The Wisconsin Badgers continued spring ball on Thursday with their third practice available to the media.
Here were the rotations on offense on Day 1.
First-team #Badgers offense from my notes:— Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) March 25, 2023
QB Tanner Mordecai
RB Braelon Allen
WR Chimere Dike
WR Skyler Bell
WR Keontez Lewis
TE Jack Eschenbach
LT Jack Nelson
LG Tanor Bortolini
C Jake Renfro
RG Michael Furtney
RT Riley Mahlman
Second-team #Badgers offense from my notes:— Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) March 25, 2023
QB Braedyn Locke
RB Chez Mellusi
WR C.J. Williams
WR Will Pauling
WR Chris Brooks Jr.
TE Hayden Rucci/Jack Pugh
LT Nolan Rucci
LG Joe Brunner
C Dylan Barrett
RG Joe Huber
RT Trey Wedig
But, on Thursday, some shifting began to happen.
Wide receiver Will Pauling, who continues to flash, was the first transfer in the group to earn first-team reps, working out of the slot alongside Chimere Dike and Keontez Lewis for a series.
Additionally, Tanor Bortolini earned all the first-team reps at center, while Trey Wedig was with the first-team offense at right guard. Jake Renfro moved to the second-team offense, manning the middle of the line as usual.
Braelon Allen did not participate in 7-on-7s or 11-on-11s, positioning Chez Mellusi to earn most of the first-team reps and Cade Yacamelli to earn a significant share of the second-team reps.
Lastly, Hayden Rucci did not participate in 7-on-7s or 11-on-11s either, meaning Jack Eschenbach earned a majority of the first-team reps, while Jack Pugh sprinkled between the top two teams.
Efficiency-wise, it was a better day for the quarterbacks on Thursday, who remain in the same order at the top with Tanner Mordecai earning all of the first-team snaps and Braedyn Locke earning a majority of the backup reps.
There weren't many deep passes once again, with the offense focusing on checkdowns and throws in front of the sticks, but the accuracy for both top options was solid in both 7-on-7s and 11-on-11s.
Mordecai played fairly well on Thursday, albeit on primarily shorter throws, but the accuracy and zip were present on balls, especially on a touchdown pass to Jack Eschenbach in the redzone that came with good timing for the score.
Mordecai also showcased some fiery energy during an incompletion to Eschenbach during 11-on-11s where the tight end didn't sit over the middle of the field, leading to a miscommunication between the two.
Locke did throw an interception during the session, but it came off a pass straight through Riley Nowakowski’s hands that landed into the lap of safety Preston Zachman.
The backup did have a nice throw to C.J. Williams along the sideline, hitting him for a touchdown in a tight window, although Kamo’i Latu was present in coverage and could've made a play on the player.
Thus far, Mordecai and Locke have seemed like the clear-cut No. 1 and No. 2 options, although head coach Luke Fickell assured that there hasn't been a depth chart yet.
“It’s early. No, there’s no depth on those things. Yes, [Braedyn Locke] might get a few more reps today, but if that’s the case then on Thursday or on Saturday, maybe it’s the other way around,” Fickell said.
“We try not to over-evaluate where the guys are. We got to do a little bit better job at making sure that the reps are a little bit more balanced at times. But we try to stay out of saying hey, who’s with the twos, who’s with the ones, who’s with the threes? By nature, obviously as we get a little bit further into spring, I would say [the depth chart] would be something we’ll probably hone in on.”
However, Nick Evers hasn't hit the field much yet in 7-on-7s or 11-on-11s, with the redshirt freshman earning just one series on Thursday, on par with Myles Burkett and walk-on Marshall Howe.
In his time on the field, Evers has flashed with a couple of wow throws, which included a deep touchdown to Chimere Dike in 1-on-1s on Thursday, but hasn't seen many reps to substantiate his profile.
Locke, however, has impressed Fickell with his quick grasp of the offense, which may be the defining factor as to who becomes the backup in 2023.
“I think Braedyn, as much as anything, has a great grasp of the offense. He’s a guy that tirelessly studies it and when you’re obviously that position in particular, there’s a 20 hours rule as you get in the spring ball and there’s an eight-hour rule in the offseason at the quarterback position,” Fickell said.
“For those guys at that spot, the guys that are willing to, especially in the off-season and even in the spring ball, really work at the things that they’re doing because there’s a lot on them. And I think more than anything, I think he’s a really intelligent kid that’s picked it up and has really worked at understanding and grasping the whole concept of what we’re doing.”
Braelon Allen didn't participate in any 7-on-7s or 11-on-11s on Thursday, meaning it increased the reps of every other player in the room, especially Chez Mellusi and Cade Yacamelli.
Allen dressed, but an injury on Tuesday took him out of practice on Thursday, although head coach Luke Fickell stressed that nobody was going to get special treatment on their workloads.
