MADISON — The Wisconsin Badgers got back to work on Thursday morning and the offense was clicking on all cylinders.
Often times during the spring, and even early fall, the narrative is that the defense is way ahead of the offense. I don’t believe that’s the case right now. That is not a knock on the defense, either.
Redshirt sophomore Alex Hornibrook was sharp in the passing game, connecting multiple times with senior tight end Troy Fumagalli and sophomore wide receiver Quintez Cephus. The offensive line provided great protection, and the running game was as effective as it can be with limited contact.
The third year in Paul Chryst’s offense looks to be fruitful, even after only a small sample size of practices. Hornibrook wasn’t the only quarterback to flash in practice, either. Redshirt freshman Karé Lyles also flashed a big arm at times, threading the needle on crossing routes.
Quintez Cephus was the story, though, on offense. He caught two, maybe three touchdowns during the red-zone period (depending on whether he was inbounds along the backline of the end zone on one). Dare Ogunbowale was in attendance and he endorsed that Cephus was in, while Derrick Tindal would likely have a different opinion than the future NFL back. Cephus was also consistent catching the ball; he does an excellent job of shielding the defender from the ball. Weird that a former D-I basketball commit would be effective at boxing out, huh?
Defensively, the unit is a rag-tag group as multiple starters are sitting out the spring with injuries. The starting linebacker unit featured sophomore Griffin Grady and redshirt freshman Mike Maskalunas at ILB with senior Garret Dooley and redshirt sophomore Zach Baun at outside linebacker. Redshirt senior Leon Jacobs rotated in at outside linebacker, as well as in 7-v-7.
The defensive line and secondary were intact. Alec James, Olive Sagapolu, and Conor Sheehy started on the defensive line. James took most of the first-team reps with fellow senior Chikwe Obasih out for the spring. The secondary featured Tindal and Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson at cornerback and seniors Natrell Jamerson and D’Cota Dixon at safety. The unit looked sharp.
The defense looks very similar to those employed by Wisconsin over the past few seasons, though the players had nothing but glowing sentiments about their new defensive coordinator. “Not a whole lot is different, really,” Jack Cichy said. “Like any coach, he’s looking to put his stamp on the defense. He’s not going to try to revolutionize anything, but he’s simplifying things and looking for guys to get in the right formations and personnel groupings.”
Cichy, Orr embrace new roles, capitalize on past experiences
Redshirt senior Cichy and redshirt sophomore Chris Orr are both only participating in non-contact drills this spring, but both look extremely energized. Having some time off last season likely helps that. However, their presence on the field during their injuries a year ago helped them both.
Cichy was very visible on the Badgers’ sideline last season after he tore his left pectoral muscle against Iowa.
“I think it helps a ton,” Cichy said when asked how that experience impacted him. “As a scheme and as a whole defense, I have a much better understanding of it, and I’m really excited about that. Because I have that, it’s my responsibility to help the young guys.
“Whatever I can do to help them, whether it’s run fits, in coverage, or just having a lower pad level, it’s my job to do that.”
In a similar situation, Orr was also very visible on the sidelines last season following the torn ACL he suffered on the first play from scrimmage against LSU. Orr asked Chryst if he could be on the sidelines with the team—former inside linebackers coach and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was in the booth—feeling as though he could be a benefit on the field.
“It boosts my football IQ tremendously,” Orr said. “It helps me a lot as a player; I can tell you what everyone’s doing on every play. Also, it taught me how offenses attack our defense, so that helps me a lot.”
Orr also spoke well of new inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad, a former UW and NFL offensive line coach.
“He coached [one of the] highest-paid tackles and the highest-paid guard and center in the NFL, so he’s very smart,” Orr said, adding that Bostad brings “a whole new perspective.” “He knows what he’s doing. He also helps us on how offensive linemen attack us as individual players based on our skill sets.”
Dixon expects more plays to be made
Dixon stated that he thinks this year’s defense will make more plays.
“We’re just adding new things, there will be different schemes thrown in,” the senior safety said. “I don’t know until we actually try them, but not much changes—it’s Wisconsin football.”
Dixon added that while the defense will be largely the same as under Wilcox, he’s looking forward to more wrinkles from Jim Leonhard. “I wasn’t surprised when he was named defensive coordinator. He and coach Wilcox talked all the time; there doesn’t feel like much of a change.”
What about the differences in practice, with Leonhard in charge of the whole defense rather than only the secondary?
“Coach Leonhard, I can tell he wants us [upperclassmen] to take more ownership, being able to make plays, play fast while learning new things, schemes, and coverages while being leaders for the younger guys.”