Badgers guard Matthias earns starting nod

MADISON, Wis. — The final piece to the Wisconsin football depth chart puzzle has been solved — at least temporarily.

Badgers coach Bret Bielema said following Thursday’s practice that junior Zac Matthias would start at right guard during Wisconsin’s season opener against Northern Iowa on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

Matthias, a 6-foot-5, 320-pounder from Hemlock, Mich., edged out sophomore Kyle Costigan for the starting nod. Both players had been listed among the team’s first stringers on the depth chart released Monday.

Matthias underwent back surgery and wasn’t cleared until the final weeks of spring practice, which limited his development. But he came on strong during fall camp to overtake both Costigan and Robert Burge, who now is listed as the backup right tackle. Matthias has played in 18 career games at Wisconsin and appeared in nine games last season, mostly on special teams.

But just because Matthias is the starter doesn’t mean other players won’t see time at right guard. Bielema said Costigan, Matthias and Burge could rotate at the position. And if none of them can get the job done, Bielema said he could move junior Ryan Groy from left guard to right guard and have others fill in at Groy’s spot.

Another player in the mix for playing time at right guard is sophomore Dallas Lewallen, who could be cleared by next week. Lewallen missed time last season because of a broken kneecap and was restricted during fall camp.

“He’s missed over a year-and-a half of football,” Bielema said. “He’s athletic, he’s big, he’s strong. It was kind of surprising. We started throwing him into scout-team work this week. He didn’t miss a beat on any assignments or alignments or any calls. Just a really smart football player. We’ll be excited to get him back.”

Two more on scholarship: Bielema said that he had awarded scholarships to tight end Brock DeCicco and reserve running back Kyle Zulegar.

DeCicco sat out last season after transferring from Pittsburgh. In 2010, he played in 13 games for Pitt with three starts, catching two passes for 19 yards and two touchdowns.

“Usually I wait until a kid proves it on the field, but Brock gave up a scholarship to come here,” Bielema said, “and he’s put himself in a position to probably be our second tight end on the field in multiple scenarios, as well as on all four special teams.”

Zulegar has played in 25 games over two seasons for the Badgers, primarily on special teams. The Appleton, Wis., native has rushed eight times for 23 yards in his career. He is expected to start on all four special teams units.

“We were concerned about a couple spots and we popped him in there right away,” Bielema said. “He just is a natural. From all the guys I’ve ever awarded a scholarship to, I can’t say exactly what he said yesterday, but I think I caught him off-guard. Just to see that smile — and again, another Wisconsin kid that just came here for all the right reasons. Why he came here was to prove to everybody that he could, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”

The two scholarships put Wisconsin at its maximum allotment of 85 for this season under NCAA rules. Both scholarships are for one year.

French earns kicking job: Sophomore Kyle French beat out freshman Jack Russell for the right to kick field goals and kickoffs on Saturday.

The competition had been back-and-forth throughout much of fall camp. When the team released its first depth chart of the fall two weeks ago, Russell actually was listed as the first-team field goal kicker.

French made 3 of 5 field goal attempts last season while filling in for injured kicker Phillip Welch early in the year.

“I definitely made a goal for myself to become the starter at field goal and kickoff,” French said last week. “My goal being the third year here is to win out both positions, so it’s pretty important, especially for field goals because that’s my forte. I was never really known for kickoffs, but I’ve been hitting my kickoffs very well.”

Bielema added that Russell could still work his way into a starting role at some point this season.

“But we’ll wait and see how that plays out,” Bielema said.

Schedule shakeup?: Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said on Thursday that the Badgers would attempt to schedule two Bowl Championship Series-type opponents each year, beginning in 2014. That coincides with the start of the Football Bowl Subdivision’s four-team playoff, which will feature a greater emphasis on strength of schedule.

Playing a BCS-type team means either a school from one of the power-six conferences or a non-power six program that plays at a high level. Wisconsin, for example, has scheduled BYU for a home game in 2013.

Bielema said the BYU game could be the first in a three-game series, with two coming at Camp Randall Stadium. The most difficult aspect in scheduling top-level teams, according to Bielema, is the unwillingness of opponents to play at Wisconsin.

“There’s a lot of interest in playing at neutral sites and going to their place, but they won’t come to our place,” Bielema said. “Or going to their place, but then they want to play us in Chicago. There’s a million scenarios but now with 2014, it’s going to get ratcheted up. I think there’s a genuine interest for some teams that were maybe lukewarm before that are willing to do some things from ‘14 moving forward. It’s kind of a fun time.”

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