Wisconsin practiced earlier than initially scheduled on Wednesday due to various factors, including several scheduled exams players had to take, head coach Gary Andersen said.
"I thought they handled it well. I also wanted to give them some curveballs through spring ball as a young group to see how they're handling the adjustments in the schedule, and some surprises for the coaches and surprises for the kids. Overall, it was a good morning."
We'll try to roundup each practice as in-depth as news and observations warrant. Notebook style typically works best for these, so here we go (definitely let us know, though, if you have an idea of how we might be able to better cover spring ball).
QB D.J. Gillins
The true freshman quarterback continues to improve early in his first spring on campus. When asked about areas Gillins continues to make strides in, Andersen said, "Just staying on top of the offense. He's definitely not ahead of the offense at this point -- I don't know if I would say that it's a 'jump' that he's making, but he's sustaining and maintaing his knowledge of the offense, which is impressive because there's a lot of offense. Going over that, you don't see a lot of busts coming out of them."
Andersen said Gillins has been focused "since day one," and that certainly jives with outside observations we've heard. In the portion of Wednesday's practice that was open to media, Gillins reportedly received the most quarterback reps (keep in mind Joel Stave will be limited this spring). After Monday's practice, ESPN Wisconsin's Zach Heilprin also noted Gillins seemed to have a good day connecting with several of UW's young tight ends, especially T.J. Watt.
QB Joel Stave
Stave is throwing in team drills, including red-zone activities on Wednesday.
"The throws were obviously controlled, he obviously doesn't have to throw it as far," Andersen said.
"It was good to see Joel get out there and compete a little bit in as controlled of a situation as we can."
Andersen said Rob Wheelwright is "absolutely" expected back in practice after spring break. Wheelwright suffered a right-knee injury in Monday's practice.
As mentioned above, the Badgers are young at tight end after losing Jacob Pedersen and Brian Wozniak to graduation. Sam Arneson is the lone senior and expected to start, with juniors Austin Maly and Austin Traylor, and sophomore Eric Stefes and Alex Walker behind him. Watt is also on the depth chart as a redshirt freshman.
"It's a work in progress with youthful, talented players," Andersen said of the tight end group. "Much like the defensive front seven, there's some good and bad. We've got a lot of work to do, but the care factor seems to be there and the athleticism seems to be there."
Just as any mention of Gillins' improvement should probably come marked with a reminder that this is just spring practice, the same goes for Wisconsin's other young players. As another early enrollee, Michael Deiter is in a position to take advantage of injuries across UW's offensive line, which also lost Ryan Groy and Zac Matthias to graduation. So far, Deiter's impressed at center.
"Unbelievably well," Andersen said when asked how Deiter's handled his early reps at center. "Michael has come in and just been the starting center and handled it well. He's going against a very good nose guard in Warren [Herring], and I think Warren is playing at a pretty high level right now. It's not easy as a freshman to come in, especially against an odd front.
"It's a very bright spot for him to be able to handle it physically, and then on top of that, the mental part is impressive."
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Leaders emerging on defense
Losing Chris Borland and Dezmen Southward means many things for Wisconsin's defense, chief among them a possible leadership void. Andersen pointed out a pair of possible replacements as leaders on Wednesday in linebacker Derek Landisch and nose guard Warren Herring.
"I think Warren is still kind of a quiet leader; Landisch is much the same," Andersen said. "When I want to see their leadership come and rise to the top is when it's going to get hard in spring ball one day. Then we'll see. When there's some adversity to the defense ... we'll see how their leadership is."
LBs Leon Jacobs and Jesse Hayes
Leon Jacobs is moving to inside linebacker from the outside, and Andersen said Wednesday that was due in part to the emergence of Jesse Hayes.
"Jesse Hayes is going to have an opportunity to get to play," Andersen said. "You look at your best guys, and you sit back and you say, 'Where's Jesse? Is it time for Jesse to step up and be the guy, or at least be given the opportunity to be the guy?' He kind of earned that right, and now if Jesse takes advantage of that, that'll be a good thing because we can have Leon, which gives Joe [Schobert] a chance to move outside in some different packages and Leon to stay inside.
"There's a lot of pieces to that puzzle, but the biggest piece of that puzzle right now is Jesse Hayes going to step up and hold down that spot there between him and [Vince] Biegel. If we see that as an opportunity to have a good, solid two-deep, then Leon can go and mature and develop on the inside, which is simply the recipe that we think gets the best players on the field at this point."
Given his recent injury struggles -- Gaulden didn't play last season following offseason knee surgery and a subsequent setback; he also had a stress fracture in his right shin in 2011 -- a return to form for Devin Gaulden could be one of the greater highlights of spring practice. Wisconsin lacks depth at cornerback, and ideally, the staff would like to move Darius Hillary to nickel back from his starting job. Sojourn Shelton remains entrenched as one starter, still, so there's a glaring opening for significant playing time in the secondary.
"I know right now it's all good, which is great," Andersen said of Gaulden's health issues. "He's a competitive kid who definitely pushed his rehab. But was that a reason for his setback? I can't say that. All competitors push their rehab pretty hard."
Incoming safeties could add depth
The Badgers added four safeties and a cornerback on National Signing Day, though Andersen reiterated once again that their chances of getting early playing time depend on which positions they're eventually slotted into.
"I would say on the back end, so many of those kids we talked about on signing day -- are they a corner, are they a safety? There are tall kids than can run; it would be nice to have a couple of them come in and play. I don't know who that will be.
"I feel the same away about the wide receivers. We need a couple of wide receivers to come in here and help us and step up as we move forward. But who is that going to be?"
Hammon practiced for the first time this spring.
"He'll stride very slowly through individual [drills]," Andersen said. "Again, we're being cautious. When we come back from spring break, I think we're going to see him do a little bit more. But this was his first day that he kind of got into the 'thud' drills, I guess."
Chris Beatty taking over as recruiting coordinator
Andersen said Wednesday that wide receivers coach Chris Beatty will take over the recruiting coordinator duties vacated by Thomas Hammock, who announced he was leaving for the Baltimore Ravens' staff on signing day.
"Chris Beatty absolutely is our recruiting coordinator," Andersen said. "Excited about that; he brings some good, fresh, clean ideas to the direction that we want to head. He's right in the middle of that; he takes great pride in being a recruiting coordinator, that's something he's done in the past. So that's his spot."
Coaches tracking players' play-by-play results
Asked about how much individual competitions the Badgers are running in spring ball, Andersen delved into a slight deviation from last year.
"I try to keep it a little bit fresh," he said. "There's a board in the locker room. Every one-on-one rep a kid has is now tagged as a win or a loss. They've got to catch it if they're a receiver against a DB.
"We're posting that in the locker room and keeping that up so the kids understand how they are competing against each other and get a true winner or loser out of the offense and defense. We didn't do that last year as much. ... They know every day if they're winning or losing. That's the key."