Wide receiver Rob Wheelwright could be on the shortlist of commits to get early playing time. - Eric Albrecht/Columbus Dispatch
The Badgers' new head coach has 19 commits to begin his tenure with in Madison. Will any see the field early?
MADISON, Wis. -- After about six weeks on the job, Wisconsin football coach Gary Andersen's personal footprint on the program grows stronger every day.
With a pair of junior college transfers and several other top-level talents who turned down the overtures of other elite college football programs, Andersen is ready to offer first-year players a shot at seeing significant time on the field. It is rare to find a player on the current Wisconsin roster who did not redshirt after arriving on campus, but that may change with the new face of the program.
Andersen said he will focus on getting the new players as many reps as possible during spring ball, even if that means keeping more established talent on the sideline.
"My philosophy on that is once we get through these conditioning times and we get through spring ball and we get through fall practice that the junior college kids are here, they deserve the opportunity to show us who they are very early," Andersen said. "You're going to see those young men in practice right away.
"They'll be given that opportunity early, but so will the freshman as much as we can. Get them in there and see if they can handle it."
Relying on the preseason to evaluate fresh talent and figure out how the pieces slide together on the depth chart is a practice Andersen said he borrowed form legendary Kansas State coach Bill Snyder. While evaluating talent in spring ball is hardly anything new, Andersen appears more open to giving youngsters a chance to actually earn playing time in their first year on campus.
He said that recruits including cornerback Sojourn Shelton and wide receiver Robert Wheelwright will have a fair opportunity to earn immediate playing time. So just how big of a role will freshmen play in 2013?
"A lot of them will probably be able to handle it physically," Andersen said of the incoming class. "But the fact of the matter is can you handle big time Division I football from a mentality standpoint, day-in and day-out?"
McEvoy adds another layer to quarterback battle
Perhaps the most surprising addition to the Badgers' class of 2013 was junior college transfer quarterback Tanner McEvoy.
McEvoy, who started his career at South Carolina before taking a detour to Arizona Western College in 2012, is one of six quarterbacks who will battle it out for the starting spot under center this spring. Many perceived McEvoy to arrive with an inherent advantage since he is Andersen's recruit, but the UW coach denied such claims.
"We just want to create competition; he adds another dimension to the quarterback position," Andersen explained. "His ability to be able to run is a positive. Does that mean he's the starting quarterback? No, [the] best guy will be whoever performs and leads the team the best way."
But he also talked about the potential of the 6-foot-6 passer, the top-rated dual-threat quarterback to emerge from the junior college ranks this year. Andersen said McEvoy can "hurt you with his arms, his legs and his mind," and also said he liked the resolve of a player who still has three years of eligibility remaining.
"Another thing I like about Tanner is he's kind of had to fight his way back," he said. "He has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, he's got a lot of want-to in him, he has high expectations of himself, his family has high expectations of himself as he moves through the rest of his career."
Dipping into the junior college ranks
Junior college transfers like McEvoy often arrive with the stigma of having some kind of checkered past, that they must own a troubling history with an initial stint at a major college football program.
But Andersen said that stigma is often false, explaining along the way why he brought in two recruits from junior college -- McEvoy and safety Donnell Vercher. Himself a former junior college player at Utah's Ricks College, Andersen sees an upside to bringing in these the oft-overlooked or embattled players.
"I like that chip on kids' shoulders," Andersen said. "If you look back at the history of the University of Wisconsin, that's how this program was built, with tough kids that ... have a little bit of a ‘I told you so, but I'm going to show you.' As they go through their career, they tend to blossom when they get into this environment."
While such recruits will likely continue to be a resource for the program, the Badgers' head coach assured fans he will not use them as a recruiting crutch in the future.
"We're never going to wholesale junior college kids," he said. "We're not going to go out and sign 12 junior college players. That's never going to happen."
Strickland already a "superstar"
With an energetic and engaging personality, it's easy to understand why Wisconsin secondary coach Ben Strickland has already established himself as an ace recruiter.
So just how important was he to securing the likes of Brookfield East's Alec James and Brookfield Central's Chikwe Obasih, two of the top players in the state? According to Andersen -- who said he got to know the young coach on a five-day recruiting trip through the Midwest -- his ability to calm the waters after Bielema's departure was invaluable.
Just five years after Strickland last suited up for the Badgers, Andersen already sees a bright future for the second-year position coach.
"Ben has done a tremendous job of saying, 'yes' when it's 'yes' and saying, ‘Maybe, we'll see when it's maybe we'll see,' Andersen said. "And then say, ‘Coach, you know what, it's just now the right fit for us right now.' Because of that, he has tremendous relationships with high school coaches throughout the state.
"He just continues to show me that he's a superstar in this profession at a very, very young age."