Wisconsin Football: 10 Benchmarks for Spring Success
April showers may bring May flowers, but mid-March brings football back to Madison.
The Wisconsin Badgers will hit the field on March 17 to begin the yearly ritual that is often little more than knocking off the rust from a long winter layover. While the intensity of the practices lacks the urgency of an impending game, it does provide some insights into the next generation of players.
Regardless of its potency, Wisconsin fans are clamoring for some taste of football since suffering another Rose Bowl loss. Position battles will heat up. New stars will introduce themselves.
Even though wins and losses are collected in the fall, the 2012 season officially begins in the spring.
Spring practices are too often times the culprit behind season-ending injuries. While the warm weather inspires hope, a careless pass, throw or tackle can mean an end before ever seeing the start.
Spring action in particular causes hardcore fans to cringe. While second and third-string players fight for roster spots, over-zealous athletes can create a precarious situation. The spring is meant to be a warm-up, but too many promising prospects get torn down.
Keeping the starting lineup healthy should be priorities one through 10.
The team should work hard but take extra pains not to inflict any extra pain.
Get in Rhythm
Bret Bielema is dealing with new faces and philosophies on his coaching staff this year. A major coaching shuffle brings six new assistants into Camp Randall, and their chemistry means the difference between wins and losses.
Spring is a great time for new unit coaches to find ways to relate to coordinators. Coordinators learn the nuances of the head coach, while the players adjust to new voices yelling in their direction. Like any professional relationship, it takes time to fall into a working rhythm.
While the sideline will be full of new people, a successful spring would mean the casual observer would never notice the transition.
Find the Signal Caller
The first question asked when talking about the Badgers is: "Who will be their quarterback?"
Backup Joe Brennan will fight for the starting spot with walk-on Joel Stave this spring—not exactly a clash of the athletic titans. The rest of the quarterback corps is on the mend, so this seasonal precursor belongs to Brennan and Stave.
The new offensive coordinator will get a chance to show how good he really is as he tries to mold both players into more than position placeholders.
Kick, Kick, Kick
Perhaps one of the most entertaining elements of the spring game is kicking competition.
To help determine the final score, the team usually plays a game reminiscent to horse, but instead of baskets, the kicks become increasingly farther away.
Kicker Phillip Welch and punter Brad Nortman graduated, which opens up a few spots at the position.
Kyle French looks to be the front-runner to take on kicking duties while Drew Meyer will most likely take on punts.
Find a Fullback
If Montee Ball drove the car, Bradie Ewing paved the streets.
Ewing was a reliable, talented fullback who had a knack for sealing edges and lanes for running backs. His departure leaves a huge hole, or rather, the threat of not having any huge holes. Wisconsin's running success has always relied on the blocking prowess of unsung operators like Ewing.
A running back convert, though, may also be in the mix.
Instill Some CB Confidence
The Wisconsin cornerbacks deserve some therapy after last season.
While the unit's every-down play was fairly solid, big plays against Michigan State and Ohio State could give any player a complex.
Defensive coordinator Chris Ash has to teach some mental toughness, as well as awareness, to this year's defensive back crop.
They possess the physical tools to compete with any offense in the conference, but bad communication meant ruin last year.
Special Teams Fundamentals
The best special teams performance perhaps was Brad Nortman's theatrical showing in the Big Ten championship game.
If the Badgers have any hope for success next season, they need to strengthen the kickoff and punt coverage teams. Special teams may go unnoticed if done well, but unfortunately Wisconsin has become one of of the more notable sieves in the game.
Pass Rush, Anyone?
A glaring weakness in the Wisconsin 2011 season was the lack of a consistent pass rush.
While Wisconsin defended the run pretty well, spring may be a good time to develop some edge-rushing ability within the D.
The team could also use a shake-up in blitz patterns and schemes to make up for the lack of a pure pass-rushing athlete.
Second Receiving Threat
Nick Toon is gone, and the sure-handed Jared Abbrederis will no doubt ascend to the top rung of the receiving ladder.
But who will be the second option?
The leading candidate is Jeff Duckworth, who is known for his quirky last name and penchant for keeping championship drives alive with acrobatic grabs.
Spring can be a great prelude to measure receiving talent as the position competition often becomes one of the highlights of camp.
Build a Buzz
If the weather is nice, the spring game can be a great draw.
Wisconsin should always have an eye on its reputation. The American public is normally starved for football this time of year, and an exciting spring game can pay big dividends in a normally quiet news cycle.
Recruits will also be watching the players, and the fans, to gauge how die-hard the faithful really are in Wisconsin.