MADISON, Wis. — Gary Andersen has been the head football coach at Wisconsin for more than eight months now. During that time, he has hired seven new coaches, recruited dozens of players, moved into a new house with his wife, Stacey, led 15 spring practices and 24 of 28 fall practices.
He has injected his own beliefs into an already-successful program and spent considerable time building trust with an entirely new set of players. The only thing he hasn’t done is coached an actual football game.
So when Wisconsin plays host to UMass at 11 a.m. Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium, Andersen will be ready. In fact, he’s been ready for weeks.
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“Yes, please Saturday come here as fast as possible,” Andersen said Monday during his first game week news conference of the season. “We’ll never turn down a practice opportunity, but it’s just time. …
“I am absolutely excited about the opportunity to take the field with this crew and watch them go to work, and I know they’re excited about it. And it’s going to be fun. That’s one of the big reasons why you coach is to see the young men go out and have fun playing the game of football.”
Andersen has no doubt endured a wild last 12 months. A year ago at this time, he was about to begin one of the most successful seasons in Utah State football history. The Aggies would finish 11-2 and close the season ranked inside the top 25 for the first time in more than 50 years. He would draw coaching inquiries from California, Kentucky and Colorado. He would inform his Utah State players he was staying, only to discover an opening at Wisconsin that was too good to pass up.
On Dec. 19 — 15 days after former coach Bret Bielema left for Arkansas — he was introduced as Wisconsin’s next coach and quickly began compiling his coaching staff.
“The coaches came in the first day and just kind of clicked right away,” Badgers receiver Jared Abbrederis said. “Everything just found a place. The players really adjusted well. The coaches adjusted well. It’s been a really good transition. I’m excited to see how it goes. Anything can happen on game day, but we feel comfortable and confident with each other and in our game plan.”
Andersen noted the challenges of his job were no different now than they were during his four years at Utah State.
“There’s a few more cameras,” he said. “But other than that, it’s really the same ideas. I haven’t changed a bit. And I expect to do my job at the highest level.
I expect the young men to do their job at the highest level, the coaches, and we’re going to work like crazy to make Badger Nation proud. A year ago, we were working like crazy to make Aggie Nation proud.”
After 250 days in charge, Andersen is just five days from coaching a football game at Wisconsin. And he isn’t the only one anxious to see what will happen.
“It’s a new era here of Badger football,” UW running back James White said. “Everybody is going to be excited.”
Depth chart surprises: Wisconsin released its first two-deep depth chart of the fall on Monday, and there were a few surprises to be found.
Tyler Marz was listed as the No. 1 left tackle, which moved Ryan Groy to left guard. Marz moved into the first-team rotation when center Dan Voltz injured his right hamstring Aug. 14, which pushed Dallas Lewallen over to center.
“It was about a three-day run of practices where he was playing almost the whole practice and did a tremendous job,” Andersen said of Marz.
Andersen noted Voltz was not back to full strength yet and was running at “probably 70 percent” at the end of last week.
Other surprises included freshman Sojourn Shelton being listed among the team’s starting cornerbacks in its base defense alongside Peniel Jean. Darius Hillary was listed as the nickel back, but Andersen said he considered all three to be starters.
“The thing with the depth chart is it’s ever-changing,” Andersen said. “Darius is the starting corner. If we get to our nickel package, I think it’s always fair to put a 12th defender in the package. We’re going to play in this conference quite frankly so much of the nickel package that Darius and PJ and Sojourn are the starting corners. That’s where we’re at.”
Five position groups have “OR” listed between the first- and second-team player, which means either man could start on Saturday. Lewallen and Voltz are both listed on the center line, Zac Matthias and Kyle Costigan are both at right guard, Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel are still fighting to start at defensive end and Jared Abbrederis and Kenzel Doe are co-listed as punt returners. And the most pressing question — starting quarterback — still has not been announced publicly. The depth chart reads Joel Stave OR Curt Phillips, though Stave is listed first.
Andersen did say the quarterbacks knew who would start against UMass, which is a change from last week.
“I just really don’t believe that the quarterback position needs to be treated any different,” Andersen said. “We had a flip flop at linebacker a week ago. We didn’t sit down and send out smoke signals and have a big meeting about it. We just said, ‘It is what it is.’ And we believe in the direction we’re headed with the young men involved. And it’s in house, the way we do everything.”
French will start: Despite rough stretches during fall camp, kicker Kyle French is poised to open the season as Wisconsin’s starter on kickoffs and field goal attempts. French had been battling all fall with Jack Russell, but Russell suffered a right leg injury that could keep him out of the beginning of the season.
“Kyle has bounced back very well from the poor performance he had, which that’s football, that’s life, that’s athletics,” Andersen said. “I’m proud of the way he’s handled that. But Jack will get some opportunities if he’s better and if he’s ready. That’s where it sits. The snaps and the holds have been good mostly through camp, which is great to see.”
Abbrederis handling punts: Andersen said the idea of star wide receiver Jared Abbrederis returning punts “keeps me up at night.” Still, Abbrederis’ success in that role can’t be denied, which is why he and Kenzel Doe will likely split punt return duties.
Abbrederis holds the school record for career kickoff return average (25.8) and ranks third in punt return average (11.2). Two seasons ago, he averaged 15.8 yards per punt return to rank among the national leaders. “Abby has done such a great job of doing that,” Andersen said. “So you definitely want to protect him, you want to be careful, but you just can’t put balls on the ground in that situation.
“And, again, when you look at who we have, right now, there’s not a long list of freshmen back there. So, OK, he’s going to go catch it. We’ve tried, trust me, we’ve put them back there and there’s been experiments that didn’t go so well. So they’re not ready to do it yet.”
Added Abbrederis: “I love being back there. I feel comfortable back there fielding the ball. Trying to make a couple guys miss and just getting good field position for the offense. Obviously that’s coach’s call. Kenzel has been doing a really good job back there. Obviously he had a good year last year doing that as well. Whatever coach decides, that’s what I’ll go with.”
Tunnel runner: Former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema made a habit of leading his players out of the Camp Randall Stadium tunnel on game days. But don’t expect Andersen to do the same.
Andersen said he made a deal with defensive end Pat Muldoon that he would come out at the end of the line behind his players. Muldoon walked out of the tunnel last before Saturday’s practice.
“And I said, ‘Pat, that’s just like you to be in the back here, you don’t like the bright lights and all that stuff,'” Andersen recalled. “He said, ‘No, coach, I come out last.’ I said, ‘Now there’s going to be two of us. We’ll come out together at the end of it, the two of us.'”
Badgers safety Dezmen Southward insisted he wouldn’t allow Andersen to run from the back.
“He’ll be up in front with the captains like other coaches,” Southward said. “We want to see him run out there. It’s going to be a great experience. We know coach Andersen, as much as he’s truly a humble guy and likes to sit back and let other people take the front seat, the things he’s been able to bring and the vibe that he’s brought to this team is pretty amazing. And we can’t wait to experience that with him.”