Fifteen spring practices have now come and gone for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Last year, B5Q broke down key starters on offense, defense, and then also reserves. This year, a good chunk of probable starters were out for all or a good portion of spring due to injury (Danny Davis, Michael Deiter, Jon Dietzen, David Edwards on offense; D’Cota Dixon on defense).
Some were simply given more rest during some team drills, such as inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly on defense; guard Beau Benzschawel, running back Jonathan Taylor, and others on offense also fell into this category.
Nonetheless, many players (potential starters and key reserves) made the most of the spring reps. In no particular order, here’s who stood out to B5Q.
With Davis not participating the entire spring, Quintez Cephus getting work in limited fashion only the last week or so, and Kendric Pryor being injured for part as well, Taylor was the only wide receiver who really stayed healthy the entire spring.
Wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore noted on Thursday that his challenge to Taylor is to lead and to win his one-on-one opportunities and those chances that present themselves in tight coverages.
Taylor has put in good work. On Tuesday, he came down with a fantastic one-handed catch, and he made some other nice receptions this spring as well.
During spring break, Taylor traveled to San Diego with Alex Hornibrook for a little relaxation but also for some extra training, even getting in some work with former NFL wide receiver Lance Moore
“This spring, it’s just more about just having a mindset to win whenever I come out,” Taylor said earlier this season. “There are times where I’ll mess up, and I also got to be able to be mentality strong—when I do mess up, to just shove it and just keep working for the next play.”
Wisconsin boasts a loaded receivers room with Cephus, Taylor, Davis, and Pryor in the two-deep, and Taylor will be a crucial piece of the offense.
While Taylor was the projected starter at wide receiver who made the most of his spring, Cruickshank—who enrolled early to start his college career in January—flashed in several ways during the 15 practices. Along with those three key wideouts limited or out at times, injuries to Cade Green, Emmet Perry, and Adam Krumholz allowed the true freshman to get his feet wet in his first semester as a Badger.
Cruickshank’s combination of speed and elusiveness came in handy on multiple occasions, from separating from defenders to make receptions to just using those traits to get behind defenders for big receptions. There is also the special teams component, where he has been seen practicing both punt and kickoff returns.
“I don’t know if there’s anyone on the team that’s as fast as he is,” fellow receiver Jack Dunn told B5Q earlier this spring. “He’s quick as can be, so I think once he learns how to take advantage of that quickness, it’s going to be real tough for people to stick with him, stop him.”
The last few practices, the 5’9, 152-pound Cruickshank seemed to really shine. In Friday’s scrimmage, he made several receptions that, in a game situation, would have gone for long gains. They included two touchdowns, with one score coming on a deep reception where he beat cornerback Madison Cone.
Reps could very much be limited this fall with the big four receivers all back and ready to compete, along with Green, Perry, and Krumholz vying for snaps. However, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph seemed to believe there could be something for Cruickshank.
“We have depth, but you don’t know how quickly the depth gets down to who we need, and I think Aron’s done some really good things,” Rudolph told reporters on Tuesday. “I think he’s fought his way to say, ‘Look, man, you need to take a long look at me in the fall,’ and earn reps. ... There’s a lot of learning. Like, you walk in the door, I don’t think you expect to be [in] every rep, and he really has. He had his best practice last Friday, and you like that out of young guys because you don’t know when it’s all going to click for them, and so seeing him continue to get better is exactly what you want to see.
“So I’ll reserve comment until we get through all of spring, and Friday will be a good day for both of them, but I would say Aron right now, you’re looking at him, saying, ‘OK, I can see a role for him as soon as this fall.’ So we’ll see how he finishes up.”
I do not think Rudolph needs to reserve comment any further.
The redshirt freshman and 2017 offensive scout team player of the year has, like Cruickshank, added some highlights to the spring practice sessions. Catching the football seems second-nature to the younger brother of Joe Ferguson, as highlighted by a spectacular one-handed grab earlier this week.
The Madison Memorial product, who was 205 pounds when he arrived on campus and is now at 245, has worked on his blocking since coming to Wisconsin.
“It really started with my feet,” Ferguson told B5Q on Tuesday. “You hear in the tight end room a lot, but you’re not blocking with your hands, you’re blocking with your feet. I think that’s really important because if you take a wrong first step and you’re in bad position, it’s not going to go your way.
“I think over the past year, I’ve really had to focus on that, not only my feet, but getting my body bigger and just working on my size. That’s come a long way, so now it’s just kind of focusing in and just honing in on the craft and getting better at everything.”
Tight ends coach Mickey Turner noted how Ferguson plays with an edge and is learning to play with his new weight, along with starting to have fun with the playbook besides making those impressive catches.
“I think he’s starting to appreciate how certain plays play off of each other,” Turner said on Tuesday. “So, ‘Man, if I block this guy hard, when I go to release him, it’s going to be a little bit easier, because he’s going to be to-heavy instead of just trying to run down the field every time. He’s got a great competitiveness, I’m not worried about that. He’ll fight to the finish, he’s not scared to put his face in there, so he kind of checks all those boxes that we have to here at Wisconsin.”
Rudolph said on Tuesday that based on Ferguson’s playmaking ability, he has earned reps during fall camp.
“His ability to contribute to the team will be based on his consistency,” Rudolph said. “For as good as he is and for the plays that he makes, I think he’d tell you just the same he’s got a maturity that he still has to reach. A maturity from the field, from seeing things, just fighting through things at the time, being that physical presence each play. But as a young player watching him spark and shine and do stuff, really really exciting.
“Again, he’s gotten such great reps this spring that he’s going to have a great opportunity to say, ‘OK, here’s who I am as spring ends. Who do I want to be when I walk in the door in fall camp?’”
Jonathan Taylor: In limited reps, the likely Heisman Trophy candidate looked strong carrying the ball in various forms of team drills.
What stands out the most from Taylor’s spring, however, is the added work he put in with head coach Paul Chryst in working on his route running, which also included some guidance from defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. If the New Jersey native can add another element to his skill set, it’s just one more layer for opposing defenses to defend against.
Quintez Cephus: He just came back and started practicing on the 12th of 15 practices, but Cephus’s return from a brutal leg injury has been positive. He started to work in modified team drills and on Thursday caught a one-handed touchdown pass in the back of the end zone.
Jack Coan and Danny Vanden Boom: Hornibrook is still very much ahead of both in my opinion, but both threw the ball well this spring. Coan showed a good arm and accuracy, and Vanden Boom appears to now be the No. 3 quarterback with Karé Lyles intending to transfer.