First Practice: March 9th
Spring Game: April 20th
Wisconsin football has been on a role as of late. Three straight Big Ten championships, three straight Rose Bowls. However, it's also been three straight Rose Bowl losses. Now Wisconsin enters a new era as former head coach Bret Bielema parlayed his success into the Arkansas coaching job in perhaps the offseason's most shocking coaching move.
In is Gary Andersen, formerly of Utah State, and a new era is afoot in Madison. That new era means a few changes are coming and for a team that was just 8-6 last season that may not be a bad thing at all.
2012 was marked by three starting QB's, inconsistent play from those QB's and wide receivers, inconsistent offensive line play to start the year, and the crowning of Montee Ball as the all-time touchdowns record holder in FBS football.
Unlike most new head coaches coming into a program Andersen has a roster chalk full of experience as the Badgers will return 13 starters from a season ago. However, with some changes to a more 3-4 system on defense and a bit of a different looking offense there is plenty to look at and study this spring.
So, who wins the QB battle, if anyone? Who replaces Ball? All of those questions and more look to at least begin to have answers this spring.
Stability Factor (1= chaos, 5= rock solid): 2.5
It's strange to put things that low for a team that's been to three straight Rose Bowls, but again change at the top and change to the systems Wisconsin is used to running, especially on the defensive side of the ball, make this program a lot less of a rock solid team than they would've been had Bielema or his systems still been in place.
That's not to say they can't be successful, but heading into spring ball there are far more questions than answers to be sure.
Under the Microscope: Cornerback
Wisconsin's secondary losses 3 of 4 starters but it's the corners that are the most worrisome to Badger fans and the coaching staff because they have zero starting experience between all of the returning corners on the roster.
That inexperience could be a very good thing though as Wisconsin looks to be far more aggressive with it's corners than in the past. If names like Peniel Jean, Reggie Mitchell, and Darius Hillary all could have big roles. Hillary is one to watch because his size could have him playing either corner or safety when spring ball ends.
The expected starters are anyone's guess, but look for Jean to be one of the two – he's got the most experience of anyone on the roster at the position, playing in 19 games during his two years in the program so far.
Also available for the spring are two early enrollee freshman in Sojourn Shelton and Keelon Brookins who could take spring and vault themselves into the conversation. That's how wide open this thing is.
Locked and Loaded: Running Back
I know, losing the all-time TD leader in FBS history isn't supposed to be easy to do. However, if you think Wisconsin is going to struggle running the football then you just simply haven't been paying attention to college football for about the past 23 years or so.
Wisconsin will have a fun battle between two high quality running backs this year in senior James White vs. redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon. You'll remember Gordon as the guy who had 2016 yards and a touchdown on just 9 carries against Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship game. In fact he averaged 10 yards a carry while amassing 621 yards on just 60 carries as a freshman, and no most of it wasn't in mop up duty at all.
Don't sleep on White either, who's got over 2,500 yards in his career and was a 1,000 yard rusher in his freshman campaign. White had the 2nd most yards of his career last year with 806 yards and has never averaged worse than 5.1 yards a carry in a season during his career (and that was considered a disappointed year for him).
Needless to say the Badgers are loaded in the backfield and we haven't even talked about two other guys that could be starters almost anywhere else in the country and may not sniff the field this year too.
Jockeying for Position: Wide Receiver
Yes, quarterback is wide open, but Andersen has made it clear that nothing will decided until the fall at that position thanks to Tanner McEvoy coming in from the Juco ranks. Having said that the people attempting to catch passes from whomever takes over at QB is perhaps just as, if not even more important in 2013.
Sure, we know one of them will be All-Big Ten wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. He of the 124 career catches, 2,059 yards and 16 career touchdowns. However, who joins him as a starter is 100% up in the air.
Literally no one made an impact enough in 2012 to say someone has the edge heading into this year. Yes Jordan Fredrick was the starter alongside Abbrederis for most of last season, but he had a total of 17 catches. In fact things were so bad at the wide receiver slot that the rest of the WR's on the roster in 2012 couldn't even match the total of Abbrederis alone (49 for Abbrederis to 48 for rest of WR's).
The one thing to say is that this remains a youthful group overall and that's because sophomores like Fredrick, A.J. Jordan, and Reggie Love are likely to be the main cast of characters in line for the 2nd WR spot. Look for Kenzel Doe to be a fun weapon in the slot for Ludwig as he's a 5'8" speed burner who's fearless & perhaps the pound for pound strongest player on the Badgers roster.
Name to Know: Bart Houston, QB
Houston is a redshirt freshman quarterback and one of the most highly touted from the 2012 class. He was a member of the finals in the Elite 11 camp for QB's and came from the powerhouse De LaSalle program in California. Coach Andersen and his OC Andy Ludwig (what a great first name, huh?) will look to incorporate some zone-read into the offense on a minimal basis (10ish times a game or so) and Houston ran the Veer offense at De LaSalle. He's not only intriguing because of his arm but because he's perhaps the only QB on the roster with recent experience and knowledge of the principals of the zone-read. Look for him to be one of the biggest names watched all spring.
Spring Will Be a Success If…. The changes begin to take hold
Wisconsin won't be running a full 3-4 system all season long on defense, it just simply doesn't have the athletes to do that. However, they need to show they understand the principles and begin to figure out the roles everyone has to play. Does David Gilbert move from defensive end to an upright, pass rushing linebacker? Do the corners have the ability to play man-to-man, bump and run coverage? Can the offense find a quarterback capable of understanding and running a few zone-read situations in a game setting?
All of those are major changes and as long as fans and we in the media can see this team is starting to understand and allow those changes to take hold in them 2013 will be off to a good start in Madtown.