MADISON — Wisconsin is a week into fall camp, and though the Badgers have yet to don full pads, we’ve seen and learned plenty during the six practices.
Here is some of what we’ve seen:
After a bit of slow start, quarterback Alex Hornibrook has turned in several very good practices in recent days. The sophomore has added a bit of zip to some of his shorter passes, allowing him to fit the ball in tight areas, while also continuing to show a penchant for throwing with anticipation. He hasn’t completed every deep pass, but a number of Wisconsin’s most impressive plays of camp have been him hitting shots down the field. If Wisconsin gets the type of play we’ve seen from Hornibrook this week, the offense has a chance to significantly increase its production from the last two years.
There is very little separating the two players battling to be Hornibrook’s backup. Redshirt freshman Kare Lyles and true freshman Jack Coan have shared second-team reps, though the former seemed to take more of them on Thursday. Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said the first week was largely about installing the offense, which he made sure was the focus for both guys. Now, over the next few weeks, it’ll be just about playing and seeing which one earns the job.
Wisconsin has lacked explosive plays out of its offense the last two years, but the Badgers have a good chance to change that in 2017. In wide receivers Jazz Peavy, Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, George Rushing and Kendric Pryor, along with running backs Chris James and Bradrick Shaw, Chryst has the most talented group of skill players he’s had since returning to Madison two years ago. Several defenders have noticed a change from last season, with one saying it’s clear the coaches have loosened the reins and are giving them more freedom to make plays.
Any thought that there would be a competition for starting jobs along the offensive line have been put to rest in the first week of camp. The team has yet to have a padded practice and injuries are certainly going to crop up, but it’s looking as if offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph has his best five guys in a group consisting of Michael Deiter at left tackle, Jon Dietzen at left guard, Tyler Biadasz at center, Beau Benzschawel at right guard and David Edwards at right tackle.LISTEN: Michael Deiter on the challenge of moving to left tackle.
A problem off the edge
Senior Leon Jacobs is finally back at the position he was made to play — outside linebacker — and he’s been downright scary at times. He’s bullied linemen with his strength and made others look bad with a slick spin move. The California native could end up being an absolute nightmare for opposing tackles.
A job opening in the secondary
The starting secondary for Wisconsin is set and looking mighty good with Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson at cornerback, and D’Cota Dixon and Natrell Jamerson at safety. But it doesn’t seem as though defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has made up his mind as to who the third cornerback will be when they go to their nickel defense. Redshirt freshman Dontye Carriere-Williams has taken a lot of first-team reps, but senior Lubern Figaro continues to see time as well. It still feels like Carriere-Williams will end up there, but he hasn’t won the job yet.LISTEN: Paul Chryst on what he’s seen from safety Natrell Jamerson
Finding the ball
Linebacker T.J. Edwards continues to be a menace for quarterbacks in the passing game. Fresh off a two interception performance in the Cotton Bowl, the junior had three interceptions in a four practice stretch this week. Fellow linebacker Chris Orr joked the quarterbacks just like throwing Edwards the ball, but went on to admit that the anticipation and instincts he shows are off the charts. Edwards has led the Badgers in tackles the last two seasons, but he could be in for an even better year in 2017.
Kicker Rafael Gaglianone isn’t back to where he was last fall before suffering a season-ending back injury in Week 3, but he’s been solid. Of the more than 20 kicks he’s had in team situations, only one sticks out as a really bad miss. He’s got his leg strength up from where it was in the spring, and Wisconsin should feel comfortable sending him out for long kicks by the time the season rolls around.
Young guys on the field
With a such a veteran team, it won’t be easy for any of the true freshmen to see the field this fall. Of the guys that have a chance, most of it would be on special teams. That includes long snapper Adam Bay, coverage teams for cornerback Madison Cone and potentially wide receivers Cade Green and Danny Davis as punt returners.
As for redshirt freshmen, several figure to play important roles this year. In addition to Biadasz, Carriere-Williams and Pryor, the Badgers foresee defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk and tackle Patrick Kasl as key backups.
Injured players return
Quite a few key members of the team were limited in the spring, and in some cases, held out entirely. But nearly all of have returned and looked good.
Inside linebacker Jack Cichy (shoulder/pectoral) has taken all the first-team reps, along with Edwards, who missed spring with a foot injury. Behind them, Ryan Connelly and Orr have been fixtures of the second-team and played well after not seeing time in the spring.
The same goes for Dietzen at left guard and running back Taiwan Deal. The latter has drawn plenty of praise from Chryst, and has clearly gained some speed and quickness from earlier in his career.