MADISON - With the opener against UNLV less than two weeks away, Wisconsin's players and coaches appear more and more eager to start the regular season with each practice.
"I've seen more of a sense of urgency from the guys with the way they pay attention in meeting rooms and the way they go about their business out on the field," defensive coordinator Chris Ash said after Friday's practice. "It's that time. The game's going to be here soon."
The play of Ash's defense has been up and down throughout fall camp. After a scrimmage last week in which the starting unit surrendered several big plays, the coaches on that side of the ball were visibly upset. But Ash says he has noticed improvement since then.
"Quite a bit," he said. "The biggest thing is just the consistency with our guys. We struggled with some injuries at some really key positions, and now we've got some guys back and we're building some chemistry. Those guys bring a lot of energy and enthusiasm. It makes a big difference."
Ash and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge were promoted to co-defensive coordinator positions following the hiring of Dave Doeren as the head coach at Northern Illinois. Ash, who will call the plays on gameday, has tried to implement a more aggressive scheme, meaning fans can expect to see the corners line up a bit closer to the line of scrimmage and the linebackers blitz more frequently.
He says despite his and Partridge's new roles and the addition of two new defensive assistants, Dave Huxtable and DeMontie Cross, the transition has gone smoothly.
"Coach Partridge and I have both been here," Ash said. "We know how things are done here and what the expectations are. The new coaches have fit in nicely and things are going well."
Ash joined the chorus of high praise for the way cornerback Marcus Cromartie has played throughout camp. The cousin of NFL corner Antonio Cromartie filled in with the starting unit for two days while Devin Smith nursed an injury. Ash called Marcus the most productive defensive back in practice to this point.
He also believes Brendan Kelly will remind fans why they were so excited about him three years ago when he makes his return from injury.
Wide receiver Nick Toon returned to practice Thursday and hauled in a big reception from quarterback Russell Wilson.
Toon said there is no reason to worry about his health.
"I just kind of tweaked my foot a little bit," Toon said. "They just wanted to make sure I am ready to go September 1st. Obviously I always want to be on the field. But it felt good, felt healthy."
Toon's chemistry with Wilson appears to be rock solid and improving by the day. It is clear that Toon benefits from playing with a quarterback like Wilson, who can use his feet to buy time for his receivers to get open.
Look for Toon to have a monster senior season.
The running backs unit looks both strong and deep.
Probable starter Montee Ball looks fast and shifty at 207 pounds. Running backs coach Thomas Hammock has noticed other improvements as well.
"I think he's playing better because he has more confidence in his abilities," Hammock said after Friday's practice. "He has a better understanding of what we're trying to get done. He's competing on a day-to-day basis."
The buzz surrounding true freshman Melvin Gordon is well-justified. The Kenosha Bradford product is a virtual lock to see the field this season and possibly make big contributions.
Before the skeptics start telling everyone Gordon should redshirt, recall that many said the same thing about James White before the 2010 season.
White ended up leading the team in rushing.
Hammock said the team will not hesitate to play any back it thinks can help the Badgers win.
"You never know," Hammock said. "It's a long season. A lot of things can happen. I told them all to be ready if their number's called. We're just trying to win games. Each game is different. We're going to do whatever we need to do to try and help this team win."
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