direction throughout the summer. I’ve heard he’s catching the ball well. So, we’ll see."
The biggest wild cards in the receiving bunch will be the contributions of incoming freshmen Natrell Jamerson (Ocala, Fla.), George Rushing (Miramar, Fla.) and Krenwick Sanders (Jesup, Ga.). The coaching staff has stressed a need for at least one — or possibly two — newcomers to step in immediately. But that task became more difficult with the departures of two other freshman wide receivers: Chris Jones, who did not meet the school’s academic standards, and Dareian Watkins, who is home dealing with personal issues.
While Jones expects to play at Toledo, Andersen said Watkins had not been released from his scholarship at Wisconsin.
"He’s just trying to get things where they need to be for him in life," Andersen said. "Dareian will be in an OK spot. I really believe that. He just is moving forward and we’ll see where it goes."
Schedule talk: Much has been made about Wisconsin’s 2014 Big Ten schedule, which does not feature perennial conference powers Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. Based on last year’s conference records, in fact, the Badgers play what is considered to be the easiest schedule in the league (22-42, .343 winning percentage).
Still, Andersen took umbrage with a question concerning Wisconsin’s so-called "easy" schedule this season.
"First of all, I think the schedule is challenging," Andersen said. "People can say whatever they want about this or that, but we have a great schedule that’s highly competitive, and we’re playing very good teams out of our schedule. LSU is LSU, one of the best in the country year in, year out. Bowling Green is picked to take their conference and was a great team last year. Then we get into the Big Ten.
"There are no easy Big Ten games. Anybody who thinks there is is sadly mistaken, and I’ll debate that with you as much as you want to debate it because you better strap it on and be ready every week in the Big Ten."
Havenstein on Gault: Andersen lauded Badgers right tackle Rob Havenstein for being the No. 1 leader of the offense as the 2014 season approached. During Monday’s media session, Havenstein displayed some of his leadership characteristics by relaying a conversation he had with freshman tackle Jaden Gault.
Gault, rated a four-star recruit by most online services, has taken a leave from the team while battling depression. Havenstein said he only got to know Gault for the few weeks in which he was on campus during the spring.
"From the short time that I’ve known him, I’ve told him flat out, ‘Anything you need, you’re a Wisconsin offensive lineman,’" Havenstein said. "’You signed on the dotted line. You’re a part of the brotherhood now. Anything you need that I can help with, come to me. Ask. I’ll see what I can do or see who I know to make it happen. If you need to talk with someone who’s going through something similar, I’ll set that up. Anything you really need.’
"I’m just trying to help him through it. Obviously, he was a great high school player. From what I’ve heard, he’s only going to get better and better, and I can’t wait to see what he does in the future."
Humble Gordon: Badgers running back Melvin Gordon will begin the year as a viable Heisman Trophy candidate, and many pundits consider him to be among the best tailbacks in the country one year after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Still, those accolades don’t prevent his teammates from giving him plenty of grief and helping him to remain humble. On Monday, for example, Havenstein poked fun at Gordon’s tan-colored sport coat, joking that Gordon resembled someone more suited for a safari trip.
Gordon, for one, appreciates teammates keeping things lighthearted and constantly pushing him to improve.
"They don’t look at the media and be like, ‘Oh he’s this guy,’" Gordon said. "They give me a hard time. And it really keeps me humble when I’ve got guys like Rob Wheelwright, Kenzel Doe and A.J. Jordan beating me in drills and things like that. You’re used to winning everything, but you’ve got some guys that are just as athletic. They beat me in things and they humble me in the weight room. Kenzel lifts more than me and I get ticked about it. It’s just little things like that that keep you humble."