Out of six spring practices conducted by the Wisconsin Badgers, only two have been open to the media. Some major players are out or limited and particular position groups are affected—especially at offensive line with two likely 2019 starters in Cole Van Lanen and Tyler Biadasz missing these 15 sessions.
Regardless, there are some interesting tidbits to point out through what is technically the first two weeks of spring ball. There are some intriguing storylines on both sides of the ball. With that in mind, here is what caught my eye so far, as B5Q awaits Tuesday’s practice that is open to the media to kick off week three.
A lot of new faces on the offensive line
From left tackle to right tackle, we have seen David Moorman, Josh Seltzner, Kayden Lyles, Logan Bruss and Tyler Beach as the presumed “first-team” line. That’s with Van Lanen and Biadasz out, along with redshirt senior Jason Erdmann (limited) not participating in team sessions so far.
Bruss working at right guard is interesting, as he played tackle last year—including replacing David Edwards at right tackle due to injury for the last three games of the season. However, more cross-positional development can always be beneficial for a lineman. That also gives Beach a chance to grab more reps at right tackle in these practices for younger or less experienced players.
I haven’t necessarily seen anything too concerning with Lyles at center, so I feel he’s adjusting back to the offensive line at the very least decently. I will look more at the offensive line this week, however.
There is a lot to replace from last year’s starting line, but center Tyler Biadasz believes the group can match the level of the 2018 unit.
“Obviously, we’re not there yet, and we don’t need to be right now but obviously we’re going to keep growing as the spring goes and I’m going to do my best to help everyone else grow,” Biadasz said on Saturday. “I think the guys we lost last year, yeah, they’re really big impact players but I think we have big impact players, too, on this team right now.
“We’re helping them grow, and they’re doing a hell of a job this spring so far. It’s only week two, and they’re doing a really good job of just catching along and building themselves each practice and putting it on film, and then finding another thing to work on but still having that in the back of their minds so they have that as their base and their foundation, so they’re doing a really good job.”
Leo Chenal made splash plays
Two interceptions in two practices open to the media? That’s pretty good for a true freshman mid-year enrollee.
Chenal worked with redshirt junior Mike Maskalunas as what could be described as the “second-team” inside linebacker tandem from what we have seen. He is well built already at 6’2 and 239 pounds. He also has shown off his strength in a Twitter video, but also displayed a physical side on Saturday when the team was in full pads.
“Oh that boy’s strong, man. He’s strong.” inside linebacker Chris Orr said on April 2. “He’s strong, but he’s definitely making some strides. I’m excited to see how he progresses from now all the way to fall camp and the season, so definitely impressive.”
On April 2, Chenal intercepted a Danny Vanden Boom pass during a 7-on-7 drill. On Saturday during the scrimmage portion of the practice, he intercepted a Graham Mertz pass and took it back for what could be referred to as a a pick-six. We will see how the former WFCA small school offensive and defensive player of the year continues to develop.
“Leo’s done a good job,” Groshek said. “He impressed me the first day we came out in practice, he was barking out calls so it’s always good to have a vocal guy, especially with him being at the ‘Mike’ [middle linebacker position]. He’s got to direct people and that just helps him learn a little bit quicker, and he’ll be promising.”
Potential two-deep at safety appears solid
Last year, injuries hit the safety position for Wisconsin with D’Cota Dixon and Scott Nelson missing some time. That forced others to step up, who gained some valuable experience in the process. A strong two-deep for Jim Leonhard’s group likely will be needed again, and my early impressions are the potential top four safeties look good early.
Nelson and Eric Burrell seem to have received the most “first-team” reps, and both pulled down interceptions on Saturday, but I also like what I’ve seen from redshirt freshman Reggie Pearson and Houston transfer Collin Wilder. Pearson in particular popped out during Saturday’s practice, making a pair of interceptions and also hitting with some authority during the team’s tackling drill.
Again, it’s still early, but it should bear watching how these four continue to push each other and grow.
Quarterbacks getting reps...
...but Jack Coan has received first-team snaps. Now with Coan only getting a couple of series in the scrimmage portion of practice (along with other key players doing the same or not even participating), that gave way to Danny Vanden Boom, Chase Wolf and Graham Mertz to work with the offense—which was hard to confirm what was “first-team” and “reserves” with players out during that portion. For what it’s worth, I was going off of the offensive line and running backs mostly.
Heading into spring practices, Coan had an advantage of being the only quarterback with “meaningful” game experience with his four starts and five games played in 2018. For the reps he has received in the two practices we have seen, you could definitely say he is in the No. 1 position currently. Redshirt junior wide receiver Kendric Pryor told reporters on Saturday that Coan has matured since last season, while tight end Jake Ferguson called out a change in confidence.
“That dude comes in with a good mindset everyday and it’s good to see that,” tight end Jake Ferguson said on Saturday. “He can sling the ball and I think he’s a lot more confident than he was, especially after that Miami game. So it’s exciting seeing him in the first six [practices] so I’m excited to practice with him in the next nine.”
In the two practices the media has seen, Vanden Boom, Mertz and Chase Wolf all have interchanged with reps under center behind Coan. I do not think that will change much over the course of the spring until someone begins to assert themselves more. A reminder as well, this is the time for these players to make mistakes, and the quarterback job will be not be decided this spring.
That being said, I like Vanden Boom’s accuracy—that’s been something I’ve noted since last spring camp. Wolf I believe has the best mobility that pairs well with a strong arm, though I feel there’s still definitely work to be done for him during this first spring ball action for the redshirt freshman.
Mertz has all the physical tools and looks the part, though he is still acclimating to the college game. Pryor noted he is adjusting “pretty well” in picking up the playbook.
“I feel like as time goes on, things are going to slow down a lot for him,” Pryor said. “Just kind of him getting used to the pace that we play at and how we run our routes, things like that, but so far, I think he looks good.”
Ferguson believers Mertz is a hard worker and is responding well to being “thrown in the fire.” The redshirt sophomore tight end also said the mid-year enrollee is handling the expectations of being an incoming highly-touted quarterback well, but he was quick to also point out how Vanden Boom and Wolf have showed something as well.
“Yeah, he’s got a lot on his plate, but I think he’s handling it pretty well,” Ferguson said. “A lot of those quarterabcks are really stepping up, Vanden Boom, Chase Wolf. It’s good to see those guys step up and start to take a leadership role even though they’re pretty young.”
What we’ll be watching more: Offense’s progression
With players out or limited, it admittedly becomes hard to really evaluate some positions—especially on offense. As we mentioned earlier, the line is missing two potential starters for the entire spring along with Erdmann being limited. Those three in the lineup would have definitely shifted around players for offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph’s group. The wide receivers have not had Danny Davis due to injury in the two practices we have seen, and a substantial amount of carries at the running back spot during team periods are going to players not named Jonathan Taylor (for obvious reasons).
In the scrimmage portion of practice on Saturday, the defense looked better and definitely made more plays—but I also feel that is expected given the state of the offense. Chenal’s pick-six was arguably the scoring highlight of the day outside of the tackling drills prior to the scrimmage session. Just how much can you gain from the first two weeks, the first two practices open to the media, is definitely debatable.
Heading into week three, where we will see two of the three practices, B5Q will watch how the players on the offensive side of the ball continue to take advantage of the available reps, grow and make progress.