By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Wisconsin Badgers 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 11-3, 6-2 Big Ten
Spring practice: March 17-April 28
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 6
Passing: Joe Brennan, 6-of-15, 48 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Montee Ball, 1,923 yards, 33 TD
Receiving: Jared Abbrederis, 55 rec., 933 yards, 8 TD
Tackles: Mike Taylor, 150
Sacks: Beau Allen, 4
Interceptions: Shelton Johnson, 4
Redshirts to watch: DL Jesse Hayes, TE Austin Traylor, WR A.J. Jordan, RB Melvin Gordon, LB Jake Keefer, DB Terrance Floyd
Sept. 1 Northern Iowa
Sept. 8 at Oregon State
Sept. 15 Utah State
Sept. 22 UTEP
Sept. 29 at Nebraska
Oct. 6 Illinois
Oct. 13 at Purdue
Oct. 20 Minnesota
Oct. 27 Michigan State
Nov. 3 Bye Week
Nov. 10 at Indiana
Nov. 17 Ohio State
Nov. 24 at Penn State
Offensive Strength: This one is fairly simple: Running backs. Only two players have ever scored 39 touchdowns in a single season before and Montee Ball is one of them. Packaged with third-year back James White and youngsters Jeffrey Lewis and Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin boasts one of the best tailback corps in the nation…again.
Offensive Weakness: Quarterback will be a huge concern for this team. Russell Wilson was a special talent and the best to ever play the position in Madison. Replacing him will be one of the most difficult tasks Bret Bielema has faced as the head coach of Wisconsin. The four players vying for the starting job totaled 15 pass attempts in 2011.
Defensive Strength: The heart of this defense will be the linebackers. With two first-team all-Big Ten performers returning, this unit has a chance to be not only the conference’s top group, but one of the best in the nation. That said, leader and middle linebacker Mike Taylor is recovering from hip surgery and isn’t likely to practice this spring.
Defensive Weakness: The secondary will have two big holes heading into spring football. The team’s top coverman, first-team All-Big Ten cornerback Anotnio Fenelus, and top safety, all-conference honorable mention Aaron Henry, will be sorely missed. They were the most talented defensive backs on the roster and their leadership needs to be replaced.
Spring Storylines Facing the Badgers:
1. Finding a replacement for Russell Wilson is the top priority for the coaching staff. In only one season, Wilson set school records for career completion percentage (72.8%), passing efficiency (191.8 – which was also an NCAA single-season record), single-season passing yards (3,175), touchdown passes (33), completions (225) and total offense (3,513). Best of luck Joe Brennan, Joel Stave, Jon Budmayr and Curt Phillips. Phillips (ACL) and Budmayr (arm) are the two most talented options on the roster but likely won’t see much time this spring as the duo is still recovering from injury. This leaves new offensive coordinator Matt Canada with Brennan and Stave as the only two healthy quarterbacks on the roster. These two will need to show marked improvement this spring to allow Bret Bielema to feel comfortable about his signal caller come fall. This dire situation could further influence the chase for former Maryland quarterback Danny O’Brien.
2. How will the new coaching staff fit together? Canada is just one of six new faces on the Wisconsin coaching staff. Losing assistants is a double-edged sword that, over time, can cause serious issues to a program. It is a good thing to have highly-sought after coaches on the payroll, but replacing two-thirds of a staff in one year is a tall order. Bielema has shown the ability to reconstruct an excellent coaching staff, but dealing with attrition multiple years in a row will eventually take its toll at some point. Canada has the tallest task as he replaces departed offensive guru Paul Chryst, whose Big Red offenses have paced the Big Ten the last three years. Without a quarterback and having to rebuild one of the nation’s best offensive lines, this could be the year that the coaching turnover finally impacts the Badgers in a major way.
3. How many teams can lose three first-team all-conference offensive lineman and survive? That is what Montee Ball and Canada are going to have to do this spring. Josh Oglesby, Kevin Zeitler and Peter Konz have all moved on, leaving Travis Frederick and Ricky Wagner as the only returning starters. Wisconsin recruits and develops the offensive line as well as any team in the nation, so fans shouldn’t be terribly worried about finding blockers in MadTown. Junior Ryan Groy appeared in all 14 games, senior Robert Burge played in 12, sophomore Rob Havenstein played in 12 and junior Zac Matthias played in nine contests. Having tight end Jacob Pedersen back should also help the blocking scheme develop over the next month. These are the names, among others, who will be asked to step up and produce this spring in the face of a major losses.
4. Replacing the leadership and talent lost in the secondary. Fenelus and Henry were the leaders of this unit and were recognized as two of the best defensive backs in the league last year. Shelton Johnson and Marcus Cromartie return with experience and ideally the recovery of Devin Smith will help with depth. Names like Dezman Southward and Peniel Jean need to step into bigger roles while the returning talent must provide leadership during the spring.
5. To a lesser extent, the defensive line needs to fill holes as well. All-conference tackle Patrick Butrym and top sackmaster Louis Nzegwu have moved on, but there is loads of depth within this group. High potential players like David Gilbert, who missed much of last year due to injury, and Brendan Kelly will fight with Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel for playing time at end while Jordan Kokout and Beau Allen will support Ethan Hemer on the interior. There are a lot of big bodies to work with up front, so the refining the the rotation and keeping healthy will be the top concern for the D-Line.
Related Content Links:
Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
2012 Very Early Big Ten Predictions