Spring practice has nearly begun for the Wisconsin Badgers, the first chance for Gary Andersen and his new coaching staff to get a look at what kind of football players they've got heading into the 2013 season.
There will be plenty of familiar faces and even a few new ones with early enrollees in Sojourn Shelton and Keelon Brookins. A new coaching staff means very little is guaranteed as far as who will start at each position for Wisconsin next season even though the Badgers only lost seven starters from their B1G championship squad.
While it's safe to assume players like Chris Borland, Jared Abbrederis and David Gilbert will retain their starting roles, and that both James White and Melvin Gordon will see their fair share of carries out of the backfield with Montee Ball out of the picture, so much is yet to be decided, and spring practice will at least begin to mold the Badgers into form.
There are some battles to be won—what are the three most important positions up for grabs?
It's become a recurring theme at Wisconsin—uncertainty at the quarterback position. For the past two years, it has been the focal point at spring practice and the offseason in general due to incoming transfers. This year, a junior college recruit by the name of Tanner McEvoy has thrown his name into the hat, but he won't arrive until summer.
Even so, that leaves several returning players looking to earn the starting quarterback gig, and before McEvoy gets to Madison, they will have an opportunity to leave their impression on Andersen. The three names who should each receive consideration for the job are sophomore Joel Stave, senior Curt Phillips and redshirt freshman Bart Houston.
Senior Danny O'Brien may also get some looks, but his chance came and went last season. Once McEvoy enters the mix, things are going to get mighty crowded, but as of now, Stave should have a leg up on the competition because of his performance last season before breaking his collarbone.
The microscope on the quarterback battle is there for good reason—quarterback play left the Badger offense pretty stagnant last season and was ultimately why Wisconsin was an 8-6 team. Andersen wants to move the quarterback around more, so whichever signal caller is able to fit that mold the best will shine in the eyes of the new head coach.
The Badgers' offensive struggles can't be solely placed on quarterback play. Aside from Abbrederis, not one wide receiver cracked 200 yards excluding tight end Jacob Pedersen. Both Abbrederis and Pedersen will be back, but they need help from a third source to take off some pressure.
Last year, it was freshman Jordan Fredrick who was primarily used as the No. 2 receiver, and Kenzel Doe played there as well, but neither had much of an impact. A couple of 2013 commits—Robert Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy—will ultimately get an opportunity to win the job, but in the meantime, Fredrick will have to prove he deserves to line up with Abbrederis all over again.
Other names could emerge in the competition with Fredrick and Doe, such as senior Jeff Duckworth and junior Chase Hammond. There are also some underclassmen like Reggie Love and A.J. Jordan who could make some noise, so like at quarterback, the No. 2 wide-out battle will involve plenty of names, even before the new recruits come to Wisconsin.
The Badgers can't afford to have a one-dimensional offense, even though they are perceived to rely heavily on the run, because in the high profile games, just pounding the rock isn't going to work. Sprinkling in some spread option doesn't mean Wisconsin won't throw the football, so another threat must emerge—a la Abbrederis alongside Nick Toon.
Not one, but two starting cornerback spots are up for grabs after the departure of Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith. Neither Cromartie or Smith were exactly shutdown corners, but over the past few seasons, they had been mainstays outside on defense.
There are now three openings in the secondary, but at safety, junior college recruit Donnell Vercher, who was brought in by Andersen, looks to have the inside track at starting next to Dezmen Southward. Where there will be all sorts of commotion is at cornerback, as there isn't much experience among players currently on the roster.
Last season, Darius Hillary saw some action in five defensive back sets, and that was largely due to the preseason injury to Peniel Jean, who was in line to be the No. 3 corner. Both should be the front-runners to start next season, but what makes things interesting is that Sojourn Shelton and Keelon Brookins, who are both cornerbacks, enrolled early and will participate in spring practice.
It works out nicely for defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, as he will get extended looks at the two 2013 recruits and have more time to assess the talent at cornerback. Having two new faces out on an island next season is going to result in some frustrating moments and require a learning curve, especially with the aggressive style Aranda wants to institute on defense.