Badgers excited for a healthy Taiwan Deal at running back

MADISON — Paul Chryst doesn’t normally offer up information on his own. Ask him a question about his team or a player and you’ll usually get something from the third-year coach, but he rarely volunteers anything without prompting. That’s what made his comments a few months ago about Taiwan Deal noteworthy.

Following the spring game in April, the Wisconsin coach was asked about the battle at running back between sophomore Bradrick Shaw and junior Chris James. After talking about those two, though, he brought up Deal’s name, saying they were excited to get him back after he missed the entire spring following offseason surgery.

The answer caught a few people off guard considering Deal had all of 12 carries in the final three months of the 2016 season and finished the year with 164 yards and no touchdowns. While it was known he’d been dealing with an ankle injury, most didn’t know how bad it actually was. It happened early in the year, and he never felt right the rest of the way. But Deal had surgery on the ankle after the season, took part in summer workouts and is now ready to push for time in a backfield that needs to replace 405 carries and 1,881 yards of production from a year ago.

“He healed up in the spring, had a great summer,” running backs coach John Settle said Friday. “The strength staff is fired up about how he finished the summer. Nobody is happier than he is to take the field without the worries of his ankle popping out on him.”

LISTEN: RBs coach John Settle talks Chris James, Bradrick Shaw and Taiwan Deal

Deal has rarely been healthy in his time at Wisconsin. He suffered a broken hand as a true freshman that led him to redshirt, had 503 yards and six touchdowns in 2015 but was plagued by an ankle injury over the second half of the year, and then was barely heard from after the month of September last fall.

“That’s been the frustrating thing for us,” Settle said of Deal’s injury issues. “Talent-wise, he’s probably the most natural of a guy we’ve had on the roster. But he’s always had something that’s been nagging him and couldn’t reach his full potential, in my mind.”

At 6-foot-1, 219 pounds, Deal has show an ability to run with power and averaged 5.1 yards per carry in his limited action as a sophomore. While Shaw and James both had strong springs, the belief at this point is there won’t be one back that dominates the carries, with the Badgers willing to spread the wealth to all that deserve it and that should include Deal — if he can stay healthy.

“He now feels good about where he is,” Settle said. “He’s chomping at the bit and ready to go.”

Practice No. 1

Wisconsin hit the field for the first practice of fall camp on Saturday. Here are a few things that stood out.

— As we first reported on Friday, junior Michael Deiter did indeed line up at left tackle with the first-team offense. Splitting his time between center and guard the last two years, Deiter has started 27 straight games and is now being asked to fill the void left by All-American Ryan Ramczyk, who was taken in the first round of the NFL draft in April. But the move, at least according to Chryst, isn’t that big of a deal and may not even be permanent.

“It was permanent today,” the coach said. “But he’s still going to have to do some center stuff and guard [stuff]. As we go through camp you’ll see a lot of guys moving. I wouldn’t try to make that any [kind of] lead story for anybody.”

The rest of the first-team line had sophomore Jon Dietzen at left guard, redshirt freshman Tyler Biadasz at center, junior Beau Benzschawel at right guard and sophomore David Edwards at right tackle.

The second line consisted of redshirt freshman Cole Van Lanen at LT, junior Micah Kapoi at LG, junior Brett Connors at C, sophomore Jason Erdmann at RG and redshirt freshman Patrick Kasl at RT.

LISTEN: OC Joe Rudolph is very high on center Tyler Biadasz

— The closest thing to a play of the day was quarterback Alex Hornibrook hooking up with wide receiver Jazz Peavy for a long touchdown in 7-on-7 drills. The senior put a double move on the cornerback and had 10 yards of separation by the time the ball found him.

— There were no surprises on the defensive depth chart with the first-team looking like this:

DL: senior Conor Sheehy, junior Olive Sagapolu, senior Alec James
OLB: seniors Garrett Dooley, Leon Jacobs
ILB: senior Jack Cichy, junior T.J. Edwards
CB: senior Derrick Tindal, junior Nick Nelson
S: senior Natrell Jamerson, junior D’Cota Dixon

— During the special teams period, Peavy, Nelson and a pair of true freshmen — WRs Danny Davis and Cade Green — were back as punt returners.

Wisconsin names Alex Hornibrook its starting quarterback for 2017

MADISON — Wisconsin has named its starting quarterback before spring practice even got underway.

In an article on the team’s website, coach Paul Chryst said that redshirt sophomore Alex Hornibrook is his starter heading into 2017.

“He is the guy,” Chryst told UWBadgers.com. “He knows it and he thinks it.”

As a redshirt freshman, Hornibrook started nine games while sharing time with senior Bart Houston. He threw for 1,262 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.

“Couldn’t be more excited about Alex,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said on National Signing Day. “What he was able to do in his redshirt freshman year is huge. You don’t see that. It’s uncommon.”

