MADISON — The Wisconsin Badgers held their 11th spring practice on Thursday morning and to say it was a crisp, efficient practice by the offense would not be accurate.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook had his high spots, though. On the first play of the team period, he let it rip on a deep in route to Jazz Peavy, squeezing the ball in between three defenders. He also threw a beautiful deep ball to redshirt freshman wide receiver Kendric Pryor, but the young pass catcher dropped it right in front of the goal line.
The defense was the story, however. All levels of the unit were making plays all over the field.
Along the defensive line, seniors Alec James and Connor Sheehy made multiple plays in the backfield. Linebacker Jack Cichy is back (sort of), and is an absolute terror for the offense to block. He looks primed to pick up where he left off last season before his torn pectoral against Iowa. Senior safety Natrell Jamerson and freshman early-enrollee Madison Cone both had interceptions during practice; Cone picked off Alex Hornibrook during a seven-on-seven period for a would-be touchdown, while Jamerson intercepted redshirt freshman Karé Lyles during the red-zone seven-on-seven period.
Fifth-year seniors Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley took most of the first-team reps at outside linebacker, while redshirt sophomore Zack Baun took second-team reps with Andrew Van Ginkel, the former junior college transfer.
It’s clear that new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has this group flying around to the football, looking to be aggressive and make plays.
Defensive line will be more active under Leonhard
Junior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, entering his third year as a starting nose, mentioned after practice that Leonhard will look for the defensive line to be more active. When asked if it’s more fun to stunt more as a defensive line, rather than the almost exclusive two-gapping scheme employed last season by Justin Wilcox, Sagapolu said, “It is more fun to move around, but I always have fun playing football.”
Another player experiencing some change this offseason is sophomore defensive end Garrett Rand. The former Arizona prep standout played last season as a reserve nose tackle despite his 270-pound frame. This spring, he’s been moved to defensive end by coach Inoke Breckterfield.
“I feel like my game does fit defensive end pretty well,” Rand said. “It’s more like what I played in high school.”
When asked what he’s looking to improve most at end, Rand mentioned his reads as a defensive lineman.
“I’m a rep guy, so I just rep my reads over and over, trying to perfect them. That’s how I can improve the most this spring.”
Breckterfield also spoke on Rand’s move to end.
“We coach them all the same, it’s all the same technique. Garrett didn’t have the size, but he is very strong. You never really saw him get moved at nose, so his size wasn’t really a problem. I think he’ll fit in well at defensive end.”
Loudermilk a topic of discussion
Isaiahh Loudermilk, the former eight-man football star in Kansas, has been receiving a good amount of praise this spring.
“Isaiahh has been really impressive this spring,” Sagapolu said. “He’s still learning, but when he flashes, it’s huge.”
Rand also spoke about the development of Loudermilk.
“It’s been fun to watch him get better. Playing end on the other side as him, he really has improved.”
Add Breckterfield to the chorus as well.
“Isaiahh works, man. He’s been working on the technique. We’re working to get him more consistent. His flashes are awesome, but he’s getting there.”
Leonhard to draw influence from multiple NFL coaches
Leonhard is still fairly new to the coaching ranks, but he has a wealth of knowledge to turn to from his NFL career.
“Well, I had the opportunity to play for a lot of guys,” Leonhard said when asked how that will effect his coaching style as a coordinator. “Obviously Rex Ryan in Baltimore and New York, and then Jim O’Neil, Mike Pettine in Cleveland. I learned a lot from Jack Del Rio in Denver, too.
“I’ll take the (scheme) flexibility from Rex. This is college, though, not the NFL, so some stuff isn’t doable. But I also learned from Del Rio that sometimes simple can be better, which is definitely different than Rex’s defense.”
It’ll definitely be interesting to see how the former safety will run this defense. Taking over for Wilcox, who was a bit more conservative than his predecessor in Dave Aranda, it’s yet to be seen what identity Leonhard gives this defense.