Gary Andersen stepped into a well-oiled machine in Madison as the Badgers were a three-time defending conference champion when he got to town last year.
There was nowhere to go but down for Andersen in his first season, and, other than one glaringly bad performance against Penn State to end the year, it was an excellent debut from the new coaching staff.
He will have his work cut out for himself in year two, however. Wisconsin loses 26 seniors to graduation as the roster is going through major turnover. The defense, built around an elite front seven, has major holes to fill up front while the offense is lacking in the playmaker department. And now the Big Ten is two teams bigger and the Badgers are in a totally new division.
With only eight total returning starters (but lots of upside) and a tough schedule, Andersen knows this spring might be the most important spring camp of his seven-year head coaching career.
Wisconsin Badgers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 9-4 (6-2 Big Ten)
Spring Practice Opens: March 5
Spring Game: April 12
Three Things to Watch in Wisconsin's 2014 Spring Practice
Find playmakers on offense
The Badgers' offensive line returns largely intact with the exception of All-Big Ten left guard Ryan Groy and should be one of the best in the nation once again. But senior leader James White and his 4,685 yards from scrimmage are gone. Star wideout Jared Abbrederis and his 4,818 all-purpose yards are gone as well. So too is All-Big Ten tight end Jacob Pedersen. While Melvin Gordon returns as a Heisman candidate at running back (who isn’t allowed to be tackled this spring), quarterback Joel Stave needs to find playmakers or defenses will completely stack the box to stop the running game. Kenzel Doe, Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright caught a total of 28 passes last year and one of them will have to step into a much bigger role. And, frankly, Stave needs to be more productive at getting the ball down the field in his own right. Rob Havenstein should have a chance to become the next in a long line of great UW tight ends and Sam Arneson will also see plenty of playing time. With an elite O-line and stud tailback coming back, finding some weapons to make plays in open space will be the focus of Andersen’s offense in his second spring camp.
Fill glaring holes in the front seven
Wisconsin is losing three All-Big Ten players in end Pat Muldoon, nose guard Beau Allen and all-world linebacker and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland. On top of that, linebackers Ethan Armstrong (51 tackles), Conor O’Neill (41) and Brendan Kelly (35) are gone as well as D-line contributors Ethan Hemer and Tyler Dippel. Obviously, replacing a player like Borland is virtually impossible but talented backups Vince Biegel, Derek Landisch, Marcus Trotter and Joe Schobert will give it their best shot. As will Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring along the line. The linebacking corps appears to be in better shape than the D-line but both positions have quality backups returning. Developing these players into every-week starters will be the focus of the defensive coaching staff in Madison this spring.
Stabilize the safety position
All-Big Ten safety Dezmen Southward has expired his eligibility and Tanner McEvoy is playing quarterback. This leaves only Nate Hammon with any starting experience at the safety position this spring. This pass defense was outstanding a year ago thanks to a great front seven and the emergence of Sojourn Shelton at cornerback. But if this unit wants to be anywhere near the No. 17-rated pass defense in the nation again, Andersen and his staff will have to find capable bodies to plug in at safety. With holes in the middle of the defensive line and at middle linebacker, Wisconsin can ill afford to have any glaring weaknesses at safety.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 8-10
The 2014 season was business as usual for the Badgers. They ran the ball with vengeance, played physical defense and won nine games. Like clockwork. But in his second season at the helm, Andersen will be faced with a much bigger challenge. Finding offensive weapons and rebuilding the front seven aren't the only issues for this team. For example, it’s no secret that Andersen wants more production from his quarterback and passing game in ’14. That said, fans in MadTown shouldn’t be worried. Andersen has a tremendous track record of developing talent and implementing his system. As the Big Ten adds two teams and moves into the playoff era, Wisconsin finds itself yet again as a conference contender — albeit in a new division.