With Hornibrook installed as the starter, the battle for the backup job falls to redshirt freshman Kare Lyles and true freshman Jack Coan, who enrolled early.

“It’ll elevate that position and provide us depth going into the season. Real depth, not just someone who can go out there and line up,” Rudolph said of the competition. “Somebody with enough knowledge and the ability to learn this spring, go through some good and some bad, (and then) truly have a plan in the summer of how they better approach it to get themselves ready for fall camp. I think it will be really beneficial for us.”

Wisconsin opens spring practice on Tuesday morning. It’s the first of 15 sessions, culminating with the annual Spring Game on Friday, April 21.

Wisconsin tackle Ryan Ramczyk in no hurry to make a decision on his future

MADISON | Wisconsin left tackle Ryan Ramczyk has until Jan. 16 to decide whether to declare for the NFL draft or return for his senior season. And based on his mindset when he met with reporters on Thursday, fans shouldn’t expect to hear much on that front before then.

Speaking for the first time since the Big Ten title game loss to Penn State, Ramczyk sidestepped reporters’ questions about his future, not even admitting that they submitted his name to the NFL’s Draft Advisory Committee to determine where he might go in next April’s draft. Instead, his focus is on Western Michigan and the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2.

“You can’t look at everything. You’ll just shut down trying to take everything in and process everything that’s going around,” Ramczyk said of draft rumors. “It’s been good for me to just focus on the task at hand this week.”

If Ramczyk did look at all the stuff, he’d know that many consider him a first-round pick, a far cry from where he was just a few years ago, considering a career as a welder. Two seasons at UW-Stevens Point, a year on Wisconsin’s scout team and now one year starting has Ramczyk as the No. 2 tackle in the draft according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper.

Lucky for the 22-year-old, he doesn’t have to deal with the draft decision on his own. Wisconsin’s coaching staff, including offensive line coach Joe Rudolph, is helping him sift through all the noise out there.

“You try to get as much (information) as you can right from scouts, general managers, owners, offensive line coaches, so he can really get a feel for where he projects,” Rudolph said Thursday. “And then I think you try to explain the positives and negatives for a general person, maybe an o-lineman. Then you try to explain the positives and negatives maybe for him as an individual.”

Rudolph said he doesn’t know when Ramczyk will make his decision, but also said don’t expect one any time soon.

“He’s got a great head on his shoulders,” Rudolph said. “His mom and dad are right there with him working through things. (I) believe that he’ll make the best decision.”

David Edwards looking to be the next TE to OL success story

MADISON | Imagine a world in which you were encouraged to eat your favorite unhealthy food every day with zero consequences.

Oh, you want a bacon double cheeseburger? Go for it.

How about loading your plate up with pancakes drenched in maple syrup? It’s all yours.

Or what about a heaping portion of chicken alfredo seven days a week? Yep, you can have that, too.

This is essentially the life that David Edwards – Wisconsin’s newest offensive lineman — is living in right now. For him, the food he can’t get enough of is Chicago-style deep dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s, a popular restaurant chain in the Chicago area, including a store in Edwards’ hometown of Downers Grove.

“It’s so good,” Edwards said with a huge grin following a practice this past week.

A “skinny” 240 pounds when he arrived on campus last summer, the 6-foot-7 Edwards has packed on 50 pounds, all of it needed as he makes the move from tight end to offensive tackle.

“It is fun,” Edwards said of the weight-gaining process. “Obviously you can’t only put garbage in your body, but when I was playing tight end I was monitoring my weight a little bit. But now I cut it loose and can eat whatever I want, whenever I want.”

And he’s done just that, eating up to four times a day, while he’s watched his weight steadily rise to where he tipped the scales at 290 pounds as the Badgers opened fall camp. He hopes to be 300 pounds before the start of the season and could potentially settle in at 315 to 320.

Edwards story is one that’s not unfamiliar to Wisconsin offensive line coach Joe Rudolph. In 2008, when he served as the team’s tight ends coach, a walk-on from West Allis came to campus as a “big” tight end. But like Edwards, it became pretty clear early on that a change would be needed.

“Ricky (Wagner) came in at 245 pounds,” Rudolph said of the former All-Big Ten left tackle. “Then he was 272 one morning and he got moved. David came in at 280 one morning, and we’re like, ‘Ah, this is probably going to be where he’s going.’”

Wagner made the move while redshirting during his freshman season. He played in 12 games in 2009 and went on to start 37 contests over the next three years, playing along an offensive line that was a key in winning back-to-back-to-back Big Ten titles. A fifth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in the 2013 NFL Draft, Wagner has been a mainstay at right tackle for them, having started 31 of a possible 32 games over the past two years.

