2009: 10-3 (5-3)
Wisconsin began spring practice on Saturday looking to build on a productive 2009 campaign that culminated with the Badgers defeating Miami (Fla.) in the Champs Sports Bowl. UW rebounded from a 7-6 season in 2008 to finish 10-3 and rank No. 16 in both national polls. The practices on Saturday and Monday were the first two of 14 sessions leading up to the team’s annual spring game April 17.
The Badgers will have a Big Ten-best 18 returning starters in the fall, including senior quarterback Scott Tolzien, who closed Saturday’s opening practice with a 45-yard pass to Isaac Anderson during 11-on-11 play and connected with tight end Lance Kendricks on a deep ball during the first play of the team’s skelly (7-on-7) drill Monday afternoon.
“I liked the energy, I liked the enthusiasm,” Badgers head coach Bret Bielema said. “A couple things really jumped out at me. The defense was really talking and communicating. That's been a big emphasis. Then offensively, we threw some deep balls, which was encouraging.”
Tolzien is the leader of the offense after emerging from obscurity to get the starting nod last season and finish No. 1 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency with a 143.0 rating, in addition to completing 64.3 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Although Tolzien is the clear-cut starter, Curt Phillips and Jon Budmayr will be pushed by offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to challenge him. Keep in mind that Tolzien struggled mightily in losses to Ohio State and Iowa last season.
However, the incumbent signal caller will be the first to tell you that he isn’t content with the Badgers’ 10-win season.
“I have more responsibility now,” he said. “It’s not just me, it’s a lot of guys. We’ve got a lot of guys that need to step up from every position. We’ve got a lot of wide receivers coming back and they’ve got to step up along with the tight ends. It’s going to be exciting to see those guys rise to the challenge.”
One star who won’t participate in spring drills is running back John Clay, who will be rehabbing a second ankle surgery after being plagued by ankle problems throughout his career. Clay is coming off a dynamic sophomore campaign in which he led the Big Ten and was ranked eighth in the nation with 1,517 yards on 287 carries and 18 scores — despite playing in pain throughout the season. Montee Ball and Zach Brown will get most of the work in Clay's absence this spring.
At wideout, Nick Toon seems primed to emerge as an All-Big Ten receiver next season, coming off an 805-yard, four-touchdown campaign. And I believe Kendricks could give the Badgers the production they’ll miss from the departed Garrett Graham at the tight end slot.
While UW believes it can only evolve and get better on offense, the team must answer questions along the defensive line, particularly at tackle.
Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge is one of the best in the nation at dealing with roster turnover, and he coached a unit in ’09 led by ends O'Brien Schofield and J.J. Watt that limited opponents to 88.2 rushing yards per game, the second-best mark in team history. Schofield’s 12 sacks and 24½ tackles for loss must be replaced, along with three of the top four defensive tackles. Watt likely will be kept at end but could move inside. However, he’s more effective off the edge and will only remain there if players such as Patrick Butrym, Jordan Kohout, Ethan Hemer or Tyler Dippel can step up at tackle. Louis Nzegwu could end up at the other defensive end spot.
Bielema was impressed by the improvement of several players from the first to the second practice, specifically linebackers Kevin Rouse and Kevin Claxton. Because of injuries to Big Ten freshman of the year Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, Rouse is getting a shot with the No. 1 defense — and he seems to be taking advantage.
Bielema delivered Badgers fans an unexpectedly productive season in 2009, especially after the team disappointed in 2008. But can the team put together a better showing in marquee Big Ten games in 2010? With 18 returning starters from a 10-win team, that’s certainly the expectation in Madison.
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