Wisconsin Football: Spring Checklist for the Badgers

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Wisconsin Football: Spring Checklist for the Badgers
Morry Gash/Associated Press

Wisconsin football didn't miss a beat in transitioning to the Gary Andersen era in 2013. It won games big and lost games by 10 or fewer points—that's just what Badger football is these days.

Entering 2014, the Badgers face some challenges.

Having 26 players leave the program as seniors has a way of doing that. So does furthering a transition to what Andersen envisions for his team.

The Badgers are facing life without a 1,400-yard rusher (James White), the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year (Chris Borland) and their most versatile offensive lineman (Ryan Groy).

However, this spring will have very little to do with any of those players and everything to do with the furthering of Andersen's plans for the Badgers offense and defense. There are plenty of questions to be answered, but three stand out above the rest.

Here's the checklist Andersen and the Badgers need to complete this spring.

 

Stave or Someone Else at Quaterback

Wisconsin has had its share of quarterback issues in the past few years, but one would think that a quarterback who has started nearly every game over the last two years would be firmly entrenched.

That is far from the case in Madison, though, as quarterback Joel Stave will once again have to prove he's got what it takes to lead the Badgers in 2014.

John Raoux/Associated Press

Stave's numbers weren't bad in 2013, throwing for nearly 2,500 yards and 22 touchdowns. However, there were times when Wisconsin needed more than just a capable game manager at quarterback.

No one is happy with the production, and both Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig have said as much.

Stave comes into this spring as the No. 1 guy, but he isn't going to be handed the position.

"Joel's our starting quarterback," said Andersen during his national signing day news conference. "He started all the games last year. It's his spot to lose. So he'll be given that opportunity to obviously compete and get the team around him."

Given the comments by Andersen and Ludwig, one could easily get the feeling they are hoping that any one of the other three guys can jump up to challenge Stave.

Those that will be challenging Stave this spring are redshirt sophomore and former Elite 11 finalist Bart Houston, former JUCO transfer Tanner McEvoy and 247Sports.com 4-star recruit and early enrollee D.J. Gillins.

All three have zero experience at quarterback in a college game, but all three possess more athletic ability than Stave. Houston has perhaps the best arm of any quarterback on the roster. If either of the three challengers can prove to be consistent in the passing game while also showing flashes in the run game, they could be a serious contender to start.

It is unlikely that all the answers at quarterback will come this spring, but the coaching staff would love to see the race thin out a bit.

Should the Badgers get a true challenger to Stave, fall camp will be very interesting.

 

Life After Abbrederis 

Morry Gash/Associated Press

Last year, Wisconsin's passing game consisted of looking to Jared Abbrederis, then looking to tight end Jacob Pedersen. If those two weren't open, it was a dead passing play. Abbrederis and Pedersen are both off to ply their trade in the NFL and that means major holes need to be filled.

As much as the quarterback battle could be interesting, there will be an equally important battle raging for those wanting to catch passes from said quarterbacks.

In fact, the wide receiver battle may be just as important to determining the QB situation as the play of the QBs themselves—especially given the fact that the returning wide receivers combined for a grand total of 28 receptions, 299 yards and zero touchdowns. Those numbers are scary, and not in a good way.

Someone needs to prove they can consistently get open this spring. While Jordan Fredrick and Alex Erickson saw plenty of time on the field in 2013, it didn't turn into massive production at all and that has to change this spring.

The good news is Wisconsin isn't lacking for options to try at wide receiver. UW may have a few surprise names come out of spring ball as well.

Watch for the 6'2", 198-pound Rob Wheelwright and the returning 6'3", 210-pound Reggie Love, who is coming back after injuries forced him out of the 2013 campaign for Wisconsin.

Frankly, Andersen and Ludwig would be happy just finding someone, anyone that is ready to step up and be a go-to receiver. If not, the pressure may just fall on the five incoming freshmen this fall.

 

Secondary Is a Primary Concern

Wisconsin's pass defense was statistically one of the Big Ten's best in 2013, ranking third by giving up 202.5 yards per game through the air and second in passing touchdowns against (16).

However, there are some major concerns about this group heading into the spring.

Gone is starting safety and honorable mention All-Big Ten pick Dezmen Southward. His counterparts for most of the season at safety have moved on to quarterback and linebacker. That leaves a wide-open field of relatively inexperienced players to take on significant roles quickly.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Only Nate Hammond, a soon-to-be sophomore, has seen significant minutes at safety in the past. He recorded 24 tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss last season as a backup behind Southward.

The good news is that Wisconsin has one of the brightest up-and-coming stars in the Big Ten playing cornerback. Soon-to-be sophomore Sojourn Shelton was a major surprise, going from starter to star very quickly. By season's end, most teams stopped trying to test the corner who amassed a team-best four interceptions.

However, there is not much else to write home about in the secondary and there are plenty of roles to be filled across the board.

Wisconsin needs to find a few more playmakers behind Shelton and Darius Hilary at corner, and that will be the secondary focus in the defensive backfield this spring.

If the Badger defense wants to become as aggressive as it is beginning to be set up for, the secondary needs to prove it can handle its end of the bargain.

 

Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for Big Ten football. You can follow him on Twitter @ andycoppens

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