Wisconsin didn’t have a ton of position battles entering fall camp, but there were some vital ones. This week, a number of assistant coaches and players discussed where things stood at three key spots just two weeks out from the season opener against Western Kentucky.
Position: Left tackle
Who: Jon Dietzen (JR) and Cole Van Lanen (RS SO)
What they’re saying:
“It would be Dietzen, Van Lanen [or] Van Lanen, Dietzen, alphabetically, reverse and forward.”
— OL coach Joe Rudolph on where the position battle currently stands
What we know:
If not for Dietzen’s injury history, this battle would have likely already been decided. But with Dietzen coming back from hip and ankle injuries, Rudolph said it would be irresponsible of him to have the junior take every rep. That’s led to both guys getting work with the first-team at left tackle.
Still, it feels as if this is Dietzen’s job and only an injury will keep him from trotting out with the starting group on Aug. 31. Wisconsin is making a concerted effort for that to be the case by having him share reps and giving him planned days off to rest. Why are they being so careful with someone that’s never played a snap of left tackle in his college career? Well, by nearly all accounts, he’s taken to the position as well as one could expect, even impressing Michael Deiter, who made the same move Dietzen is prior to last season.
“It’s a little more space and he’s definitely athletic enough to do it. He needs to be healthy, obviously, to be as athletic as he can be,” Deiter said this week. “But he’s so strong that I just think it’s easier for him out there than it was for me, because he’s stronger than me. When he gets his hands on guys, it’s pretty much over.”
If Dietzen does end up being the guy, you can pencil Van Lanen in as his backup, as well as the backup at right tackle behind David Edwards. Rudolph said this week that those would be his three tackles. As for the inside spots, Tyler Biadasz will start at center, while Deiter will be at left guard and Beau Benzschawel at right guard. Junior Jason Erdmann and senior Micah Kapoi will serve as the backups.
Position: Defensive end
Who: Kayden Lyles (RS FR), Matt Henningsen (RS FR), Aaron Vopal (RS FR), David Pfaff (JR), Kraig Howe (JR), Gunnar Roberge (RS SO), Keldric Preston (RS SO)
What they’re saying:
“I’ve told my guys I’m going to play whoever’s the best. I don’t care if you’re a walk-on, or a scholarship player, or a redshirt freshman walk-on. I don’t care. I’m going to put the best guys out there.”
— DL coach Inoke Breckterfield
With the top five defensive ends from last year’s roster not currently available to Inoke Breckterfield, the defensive line coach has had to adapt. That’s led to something no one could have foreseen when spring ball concluded in April — former offensive lineman Kayden Lyles and redshirt freshman walk-on Matt Henningsen lining up with the first-team defense.
“I was surprised,” Lyles said of rolling with the starters so soon after moving from offense to defense in the summer. “At this level, with a coach that has seen that many defensive linemen, to put somebody that has no college experience in, was pretty shocking.”
But Lyles being in the starting group isn’t even the biggest surprise. That goes to Henningsen.
“I think Matt might be the most improved player I’ve seen in my career,” said Deiter, who faces Henningsen on a daily basis. “I remember watching him in spring ball just going, ‘He’s a guy.’”
Breckterfield saw the same jump and determined he deserved to be with the starting group ahead of redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal, the presumed starter coming into fall camp.
“He does a really good job against the run. I think he’s stout,” Breckterfield said of Henningsen, who is listed at 277 pounds. “Obviously, the way we play defense, we want to stop the run first and we take pride in those types of things. He was putting it on film and doing a good job that way, so I put him in there to run with the ones.”
Vopal and Pfaff were included in Breckterfield’s list of guys that could be in the rotation, as well as Isaiahh Loudermilk when he returns from offseason knee surgery, presumably early in the season. For now, though, it’s Lyles and Henningsen.
Who: Dontye Carriere-Williams (RS SO), Caesar Williams (RS SO), Faion Hicks (RS FR), Deron Harrell (RS FR), Madison Cone (SO), Donte Burton (FR)
What they’re saying:
“It may be a situation where we get into the season and we’re still looking to figure that out. Not many of those guys have done it in front of 80,000 people. I don’t know exactly how they are going to respond. I think I know how they’re going to respond, but until that happens I think that question is still going to be there.”
— DC Jim Leonhard on determining his rotation at cornerback
What we know:
Wisconsin was going to be young at cornerback no matter who started, but it always seemed like they’d have at least one experienced guy there in redshirt sophomore Dontye Carriere-Williams. He was the third cornerback last year, getting a ton of snaps with Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal. But it hasn’t played out the way we thought it would. After spending much of the first week of camp with the starters, the Florida product has been taking second- and third-team reps as recently as Friday.
“He’s had the most experience but he’s a young player,” Leonhard said Thursday. “He knows what it’s like on Saturday. That doesn’t give him a pass to [not] compete on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday in training camp. I like the fact, that when he competes, he looks like we want him to compete. We just want it more often.”
Whether that will serve as a kick in the butt for Carriere-Williams remains to be seen, but what it does do is leave redshirt freshman Faion Hicks and redshirt sophomore Caesar Williams as the first-team cornerbacks, with Deron Harrell, who moved from wide receiver to defensive back prior to spring, coming in when the Badgers go to their nickel package.
“There’s a lot of highs. There’s a lot of good reps on tape,” Leonhard said of the group. “[We’re] just trying to find out who is going to play the most consistent.”
Sophomore Madison Cone is also battling for time, specifically as the slot cornerback.