“No, we’re not protective of anybody’s workload. I think more than anything, that’s what we want to make sure. I think obviously he got a little bit dinged up yesterday. They basically said he can’t go and we said we’ll get him out here and make him a part of it, have him do what he can do,” Fickell said.
“I think more than anything we’re just trying to push. We’re not trying to put guys out there that can’t defend themselves, but the idea that, hey, you’re a part of this team, you’re going to be in everything possible, nobody’s workload is overdue.
Mellusi did drop an early pass in the flat, but caught two others, while Yacamelli was the player of the day in the running back room, catching several passes and slowly distancing himself as the third option behind the top duo.
Yacamelli is smooth with the ball in his hands, moving well, while possessing good hands, but Fickell is also looking towards the opportunities that the young halfback doesn't have the ball in his hands.
“It’s one thing to play with the ball in your hand. As we get going into this, into some live situations, I want to see how guys play without the ball in their hand. And I think that’s where guys can separate themselves,” Fickell said.
“Tailbacks, by nature, are used to having the ball in their hand, but there’s only one ball, and the ball is not going to be in their hand all the time. So those guys that have some ability to do other things will be the guys that you’ll see out there a lot more. And hopefully, Cade is one of those guys.”
Without an elite pass-catching option, as I hinted to in my pre-spring ball running back evaluations, don’t be surprised if Yacamelli sees action out of the backfield, especially if he can prove to be a capable blocker.
Will Pauling and Chris Brooks continue to flash in the wide receiver room, with the former arguably being the best of the unit thus far, while the latter has consistently made big plays.
Pauling is a fast wideout whose specialty is his route-running out of the slot, where his shiftiness and sheer speed are put on display.
The redshirt sophomore was the first transfer wideout to crack the first-team offense, playing a series with the starters alongside Chimere Dike and Keontez Lewis.
Without pads and contact, it’s tough to see exactly how the Cincinnati transfer will play against press coverage with his frame, but Pauling has been nothing short of impressive thus far.
“[Will Pauling’s] got obviously some natural skills, but I think he’s really quick. He’s a strong kid, not just a slot receiver,” Fickell shared after practice. “He’s a guy that can be dynamic in a lot of different spots. But I think for the most part he’s just well-rounded. I think he’s a really smart, tough football player that I think has got a really bright future.”
Brooks has made multiple deep contested catches, reeling one in today over Avyonne Jones on a pass from Braedyn Locke, continuing to play well for a player of his size.
Redshirt freshman C.J. Williams continues to earn second-team reps and got into a scuffle with cornerback Amaun Williams after a catch, which led to the former running a lap before re-joining practice, and the latter sitting for the remainder of the day after being taken off the field by Fickell.
However, there wasn't much worry from Fickell after practice, who stressed the emotional side of the competitive behavior, adding that the incident would serve as a learning lesson for the young wideout.
“Nobody’s worth 15 yards,” Fickell said. “We’re going to push these guys, and we’re going to have the energy and emotions that are really high because we can’t simulate what it’s going to be like in front of 85,000 people and a couple million people on TV.
“So we want to make these situations as competitive and as emotional as possible because you’ve got to train it. Emotional toughness is a skill. So maybe we didn’t handle it the best way, but you’ve got to have some of those situations so that you can teach and learn from it.”
Bryson Green dressed for the first time on Thursday, but did not participate once again in practice.
The tight-end unit experienced a little shakeup as Jack Eschenbach took the majority of the first-team reps, while Jack Pugh sprinkled in between the top two offensive units.
Both made key plays on Thursday, with the former running a nice route on Travian Blaylock for a touchdown from Tanner Mordecai, and the latter catching a pass over the middle.
Eschenbach did have the mistake with Mordecai, but had a solid day overall, working primarily with the top unit as the lone tight end.
Rucci saw a little action in the 7-on-7s and 11-on-11s, catching one pass, but Eschenbach and Pugh were the primary players in the rotation.
The offensive line experienced change on Thursday, as Tanor Bortolini stepped into the starting center role, while Trey Wedig slid over the left guard with the first-team offense, sending Jake Renfro to the second-team offense as their center.
Bortolini had a rough day, particularly with snapping, which led to a couple of mistimed plays and a fumble on a snap between him and Mordecai.
With Renfro moving to the second-team offense, Dylan Barrett was relegated to the third-team offense, leaving Barrett Nelson to join the backups as the right tackle in Trey Wedig’s spot.
On Tuesday, Joe Huber took center snaps, which was the plan, as offensive line coach Jack Bicknell addressed that he wanted both Huber and Bortolini to take center snaps for depth.
Here were the rotations:
LT: Jack Nelson, LG: Trey Wedig, C: Tanor Bortolini, RG: Michael Furtney, RT: Riley Mahlman
LT: Nolan Rucci, LG: Joe Brunner, C: Jake Renfro, RG: Joe Huber, RT: Barrett Nelson
LT: Max Rader, LG: Kerry Kodanko, C: Dylan Barrett, RG: JP Benzchawel, RT: John Clifford