MADISON — Fifteen practices up, fifteen practices down.
It seems like only yesterday the Wisconsin Badgers kicked off their 2017 spring practice schedule inside the McClain Center on March 14. After Friday night’s annual spring game under the lights of Camp Randall Stadium, head coach Paul Chryst will have completed his third in leading the program.
These sessions allow players to learn more compared to fall camp and during the season. A few showed positive progressions that may foreshadow greater things entering fall camp.
Here are a few Badgers on offense who are projected to be starters that stood out from mid-March to late April.
Tight end Troy Fumagalli
If injuries or other unforeseen circumstances don’t hamper his 2017 season, the redshirt senior tight end will be a focal point of the offense and could be slated for an all-conference year.
This spring, Fumagalli has been a force, making great catches against the defense in all areas of the field, especially in short distance and on deeper routes.
That’s after establishing himself last season by leading the team in receptions (47), starting and ending it with a bang (13 combined receptions for 183 yards and a touchdown against LSU and Western Michigan), and becoming a go-to target for quarterbacks Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook.
“Troy’s obviously, he’s a senior—he’s our trusted tight end,” redshirt junior offensive lineman Michael Deiter said on the Tuesday before the spring game. “He’s a heck of a player. I know we’re going to get the best out of him this year.”
Fumagalli, a former walk-on, has said that he tries to work on the little things to watch and learn from. Besides recognizing coverages when running a pattern and concentrating on the route itself, he’s looking at what the pros do and working to emulate certain facets of their skill sets.
“A big part of what I do, I turn to put on NFL film—Greg Olsen, Travis Kelce—watch those guys and take one or two things out of their game and try it out here,” Fumagalli said on April 5. “If I like it, I’ll keep it. Obviously, some of those guys are pretty talented, so if I can’t do it, I won’t.”
Tight ends coach Mickey Turner said in early April that some of the next steps Fumagalli will have to take involve the consistency of having big games every game.
Fumagalli has been a frequent target for the quarterbacks this spring, and if that carries over into the regular season, he could leave a lasting impact in his final year as a Badger.
Running back Chris James
The Pitt transfer could end up being a dynamic playmaker during the 2017 season. James can run. He can catch. He can pass block. He checks off the boxes in what you want out of a modern-day running back, especially one that is playing in Chryst’s offense.
His speed and agility, including making defensive linemen and defensive backs miss during spring sessions, will be crucial when running between the tackles and also catching a pass out of the backfield. James showed continually during practices that he can be something special next fall.
“I haven’t seen him play much before this spring,” Hornibrook said, “but he made some great plays—especially in the open field. He can make some guys miss, and he’s quick. I feel great with him.”
Along with redshirt junior Bradrick Shaw, the duo could give opposing defenses fits next season with continued development.
“I think they do complement each other, and yeah, I think they're both—they're very different styles,” head coach Paul Chryst said on Friday, “but they both have the ability to run inside and be physical, and I think they're capable of big runs.
“I'm anxious to see how Taiwan [Deal] comes off of the off-season surgery, so we've got some depth there. They've just got to keep growing and keep working, but I think we've got guys that have played. Their role is going to be different than any role they've had to this point, but I like the group. I like the way they approach it, and yet they're... I feel like they're still young. They've got to keep progressing.”
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook
There’s a certain zip on the ball that comes out of the southpaw’s hands that maybe wasn’t seen last season as a redshirt freshman.
Hornibrook worked with noted quarterback guru George Whitfield, Jr. during both winter and spring breaks. Along with the tutelage of Wisconsin’s coaches, it appears Hornibrook has maintained his accuracy and strengthened the spin on his throws.
“I think it’s the whole thing starting with the feet,” Hornibrook said back on March 28, “and that’s a big thing for me—getting my base right and not getting too tall in the pocket, trying to keep a good base. That’ll help with the movement, throws, everything.”
With the weapons he has at wide receiver, tight end, and running back, along with another year of experience gained by the rebuilding offensive line, it could be a season of significant growth for Hornibrook.
“I know as far as the work I’ve put in and what I did every day, I know I did as much as I could have in the spring,” Hornibrook said on Friday after the spring game when asked if he’s where he wants to be heading into summer conditioning. “I’m not where I want to be, obviously nobody is. You’ve never going to be resting on what you did in spring ball, but I’m looking to improve on some of the things that I did now.
“I feel good with where I’m at now, and I know there’s a ton of room that I can grow.”
Wide receiver Quintez Cephus: Despite missing a few practices due to the tragic death of his father, the Macon, Ga., native worked with the first-team offense when available and appeared to make his reps count.
“He’s one of the guys that I’ve been working out with a ton, all the time in the offseason,” Hornibrook said after the spring game. “He’s a guy that can go up and get it, and he didn’t play too much in this game—obviously there wasn’t too much that he was showcasing—but he’s got some crazy talent. He’s one of the best receivers I’ve ever thrown to here or anywhere. I like throwing to him a lot.”
The 6’1, 201-pound receiver displayed flashes of potential in his freshman campaign in 2016, receiving the ball (57-yard catch vs. Iowa), rushing on jet sweeps (see: Cotton Bowl), and most importantly blocking (hello, Corey Clement touchdown run during the Big Ten championship game). Heading into his sophomore campaign, it could be a breakout year.
Offensive lineman Michael Deiter: The redshirt junior can play both center and left guard, as seen in the past 27 games he’s started. This week, he played left tackle for redshirt sophomore David Edwards (ankle). The ability to master the interior lineman positions and then swing out possibly to be an edge blocker can only help the offensive line.
Tight end Zander Neuville: Another former walk-on, he surprised early on with not just his blocking but as a receiver, making some solid catches. If he can continue to progress, it could give Wisconsin another potent option in the passing game--especially in short-yardage or goal-line situations.
Wisconsin TE Zander Neuville on passing game (B5Q/YouTube)
Running back Bradrick Shaw: In a solid spring, Shaw appeared to improve his pass-catching and pass-blocking abilities. There were a couple of times he caught the ball out of the backfield, something not seen necessarily last year in a role fit for Dare Ogunbowale. His strength probably still lies in running between the tackles, but the more complete a back he’ll be, the more potent the offense can become with the combination of him and James.
Wide receiver George Rushing: I think Cephus starts over Rushing, but the senior appears to have had another solid spring—and for those that remember from last year, he ended that spring campaign with a nice showing as well. Wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore said in an April 20 article that Rushing “has had a good spring” and is “pleased” with the receiver.