After Friday’s scrimmage, the Wisconsin Badgers have conducted nine of 15 allowed practices for their 2017 spring sessions.
Spring camp is the time for players to learn more on both sides of the ball and test their limits. Position changes allow athletes and coaches to experiment and strengthen particular groups or plug holes created by injuries.
A number of Badgers have taken advantage of their opportunities and could take momentum into summer conditioning and fall camp in August. Here’s a list of players B5Q feels have impressed nearly two-thirds of the way through spring ball.
Running back Chris James
It’s just spring and I’m not a fan of providing fuel to the hype train [yes, another disclaimer], but there’s something special when the Pitt transfer has the ball in his hands—particularly out of the backfield in the passing game.
James’s top-line speed and agility may be second-to-none on the team, and a Wisconsin offense looking to take the next step in its revolution under head coach Paul Chryst could heavily benefit from a player that can hit a home run out of a single. Case in point: his 48-yard reception on Friday that included a shake of a defender that allowed him to gain many yards after the catch.
James also looks the part after bulking up to 216 pounds (though he’s near 220 now) and despite that size, he still has maintained the ability to juke someone out of their practice pads.
Position coach John Settle said the starter at running back has not been decided, although James appears to lead for the third-down back spot. That doesn’t really mean James would primarily be used just on that down—it could just be one of his many roles.
“I think Bradrick’s, what he did last year and learning from it, I think he’s taking some strides forward, and I think it’s been a good spring for Chris,” Chryst said on Friday. “He’s getting a lot of work and doing some good things, and then there’s areas he’s got to improve on. He’s no different than anyone else, he’s got to take advantage of these next six practices.”
If James shows he can run between the tackles like Shaw and combines that with his pass-catching and blocking abilities, Wisconsin may have another complete back on its hands.
That should terrify Big Ten defenses.
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook
The defense may have played better this past week, but the southpaw starter has shown significantly improved arm strength and tighter “zip” on the ball from last season.
Hornibrook has also continued to showcase a pretty, accurate deep pass to his receiving targets during spring camp, something that turned heads last year and garnered him significant playing time in 2016.
After his winter and spring break training with quarterback guru George Whitfield, Jr., Hornibrook could be poised for a breakout season in leading a potent offense with multiple threats.
There have been some multiple-interception practices, but again, spring is the time to challenge your limits. Some of Hornibrook’s picks have also been off of dropped passes or pass break-ups that were popped up into the air.
Regardless, B5Q is high on the Malvern, Pa., native.
Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook on spring break training, arm strength (B5Q/YouTube)
Wide receivers Quintez Cephus and Kendric Pryor
Gone is Robert Wheelwright, who impressed at pro day in Madison last month, and a new complement to redshirt senior Jazz Peavy will be needed. Those who could see their roles increase further in 2017 include senior George Rushing and three second-year players: sophomores Cephus and A.J. Taylor and redshirt freshman Pryor.
Before missing the past week due to the tragic shooting death of his father, Cephus performed very well on the practice field. The 6’1, 201-pound receiver can catch the ball, run the jet/Jazz sweep, and as seen last year, block well enough for a long touchdown run in a key game. From watching practice—and maybe it’s not best to look too deep into it during the spring—he feels like the right player to start opposite Peavy against Utah State on Sept. 1.
Pryor did not play last year, but the Illinois native has made some plays this spring, reeling in multiple catches during a practice primarily with the second-team and taking a jet sweep himself for a long gain during last week’s scrimmage.
On Friday, received some reps with the first-team offense at points.
How he continues his development in fall camp should be interesting, especially when trying to lock down the fifth wide receiver spot and competing against an influx of talent from four-star recruit Danny Davis and Austin, Texas, wide receiver Cade Green.
Tight end Zander Neuville
Redshirt senior (and fellow former walk-on) Troy Fumagalli should be an all-conference pick at tight end this season barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, but Neuville has been a pleasant surprise this spring at a relatively new position.
After transitioning between the defensive line and tight end in 2016, Neuville appears full go on offense, and he’s made the most of it. He isn’t just blocking as that “hand in the ground” tight end as seen previously with the likes of Brian Wozniak and Jake Byrne.
At times this spring, he’s shown the ability to make catches down the field, including one down the seam during Friday’s scrimmage that went for over 50 yards.
If his development continues, it can only help a group stockpiled with talent in Fumagalli and redshirt sophomore Kyle Penniston.
“He’s really embracing tight end now. It’s not just something he’s trying to get through that play,” tight ends coach Mickey Turner said on Tuesday about Neuville’s progression. “His knowledge has grown tremendously. I was telling somebody earlier, he has a 3.9 GPA. He takes tough courses in chemistry, organic chemistry—he comes in with some of these notes and they’re incredible—so he has the capacity to grow and grow and grow. And then you throw it into a body that’s pretty darn big and strong and powerful, and it’s a nice thing to have on your side.
“His confidence level has really grown a lot this spring. In the season, when he knew what he was doing, we’d see him flash and hit somebody pretty good or make a good play. If he didn’t, he played slow. For Z, now he’s feeling comfortable with a lot of the offense, so he’s letting it go a lot more.”
Center Tyler Biadasz
From the practices B5Q has attended, it appears the redshirt freshman has earned a place with the first-team offense, allowing starting center Michael Deiter to move to left guard. Micah Kapoi has also received a good chunk of reps at that same guard position.
Biadasz has held his own when rotated in, and he’s bulked up to 307 pounds—up 16 pounds since the start of last season.
We’ll see how left guard Jon Dietzen returns during fall camp, but the Amherst native’s emergence could allow greater depth to form with another big guy physically ready. That’s something that hasn’t been seen the past two seasons with injuries decimating the ranks of the offensive line, forcing offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph to become creative.
Honorable mention: Fumagalli, running back Bradrick Shaw, left tackle David Edwards