On Tuesday morning, the Wisconsin Badgers will hold their fourth of 15 spring practices inside the McClain Center. It will be the first session that is open to the media, one of eight of those altogether that run through April 26.
Be sure to check back during this month for more analysis and takeaways—and for that matter, B5Q has already laid out our position previews for spring ball, highlights from head coach Paul Chryst’s availability last week and the new roster changes.
On the eve of us reporters seeing the action live firsthand, here are the top three position battles that I will be watching for during these open practices.
3. Defensive line
Gone from the group are Olive Sagapolu (eligibility—NFL Draft), Kayden Lyles and Aaron Vopal (both moving to offensive line).
For nose tackle, that leaves rising sophomore Bryson Williams and walk-on redshirt senior Gunnar Roberge as Badgers listed at that position this spring. The former started three games and played in all 13 contests in 2018 with Sagapolu suffered a season-ending injury at Northwestern. That experience, along with another year in the weight room, should prove dividends in helping him take over the spot. Can Roberge step up in his final year in the program, or heck, does Garrett Rand’s previous experience at the position help (note: I definitely feel he stays at end)?
Though they will not participate in the spring, the arrivals of 2019 signees Rodas Johnson, Gio Paez and Keeanu Benton entering fall camp could provide depth at the defensive line if they are both physically ready and can handle adapting to the college game and UW’s techniques.
At end, Lyles heads back over to the offensive side of the ball after selflessly coming over to Inoke Breckterfield’s unit to compensate for Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk missing time. Speaking of the former, Chryst mentioned last week Rand would be “kind of limited” though he did not know the amount of reps the redshirt junior would receive in these 15 practices—something UWBadgers.com’s Mike Lucas noted recently in a discussion with defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. Loudermilk is now listed at 307 pounds entering spring ball, and if he stays healthy, he should be able to take advantage of the reps provided.
Behind those two likely starters and the number of spring snaps for Rand unknown, redshirt senior David Pfaff and redshirt sophomore Matt Henningsen should see their fare share of reps. Pfaff played in 11 games last season, while Henningsen earned a scholarship and played in all 13 contests with seven starts.
Vopal moving over also allows others to potentially see more action. Redshirt freshman Isaiah Mullens certainly looks the part at 6’4, 280 pounds and these practices will be big for the Columbus, Ohio native.
Behind them also lie redshirt freshmen Boyd Dietzen and C.J. Goetz, along with walk-on redshirt sophomore Michael Balistreri.
2. Outside linebacker
Zack Baun is next in line of Badger outside ‘backers who make heavy contributions to this defense, and I really am intrigued at who emerges opposite the redshirt senior in Bobby April’s group.
Christian Bell is supposed to be out this spring, according to Chryst’s comments last week. There are a few Badgers that could definitely benefit from that.
In terms of seniority, redshirt senior Tyler Johnson, along with redshirt juniors Noah Burks and Griffin Grady first come to mind. Johnson, a former walk-on, started two games last season and has found time at the position the past two seasons. Burks played in all 13 contests during the 2018 campaign, while Grady bumps outside for his fourth year in the program.
Other potential names to know at the position group include Izayah Green-May and Jaylan Franklin— players who appear lankier in frame (6’6 and 223 pounds, and 6’4 and 219 pounds, respectively)—along with true freshman mid-year enrollee Spencer Lytle.
What else can really be said that hasn’t already been said about this position group? Chryst commented on a long list of questions regarding quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr’s room last week, and we will see what the four-man race between Jack Coan, Danny Vanden Boom, Chase Wolf and Graham Mertz yields in these 15 sessions.
Coan owns an edge over the competition in actual meaningful game time experience with his four starts in 2018. Vanden Boom also saw some snaps, though in mop up time in three contests last season, but I thought he threw the ball well in both 2018 spring and fall camps.
Wolf’s progression will be something to watch as well in his first spring ball at Wisconsin. The Cincinnati, Ohio native and his abilities should not be dismissed by the fanbase. Then there’s Mertz, the four-star recruit, Opening Finals participant and All-American Bowl MVP. All eyes will be on him to see how quickly he adjusts to the college game after an illustrious prep career at Blue Valley North in Kansas.
These spring practices will not crown the starting quarterback for the season opener at USF on Aug. 30, as the competition will head into fall camp. However, it will be interesting to see who positions themselves well heading into fall camp in August.
Jake’s honorable mention for positions: Offensive line, kicker, punter,