The University of Wisconsin wrapped up its 13th football practice of fall camp on Thursday afternoon. This week, four practices have been open to the media.
As Wisconsin prepares for its season opener against Northern Iowa on Sept. 1, several questions remained unanswered — the most notable concerning the Badgers’ starting quarterback position.
Five revelations from the Badgers’ practices that have been open to media members thus far:
1. No quarterback has separated himself just yet.
Most people assumed Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien would walk into Wisconsin’s first practice Aug. 6 and instantly earn the starting quarterback position. But that is far from the case as we near the end of the second week of fall camp.
O’Brien obviously is a proven commodity, having earned Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year honors two years ago for the Terrapins. Still, past performances haven’t mattered to Joel Stave and Curt Phillips, who also are fighting for the starting nod.
At this point, coaches insist the quarterback battle remains a three-man race. Stave and O’Brien seem to have separated themselves a bit, and you have to figure that if it remains a dead heat, O’Brien will earn the nod based on his two years as a Maryland starter. Phillips has earned the respect of his teammates after fighting back from three ACL surgeries on his right knee, but he lacks mobility and the leg strength to break off deep throws.
On Thursday, all three quarterbacks participated in two-minute drill scenarios, and each player had a tough go of it.
O’Brien was the first quarterback to take the field with the first-team offense. He completed 2 of 5 passes for 15 yards and moved the chains once, when he connected with receiver Kenzel Doe for a 14-yard pass.
Stave then rotated in with the second-team offense and finished 0 for 2, throwing an interception to Michael Caputo. Stave’s first pass was a beauty down the left sideline, but receiver A.J. Jordan dropped the ball.
Phillips picked up a first down with a 12-yard rush — keep in mind that quarterbacks wear green shirts in practice and don’t absorb contact. But he finished his series 2 for 5 for 13 yards while playing with the first-team offense.
O’Brien then took the field one final time and completed 4 of 4 passes for 45 yards. The drive culminated with a rushing touchdown up the middle by running back Vonte Jackson.
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada had this to say about each quarterback following Thursday’s practice:
On Stave: “Stave was here all spring, knew the system extremely well. Stave’s a big-time arm. He’s a big-time football player and continues to grow and get better every day. His upside is tremendous because he’s so young and so raw.”
On Phillips: “Phillips is a guy who’s been here and has the respect of his teammates for the way he’s played in the past, but even more so for what he’s battled back from. He’s a smart football player, understands our game, understand the offense, so he’s doing a good job with that.”
On O’Brien: “Danny’s strength is without question he’s got game experience. You can see that with his presence and the way he carries himself. Not that the other guys don’t carry themselves well, but there’s a difference there.”
Bielema has said he hopes to name a starting quarterback by Aug. 22, which is 10 days before the season opener.
2. Jordan Fredrick has emerged as a No. 2 wide receiver option.
Fredrick was a standout player at Madison Memorial High School, not too far from Wisconsin’s campus. He took a redshirt season last year and appears to have leapt to the top of the wide receiver heap behind No. 1 receiver Jared Abbrederis.
Fredrick spent considerable time repping with the first-team offense this week. Bielema cited his consistency as a major factor in the promotion.
Wisconsin wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni also has been impressed with Fredrick.
“His work ethic is really, really making his game improve,” Azzanni said. “Because he’s a talented guy, but he’s a redshirt freshman. He’s never done anything, so all the technique, all the habits we’re trying to create, we’re trying to create in a short time. He’s working his tail off, and he’s running with the ones right now.”
Last season, Wisconsin relied on just two receivers to handle much of the load: Abbrederis and departed senior Nick Toon.
But Azzanni said that, ideally, he’d like to have a rotation of six wide receivers to cycle through on game days, although he hasn’t yet reached that point. Other wide receivers in the mix for playing time include Chase Hammond, Manasseh Garner, A.J. Jordan, Kenzel Doe, Reggie Love and Jeff Duckworth. Isaiah Williams also recently re-joined the team and could work his way into the rotation as well.
Azzanni described his wide receivers group as “head and shoulders” better than where they were during spring camp, but there is plenty of room for improvement.
“One day, someone’s up. The next day, someone else is up,” Azzanni said. “We’re just really bumpy right now. They are making strides, and they’re working their tail off. I’m up their butt like a snake right now.”
3. James White and Melvin Gordon are too good to keep the ball out of their hands.
During spring practices, Wisconsin experimented with using two-back sets in an effort to get more playmakers on the field at once. Running back Montee Ball is the clear-cut No. 1 in the backfield after his record-setting season a year ago. But White and Gordon also are capable of producing 1,000-yard seasons.
Ball won’t return to full contact drills until Monday after suffering a concussion in an early-morning assault on Aug. 1. That means White and Gordon have received most of the reps during the first two weeks of fall camp. This week, White was seen splitting out wide at receiver on occasion, and coaches have referenced getting him opportunities to stretch the field rather than pound the ball up the middle.
As a freshman, White led the team in rushing yards with 1,052. He took a back seat to Ball last season, and his rushing total dropped to 713 yards.
“I think he’s a strong player no matter what the situation is,” Badgers running backs coach Thomas Hammock said. “You figure he was freshman All-Big Ten. He knows how to run the ball. He’s got a bunch of yards for this program, and we’re certainly going to need him in the backfield as well.”
Gordon is molded in a similar fashion as Ball because he’s able to use his physicality to grind for extra yards. All three running backs should get considerable playing time.
“It’s a healthy competition,” White said. “Our running backs coach stresses to us every day, ‘Work hard and practice how you’re going to play in the game.’ We’ve done a great job of that. Each and every day we just come out and attack it. All of us are getting more reps, so we really have to take advantage of that.”
4. Linebacker Chris Borland is getting work as an edge pass rusher.
Borland was a standout player as a freshman in 2009 while rushing off the edge. He recorded 10 1/2 tackles for a loss, five sacks and five forced fumbles that season. But after Borland suffered shoulder injuries in 2010, he moved to middle linebacker, also known as the mike position.
Now, it appears Borland will at least spend some time back as a pass rusher. On Wednesday, the Badgers’ coaching staff put Borland on the end as part of the team’s nickel package, or 3-3-5 formation.
“I’ve coached a lot of good mikes and he’s right up among the best I’ve ever seen,” Bielema said this week. “You just see that big jump with mikes in their second year who haven’t played. The reason we showcase him as just an added pass rusher on third down, he’d be the first to tell you he wants to be there. A little bit depends how good we can put another mike in there.”
Ethan Armstrong has stepped into a starting role at strongside linebacker and has moved to the middle when Borland switches outside.
5. The specialists have impressed the coaching staff.
Punter Drew Meyer appears to have improved considerably since the team’s spring game, when he averaged just 35.9 yards on eight punts. Bielema said Meyer is in line to be Wisconsin’s starting punter after an impressive showing early in fall camp.
“He’s been lights out,” Bielema said during his media day press conference on Sunday. “Getting the ball to turn over and stop. He is really hitting the ball and executing at a high rate.”
At kicker, Kyle French has filled in seamlessly for departed senior Phillip Welch. French made 3 of 5 field goal attempts early last season while filling in for an injured Welch, and he’s been solid during fall camp.
Walk-on kicker Jack Russell has the leg but not the experience to fill either of those roles just yet. On Thursday, he narrowly missed a 47-yard field goal attempt wide left. Still, Russell is in the mix to serve as Wisconsin’s kicker on kickoffs because he has a strong enough leg to consistently reach the end zone.