Like most red-blooded American males, I'm going through some football withdrawal. Maybe it's because I can't bring myself to care much about the NBA; although I'm hoping the Bucks screw the Celtics and get the right to draft Oden or Durant, and I hope the Knicks finish below the Blazers, Bobcats, Sonics, and Kings, and thus enable the Bulls to get the best draft pick possible. (I'm leaning this way because I'd like the NBA teams to which I'm exposed be entertaining.)
Or because I don't have a strong leaning toward any MLB team. (I'll elaborate on my lack of Brewer fandom at some future point). Or because the basketball Badgers ended their season in such a disappointing fashion, thus giving me no sunny feelings off which to coast. Anyhow, I miss football.
Therefore, I'm seriously looking forward to next Saturday afternoon, for the annual University of Wisconsin Spring Game at Camp Randall. I know this will probably be a messy game, and the defense will probably dominate, there's a decent possibility someone will get injured, and things will look sloppy and I'll leave feeling depressed about the state of the team. (That's what happened two years ago.) But still. At this point in the year, any small bit of football involving a team that I care about is something to be treasured. So I plan on being in the stands at Camp Randall next Saturday with the pops.
Now, to the casual observer, intra-squad scrimmages can be deathly boring. But to the dedicated, there should be several interesting things to look for, such as:
- Replacing the Departed. A big part of spring football is grooming the replacements for the standouts who graduated or left the team. Here, Wisconsin is in an interesting situation--they return most of their starters, but have lost team leaders at key positions on both sides of the ball--Roderick Rogers, Joe Stellemacher and Mark Zalewski on defense, and Joe Thomas and John Stocco on offfense.
According to reports on Spring practice, Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant have taken over the safety spots. Carter is a far-younger half-brother of Chris Carter, the guy who tortured Packer fans for years on the field, and now tortures all football fans on Inside the NFL. Pleasant is a recreational power lifter who was the only freshman on the team, two years ago, to play on every form of special teams. Both of them were injured for nearly all of last season with the same injury--a torn shoulder labrum. (Sal, what the hell does that mean?) Pleasant, unfortunately, has had shoulder surgery two years in a row, so the back-ups, particularly Jay Valai and Kim Royston, should be ready. Carter has shown a penchant for big plays in practice, and the coaches sound pretty excited about his potential. Both seem quite athletic. The question will be, can they replace the combination of smarts, skill and toughness that Rod and Stellemacher had? Stellemacher, in particular, seemed to be the captain/coach of the defense, running around before the snap, pointing out the offenses' moves, getting people in the right place. Losing his know-how is worrying.
Taking Zew's place is Elijah Hodge, the little brother of the former Hawkeye and current Packer. Though I thought Zalewski was a good player and I loved both his intensity and his haircuts. If he can stay healthy, I believe that he can have a solid career in the pros. Still, this is the spot I'm the least worried about. By all indications, Hodge is a hell of a player, fast and instinctive. There shouldn't be much, if any, drop off in our linebacking corps this season.
The battle to replace the best tackle in school history has come down to two well-heralded, Wisconsin-bred underclassmen, Gabe Carimi, a former Parade All-American from Monona Grove, and Jake Bscherer, a Sturgeon Bay native and the state's top recruit from last year, according to Rivals. Bscherer played in a bunch of games last fall, working as a blocking tight end, while Carimi redshirted. Carimi's a little taller (a towering 6'8") while Bscherer's a bit bigger. My understanding is that Carimi's slightly more athletic, but Bscherer's not far behind. Apparently they're both good run blockers, but are having some difficulties with pass blocking. Hopefully, that's just due to trying to block Shaughnessy every practice. Anyhow, the "loser" of the competition may end up at the other tackle spot, which, depending on who wins the quarterback competition, could be just as important a position on the line.
I say that because the battle to replace Stocco is between a right-handed QB, Tyler Donovan, and a left-handed QB, Allan Evridge. A right-hander's blind side is on his left, making pass protection on the left side crucial, which is why a left tackle is typically your most talented offensive lineman. But a left-handed quarterback's blindside is to the right, making pass protection on that side just as important. Besides being a southpaw, Evridge appears to be a bit taller, and have a somewhat stronger arm. Arm strength is my worry with Donovan, who is very mobile, and gave heady performances during the Iowa and Buffalo games. The biggest play of his career to date (the bomb to Swan during the Iowa game) was a well under-thrown pass where the receiver made a great comeback play. Since Evridge is also quite mobile, he seems to win out on overall talent. It'll be interesting to see how things shake out. Personally, since I continue to hold a grudge against Hartland Arrowhead (Donovan's alma mater), and since we may benefit most in the long term from a two-year starter (Evridge will be a junior in the fall, while Donovan will be a senior), I'm pulling for the transfer from Kansas State.
- The Temporary Replacement. With P.J. Hill recovering from a torn rotator cuff (ugh), Dywon Rowan's eligibility having expired, and John Clay not arriving on campus until sometime this summer, second semester freshman Lance Smith has been getting the vast majority of the reps at tailback. Apparently, he's done pretty well--improving on his inconsistent performance from last fall, even while practicing with a slight ding. According to Rivals, he re-tweaked his ankle today, but I'm hoping to see him play on Saturday.
- The Second Chance Guys. Here I'm talking about guys like Chris Pressley, the powerful fullback who looked set to take the mantle of Matt Bernstein before breaking his ankle in pre-season practice last year. And Jamal Cooper, the speedy weakside defensive end, who's probably on his third or fourth chance, when you combine injuries with academic issues. It'll be interesting to see what these guys are capable of. They must be motivated.
- The Backups. When the first team guys get pulled, it's time to take a look at the backups and see if there's anyone to have some hope for. Three guys I'll have my eye on are all redshirt freshmen: Lance Kendricks, Maurice Moore and Jay Valai. Kendricks and Moore are both very athletic guys that have switched positions-- from wide receiver to tight end and quarterback to wideout, respectively. Moore's been making some noise at receiver and punt returner in practices--he's a fast, shifty guy--where Kendricks was a highly touted recruit that could project as a Beckum/Owen Daniels type-threat at tight end. Valai is a little safety from Texas that likes to hit so much that he's repeatedly refused to play corner. If Pleasant or Carter goes down, this guy likely steps in.
Anyhow, I'm looking forward to it. I hope people make plays and no one gets injured. A report back will be forthcoming. If you want professional views on the game, particularly some commentary on its use as a recruiting tool, check out this and this.