Saturday afternoon put a cap on the Wisconsin Badgers spring football season. Though Team Gasser and the first-team crushed Team Dukan's second-team squad 35-7 in the spring game in front of 9,630 fans at Camp Randall Stadium, it was just one glorified scrimmage.
B5Q: In your opinion, was there one or two players that stood out the most to you during spring practices?
John Veldhuis (JV): I thought two players in particular had great camps, maybe not from start to finish but certainly over an extended period of time. T.J. Edwards is one of them. The Badgers desperately needed someone to step up at inside linebacker with most of last year's two deep having exhausted their eligibility, and Edwards really answered the bell by making plays in several phases of the game. He stood out against the run and in coverage and also made plays when he was rushing the passer, and in talking to him he seems like a heady player who knows what he needs to work on. I remember hearing that the Badgers might have found a diamond in the rough when they flipped him from Western Michigan, and after seeing him on the field quite a bit this spring it's easy to see why Dave Aranda thinks so highly of him.
There were a few players on offense who had nice camps as well, but I think we also saw a resurgence of Sojourn Shelton at cornerback. He made plays on a consistent basis after spring break and seemed to have at least one interception per practice. You could attribute some of that to Shelton taking advantage of Joel Stave's willingness to test different throwing windows in practice, but Shelton had success against everyone. That's a good sign for a defense that was already looking pretty deep in the secondary.
B5Q: Which player(s) surprised you the most during spring?
JV: If we are talking about going from having relatively few expectations to taking must-watch reps I'd say Alex Hornibrook surprised me the most this spring. There was obviously a lot of deserved hype around fellow quarterback and early enrollee Austin Kafentzis, but Hornibrook looked like the more polished passer basically from Wisconsin's first practice, and he showed nice arm strength, accuracy and touch for a freshman. I thought Hornibrook hit a bit of a wall towards the end of camp, which shouldn't surprise anyone, but seeing a true freshman wade in to the college game so quickly should give Badgers fans some hope for more than just decent quarterback play in the future.
B5Q: Were there any positions heading into spring that you were worried about, that afterwards, you feel the team should be fine in?
JV: As I stated above, Edwards' strong spring camp has me feeling better about Wisconsin's inside linebackers than I did at the start of camp. Pairing him with Leon Jacobs gives them a talented, if inexperienced, first team unit. They still need to develop the players who are below them on the depth chart, but that comes with the territory when underclassmen make up three-fourths of your two-deep.
It seems strange to say it, but I am feeling better about Wisconsin's wide receivers after the spring as well. I'm a little cautious because I remember feeling optimistic about their receivers at the end of fall camp last year, but there are a few players there who could help their passing game if their performances in spring camp weren't just flashes in the proverbial pan. Robert Wheelwright made plays when he was on the field, especially during the spring game, and Jazz Peavy also seemed to thrive from getting some consistent reps. Combine those two players with the consistent Alex Erickson and young but talented players like George Rushing and Krenwick Sanders and I think Paul Chryst is right when he says that the pieces are there for the Badgers to re-establish their passing game.
B5Q: Which positions are the most concerning heading into summer conditioning?
JV: Again, it feels strange to say it but the Badgers have some work to do on the offensive line, particularly on the right side. The big cause for concern this spring is that their projected first team (Tyler Marz, Ray Ball, Dan Voltz, Michael Deiter and Hayden Biegel) got very few actual reps together because of injuries to Voltz and Ball. I'm withholding complete judgment until I see those five work together on a consistent basis, but there was definitely work to do in the few times they were out there together. The injuries did allow the Badgers to give reps to younger players, but with Alabama up first on the schedule this year my guess is the coaching staff would have much preferred to give those reps to the projected first team.
B5Q: Which positions/depth chart spots are most up for grabs heading into summer conditioning/fall camp?
JV: The odd thing about this camp is that I don't think there are a lot of true "position battles" going on, at least at the high profile spots like quarterback, running back and so on. That's really different from every spring and fall camp over the last few years where the quarterback spot was always seemingly open.
Even still, I think the No. 2 running back job is up for grabs between Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal. I feel like I don't give Ogunbowale enough credit on the whole, because he demonstrated his big-play potential during the spring game. But I was more impressed with Deal this spring, so it wouldn't shock me to see the younger player grab the backup spot behind Corey Clement this fall.
I'll also be keeping an eye on the defensive line, and the second defensive end spot across from Chikwe Obasih in particular. The Badgers have a few players who could end up winning that job, and Alec James finished the spring working with the first team there. But Jake Keefer has also been a consistent player for them, and Conor Sheehy's move to nose guard means that they need to find a spot for Arthur Goldberg in the rotation at defensive end. The Badgers will likely play a lot of guys on the defensive line this year because Inoke Breckterfield likes to keep his players fresh for the third and fourth quarters, but seeing where those players slot in to the rotation will be really interesting.