MADISON — In a spring game missing nearly every marquee player on Wisconsin’s roster, the defense prevailed over the offense 20-17 Friday night at Camp Randall Stadium.
Playing the game under the lights for the first time, a crowd of 8,095 were treated to a practice segment followed by an hour-long game with a running clock, played mostly by backups, including at quarterback where freshmen Jack Coan and Kare Lyles got all the snaps with sophomore Alex Hornibrook looking on.
The defense, which could rack up points through sacks, three-and-outs and forcing turnovers, held the offense out of the end zone until the final play from scrimmage, as Coan found tight end Zander Neuville for an 8-yard touchdown.
Though it was difficult to take much of anything from the game itself, it was the culmination of 15 practices, all of which were open to the media.
Here, then, are some of our thoughts on what we saw over the last month.
1) Backup quarterback is a concern
Wisconsin returns 15 starters from last year’s 11-3 squad that won the Big Ten West, and many are picking the Badgers to do it again. And while we’ll acknowledge it’s only April, the chances of them repeating would likely be derailed if there’s an injury at the quarterback spot.
Hornibrook had a solid spring and is the unquestioned leader of the offense. But not since Russell Wilson took every meaningful snap in 2011 has Wisconsin not needed their backup quarterback at some point.
Coan, who should still be a senior in high school right now, looked solid on Friday and generally outperformed Kare Lyles this spring, especially during the scrimmage portions. That bodes well for him, but it also came mostly against the second- and third-team defense. Both guys need to take a big jump this summer to be ready if Hornibrook were to go down.
2) Finding a left tackle
The offensive line has a chance to be as good as its been since 2014, but the Badgers need to solidify the left tackle spot vacated by All-American Ryan Ramczyk. Sophomore David Edwards, who started eight games at right tackle last year, moved to the left side this spring and was OK. An ankle injury sidelined him late, and it led the Badgers to move junior Michael Deiter into his spot. Deiter has started games at center and guard during his career, and coach Paul Chryst said it’s entirely possible he could add tackle to the list when the season starts.
“Whatever we have to do to get the best five on the field,” Chryst said of their mindset. “The more guys can do, play different spots, whether it be right side, left side, center, guard or tackle, it’s helpful.”
Depending on how the summer goes, it would not be a surprise to see Deiter at left tackle, with sophomore Jon Dietzen at left guard, highly regarded redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz at center, junior Beau Benzschawel at right guard and Edwards back at right tackle, and then having experienced backups in juniors Micah Kapoi and Jake Maxwell, and up-and-coming freshmen Cole Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl.
3) The defensive line is stacked
No position group on the team has more experience than the defensive line where they return their top six players from last season and are even deeper this time around.
Redshirt freshman Isaiahh Loudermilk spent most of the spring in the offensive backfield, and sophomore Garrett Rand got a ton of reps and found a home at defensive end. Both guys are going to push seniors Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih for playing time this fall and be the face of the defensive line once those guys exhaust their eligibility.
4) Expectations haven’t changed on defense
Despite losing All-Big Ten players like T.J. Watt, Vince Biegel and Sojourn Shelton, along with Team MVP Leo Musso, the Wisconsin defense isn’t expecting any kind of drop off from what it accomplished last year, or for that matter, the last four seasons when the Badgers have become one of the elite units in the country.
“None of us are going to have that diminish on our watch,” senior linebacker Jack Cichy said of the defense’s almost unparalleled success in Wisconsin history. “I guess if you want to say it would tarnish our legacy, it would. But we don’t really think about it like that. We’re better than that. This program can’t have any fall off just because how far it has come. I just don’t think we as a defense would allow (it).”
Wisconsin came into the spring needing to find four new starters and it appears they have. Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson has stepped into Shelton’s cornerback spot, while senior Natrell Jamerson made the move from cornerback to safety and worked with the No. 1 unit all spring in the place occupied by Musso a year ago. Instead of Watt and Biegel at outside linebacker, it’s seniors Garrett Dooley and Leon Jacobs, both of whom had very good springs, while sophomore Zack Baun and junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel will see time as well.
As for other key spots, a battle for the third cornerback job will play itself out in fall camp with the favorites being redshirt freshman Dontye Carriere-Williams and senior Lubern Figaro. The Badgers also need to figure out how to best use their ridiculous depth at inside linebacker where Cichy and sophomore Chris Orr return from injuries to battle two-year starter T.J. Edwards and superb fill-in Ryan Connelly.
When everything is said and done, it’s possible that the 2017 defense could match or even surpass what the 2016 group did.
5) Just fine at running back
Wisconsin lost a lot of production with Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale moving on to the next phase of their careers, but it appears they won’t hurt for options to fill the void.
Sophomore Bradrick Shaw isn’t overly flashy, but his one cut and go style is perfect for the offense. Then you’ve got junior Chris James, who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, and will be big in the passing game and on third down. Add in what the Badgers hope is a healthy Taiwan Deal this fall, along with incoming freshman Jonathan Taylor, and things are looking just fine in the backfield.
A somewhat informed guess at Wisconsin’s depth chart:
||Alex Hornibrook (RS SO)
||Jack Coan (FR) OR Kare Lyles (RS FR)
||Bradrick Shaw (RS SO) OR Chris James (JR)
||Taiwan Deal (JR)
||Alec Ingold (JR)
||Austin Ramesh (SR)
||Jazz Peavy (SR)
||A.J. Taylor (SO)
||Quintez Cephus (SO)
||Kendric Pryor (SO) OR George Rushing (SR)
||Troy Fumagalli (SR)
||Zander Neuville (JR)
||Kyle Penniston (RS SO)
||Luke Benzschawel (RS FR)
||David Edwards (RS SO)
||Cole Van Lanen (RS FR)
||Jon Dietzen (RS SO)
||Micah Kapoi (JR)
||Michael Deiter (JR)
||Tyler Biadasz (RS FR)
||Beau Benzschawel (JR)
||Micah Kapoi (JR)
||Patrick Kasl (RS FR) OR Jake Maxwell (JR)
||David Moorman (RS SO)
||Chikwe Obasih (SR) OR Alec James (SR)
||Garrett Rand (SO)
||Olive Sagapolu (JR)
||Billy Hirschfeld (JR)
||Conor Sheehy (SR)
||Isaiahh Loudermilk (RS FR)
||Garrett Dooley (SR)
||Andrew Van Ginkel (JR)
||Jack Cichy (SR)
||Chris Orr (RS SO)
||T.J. Edwards (JR)
||Ryan Connelly (JR)
||Leon Jacobs (SR)
||Zack Baun (RS SO)
||Derrick Tindal (SR)
||Lubern Figaro (SR)
||D’Cota Dixon (SR)
||Joe Ferguson (SR)
||Natrell Jamerson (SR)
||Patrick Johnson (SO)
||Nick Nelson (JR)
||Dontye Carriere-Williams (RS FR)
||Rafael Gaglianone (JR)
||Zach Hintze (RS SO)
||Anthony Lotti (SO)
||P.J. Rosowski (JR)