The day Wagner was drafted marked the end of a journey that Edwards is just starting. Asked what advice he’d give Edwards, the 26-year-old Wagner was straight and to the point.

“You really got to learn fast or you’re not going to make it,” Wagner said this past week during a break at Baltimore’s training camp. “It’s definitely a good thing to get thrown into the fire early on because you learn fast.”

And that’s exactly what’s happening for Edwards. A former high school quarterback, the redshirt freshman has been working with the second-team offense at right tackle, while also getting some reps with the starters in place of redshirt sophomore Jake Maxwell. That means facing All-Big Ten performers like outside linebacker Vince Biegel and defensive end Chikwe Obasih on every snap.

“Everything happens a lot quicker,” Edwards said. “[You’ve] got guys in your face [right away].”

Perhaps no position group on the field needs great technique to play at a high level more than the offensive line. It takes time to learn those movements, and it’s something that neither Wagner or Edwards was ever exposed to in high school. So, outside of on-field work, how does one improve? They open their eyes.

“The biggest thing that helped me was just watching the guys in front of me, watching the starters on tape, pretending that’s you,” Wagner said. “If they do something good, look at why they had success on that play. If they did something wrong, figure out how they can improve it. It really puts yourself in their shoes on film.”

Edwards admitted that having the confidence he could make the move wasn’t necessarily there when the coaching staff told him of the position change back in June. The same could have been said of Wagner when he walked into a room with future first-round picks Gabe Carimi and Kevin Zeitler. But it didn’t last.

“It was kind of intimidating at first. But once I got there, all the guys were like coaches for me,” Wagner said. “They really took me under their wing and really made the transition as easy as possible for me.

“The guys really helped me out and accepted me as one of their own. And I think the offensive line, as a group, is such a tightknit family. It’s hard to fail once they accept you.”

Veterans along the current line accepted Edwards in a similar fashion. If he had questions, he could look to guards Beau Benzschawel and Micah Kapoi. And he’s also well aware of what Wagner accomplished and wouldn’t mind following in his footsteps.

“He’s a great person to look up,” Edwards said.

It’s also possible that the days of being a tight end aren’t completely over for Edwards. Over the past 20 seasons, including when head coach Paul Chryst was Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator, the Badgers have used offensive linemen as jumbo tight ends. Joe Thomas played there as a true freshman in 2003, and Bill Nagy lined up there in 2009 and 2010.

“He might go out there and play tight end for us in a bunch of games. And if we need him to play tackle, we feel like he can play tackle. And do a great job there,” Rudolph said. “He’s going to have a role on this team, but it’s probably going to be multiple (positions) this year.

“But I think his future is going to be at tackle, and I think he’s got a chance to be really good there.”

Dan Voltz excited for the challenge of a position change

MADISON | Dan Voltz has started 27 games at center in his career at the University of Wisconsin. But if the senior is going to add to that total, it’s likely going to come at another position.

Speaking during Wisconsin’s local media day on Sunday, the Illinois native said that the center spot belongs to redshirt sophomore Michael Deiter after the way he played a year ago in relief of Voltz, who sustained a season-ending knee injury midway through the Big Ten schedule. And so instead of fighting Deiter for a starting spot, Voltz is focused on battling redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen to be with the first-team at left guard.

“It’s little a weird. It’s a little bittersweet,” Voltz said of the move. “I’ve played center since I was a true freshman. But at the same time, being able to try a new position to compete at, [and] play offensive guard, for me, is kind of refreshing. It’s fun.”

Voltz suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament last October, the second serious lower body injury he’s dealt with during his time in Madison. His absence allowed Deiter to slide from left guard into the center spot, where he started the final six games and played at a high level. In the spring, as Voltz was recovering from surgery, he made the suggestion to offensive line coach Joe Rudolph that he move to guard.

“It speaks to who Dan is,” Rudolph said Sunday. “He’d do anything for this team. He’s a warrior. He fights his butt off for this program, and he’s respected for it.”

And it’s a move that Voltz wouldn’t have suggested unless he thought it would help an offensive line that was up and down a year ago.

“The way I look at it, Michael started the last half of last season, played all of spring ball at center. To just jump in and be like, ‘OK, I want my spot back, go play guard again,’ I just didn’t think that was the best thing to do for this offensive line,” Voltz said. “He kind of grew into that spot, became the leader of the group at the line of scrimmage, why not keep him there.”

Voltz, who is cleared to be a full participant but whose reps will be limited, said he has gained all the weight back that he lost while rehabbing, and is looking forward to battling Dietzen for the starting gig.

“To have a new challenge where I’m not going to walk up and be like, ‘I’ve done this a million times.’ It’s going to be like, ‘Woah, this is my first time doing this.’ Let’s see how it goes. Let’s learn new things.

“For me, it’s exciting going into camp doing something new. It’s not the same old routine. It’s a new challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.”