If you're headed to the spring game Saturday, keep an eye on safeties Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson (above), who Bret Bielema said "might be the best safety combination" he's ever coached.
When the Badgers take the field for their annual spring game Saturday, they'll be without a significant number of projected starters. And perhaps more importantly, the starters that or will not play are among the biggest names on the team.
Transfer quarterback Danny O'Brien cannot join the team until he graduates from Maryland in May, and Bielema announced Monday he planned to hold Montee Ball out of the game as well. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis will also sit as he recovers from foot injury.
With James White's (knee contusion) status for the game in jeopardy as well, there's a good chance the only consistent offensive playmaker from last year's team that will play Saturday is tight end Jacob Pedersen. Still, Bielema said there's reason to be excited for Pedersen, who was limited by a groin injury until last week, and his role in the offense for the upcoming season.
"It's been very nice to get Ped back in there," Bielema said. "I think Ped is the guy, especially with coach Canada, and what they've done in the past with tight ends and what we've been able to do in the past here. I think he should have an expanded role."
The absence of some of the Badgers' top offensive players also means much of the focus will be shifted to the defense, which will be without a few starters of its own. Defensive end David Gilbert (foot), cornerback Devin Smith (foot, groin) and linebackers Mike Taylor (hip) and Ethan Armstrong (hip) have missed the entirety of spring and won't play Saturday.
One position group that's healthy and might be worth paying attention to Saturday is the Badger safeties. Even though Aaron Henry is gone, both Dezmen Southward and Shelton Johnson return with a wealth of in-game experience. Bielema had high praise for the duo Monday.
"I think Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward together might give us the best safety combination since I've been here coaching-wise. So I'm excited about those two," Bielema said.
One of the things the Wisconsin coaching staff specifically identified as something the defense needed to improve on before next season is containing the run and not allowing big plays.
Southward and Johnson should help in this regard, as will Wisconsin's bevy of experienced defensive tackles. Starter Ethan Hemer returns along with Beau Allen and Jordan Kohout, who were both part of the defensive tackle rotation last season. Bielema said he was particularly excited about the development of Allen and Warren Herring, a former defensive end who looks like the favorite to round out the rotation come fall.
"The reason we moved (Herring) inside was during one on ones during Bowl prep, he was a traditional always an outside pass rusher. We put him inside on the center and guard, and all of a sudden he was winning a lot of his one on ones. He blew by (Travis Frederick) the other day. I think everybody just kind of stood there and watched that happen," Bielema said.
Regardless of who plays or doesn't play Saturday, Bielema said he's looking forward to watching his team in a game (or at least game-like) situation Saturday.
"We're very excited. I think the last couple years we talked about joining dates with the Crazylegs, and this year's schedule it worked out as good as we can. So it's a little later today, but expect to have a good crowd," Bielema said. "It should be a great competitive environment."