The University of Wisconsin’s spring football season will conclude
Saturday with its annual spring game, which will kick off at 4 p.m. in Camp
Randall Stadium. Five things to watch for:
1. Which quarterback will step up in live action?
At this point, we know Curt Phillips and Joel Stave are the top two quarterbacks on Wisconsin’s depth chart. Phillips, a sixth-year senior, has managed to hold off Stave for the majority of reps with the first-team offense. But his lead is by no means monumental, and Saturday’s spring game will go a long way toward determining how big the gap really is between the two.
Stave, a redshirt sophomore, clearly possesses the better arm and at 6-foot-5, 227 pounds, he can stand in the pocket and take a hit. Phillips has earned the respect of teammates for persevering through three ACL surgeries and is still considered a more mobile threat than Stave. Head coach Gary Andersen would prefer an offense that allows him to utilize a quarterback’s arm and legs — see Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton last season — but he is flexible enough to tailor the offense to his players’ skillset.
Andersen admitted a No. 2 wide receiver had yet to emerge as a big-play threat opposite standout Jared Abbrederis, which certainly won’t help either quarterback in his quest to be the starter. Abbrederis won’t even play on Saturday while he sits out to avoid injury. But Phillips and Stave will have to prove they can consistently lead the offense down the field while avoiding turnovers with a younger cast.
Last season, Stave did a much better job of moving the offense through the air. In his six starts, he averaged 181.5 yards passing per game. Phillips, meanwhile, averaged just 77.1 yards passing per game. Part of that had to do with the offensive game plan, but that represents a significant gap, and Phillips will have to do a better job throwing to keep Stave at bay.
2. How many carries will Melvin Gordon take?
James White will sit out the spring game because he is the presumed starter next season and has nothing more to prove. Third-string tailback Jeff Lewis, who has plenty to prove, can’t play because he sustained a right foot injury earlier in the week.
That leaves Melvin Gordon to absorb the bulk of the carries during the spring game, and it is a situation he has faced before. Last year, White and Montee Ball sat out the spring game, and Gordon carried 30 times for 159 yards with a touchdown. Of course, Gordon will be a much more central figure in the offense this season, so there is no need for him to carry that many times in this year’s spring game.
Andersen said fullback Derek Watt and running back-turned-safety Kyle Zulegar could take the rest of the carries. Walk-on Derek Strauss may also earn a few touches. The entire spring game should last roughly 80 snaps, and it will be interesting to see the pass-to-run ratio Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig decide to use.
3. How will the Badgers’ new cornerbacks perform?
Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean will take over this season as Wisconsin’s starting cornerbacks, and neither player lacks confidence. That trait certainly is a good thing because both players should be tested on Saturday and into next season.
Hillary, a 5-11, 187-pounder, played in all 14 games last season, primarily in nickel packages. He tallied 23 tackles and two pass deflections. His best game came against UTEP last September when he had eight tackles.
Jean, 5-11, 188 pounds, has appeared in 19 career games over two seasons with 24 tackles and three pass breakups. He suffered a broken foot last season and was limited to just five games.
Hillary and Jean are replacing Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie, who accounted for 119 tackles and five interceptions.
“I think we complement each other well,” Hillary said of his on-field relationship with Jean earlier this spring. “We kind of feed off each other and play off each other’s emotions. If he makes a play, I’m running up to him high-fiving and vice versa. We definitely always play off each other to have that good chemistry.”
4. Will Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense wreak havoc?
We have heard so much about the new scheme defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is bringing with him to Wisconsin. And while the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense doesn’t sound like much on the surface, it should make for as entertaining a concept as Badgers fans have seen in quite some time.
In a 3-4 defense, three rushers declare in a non-blitz situation, while a 4-3 declares four rushers. The quarterback is far more likely to face unexpected pressure on any play in a 3-4 because he doesn’t know where the fourth rusher is coming from. As a result, the quarterback also has a more difficult time recognizing which players are dropping into coverage, and that can create a higher rate of interceptions.
On Saturday, fans will have an opportunity to see the scheme on display. Unfortunately, they won’t get to see the same personnel that will run the 3-4 on game days in the fall. Brenden Kelly, who will move from defensive end to outside linebacker, is out while recovering from hip surgery. Defensive lineman Beau Allen also is out while coming back from ankle surgery. Lineman Ethan Hemer and linebacker Chris Borland won’t play to avoid injury, and linebacker Ethan Armstrong is recovering from shoulder surgery.
5. Can the Badgers avoid injuries?
Watching young players develop over the course of 80 plays in a spring game is important. But ultimately, staying healthy is most important. College football teams across the country have been battling injuries this spring, and Wisconsin is no exception.
Gordon obviously will handle most of the hand-offs with White and Lewis sitting out, and although he is strong and durable, the Badgers can’t afford to lose him. The offensive line has been so injury-ravaged at times this spring that Andersen has been forced to halt practice early to keep them from becoming too fatigued.
Five members of Wisconsin’s defensive front seven won’t play because they are either already injured or are seeking to avoid injury. In addition to Borland, Hemer and White, Andersen also is holding out left tackle Ryan Groy, wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and safety Dezmen Southward. That means plenty of backups will earn some playing time, and they might not be used to the physicality of full-speed action. Coming away from the spring game without any significant injuries is always crucial to carrying success into the fall.