The excitement and expectations for the 2011 Wisconsin Badgers football team is as high as ever with just under a week until opening kickoff on Sept. 1 at Camp Randall as UW is set to take on UNLV. The expectations were a bit tempered about two months ago.
When Russell Wilson was released of his scholarship at NC State, Head coach Bret Bielema immediately took notice and acted fast. With uncertainty at the quarterback position with the departure of Scott Tolzien, Bielema saw an opportunity to improve under center. Redshirt sophomore Jon Budmayr lead the team through spring drills as the number one quarterback but it’ll be Wilson who will call the shots come Thursday.
In three seasons with the Wolfpack, Wilson accounted for over 8,500 yards through the air and over 1,000 on the ground. His 93 touchdowns rank second in ACC history. Under normal transfer rules, a player must sit out a season before playing with his new team but NCAA rules say Wilson can play this season because of his completed undergraduate degree.
Wisconsin must replace three All-American players on offense; first-round draft pick Gabe Carimi, third-round pick John Moffitt and second-round pick Lance Kendricks. The talent cupboard has been restocked and the Badgers are ready to make a run at the Leaders Division title in 2011.
Here is a preview of things to come on the offensive side of the football:
As always, it starts in the trenches in Madison. Carimi and Moffitt combined for 91 starts in their four seasons at UW, but both have departed to the NFL. Last year’s right tackle Ricky Wagner slides over to the left side to replace Carimi. What Wagner lacks in technique that Carimi had, he more than makes up for with his athletic ability. The left guard position belongs to Travis Frederick. The six-foot-four, 330-pound mauler was the Badgers starting center in 2009 but an ankle injury forced him to redshirt last season.
Snapping the rock to Wilson will be fourth-year junior Peter Konz from Neenah, Wis. The All-Big Ten performer a year ago will solidify the line with his 20 career starts. Look for Konz to be in the mix for the Rimington Award, given to the nation’s best center. The six-foot-five inch, 315-pounder was named first-team preseason All-American by Rivals.com.
The right side will be made up of senior Kevin Zeitler and fifth-year senior Josh Oglesby. Zeitler has started 22 games for Wisconsin while Oglesby’s career has been up-and-down while the mountain of a man has battled injuries. The six-foot-seven inch, 330-pound Oglesby is coming off a serious knee injury but has been listed ahead of oncoming redshirt freshman Robby Havenstein who worked with the number one’s in spring.
I’ve told you about the impact Russell Wilson will have in the backfield at UW, now it’s time to talk about the stable of running backs he’ll hand off to. Junior Montee Ball is the number one guy who will carry the load this year for the Badgers. A bruising back last year who ran right at you, Ball has slimmed down over the offseason and lost 10-15 pounds, adding quickness in the process. Ball started the final five games of the season for the injured John Clay and responded in a big way. He gained 777 yards on 114 carries while totaling 14 touchdowns. Nobody saw James White emerging the way he did as a true freshman last year when he led Big Red in with 1,052 rushing yards and tallied 14 scores. White was named the Consensus Big Ten Freshman of the Year and he’s back to be Lightning to Ball’s Thunder.
A couple of guys to keep an eye on are redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis from Brookfield Central and true freshman Melvin Gordon from Kenosha Bradford. Both have earned praise from Bielema and running backs coach Thomas Hammock. Both are six-foot, 200-pound plus guys who can run. Gordon was the High School Player of the Year in Wisconsin last year, gaining over 2,000 yards on only 158 carries while racking up 38 touchdowns. Lewis was the state’s top running back in 2009 and played in the always tough Greater Metro Conference. He racked up over 1,300 yards and 18 touchdowns in 18 career games.
And don’t forget about fullback Bradie Ewing, who is one of the best in the country. The senior from Richland Center, Wis. is a tough-nosed blocker and solid pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends:
Quite possibly the biggest question mark position wise on the Badgers roster can be answered with solid play from fifth-year wide out Nick Toon. The son of former Badger great Al Toon had a breakout sophomore campaign in 2009 with 54 grabs for over 800 yards but started just seven games in 2010 due to injury. The six-foot-three inch, 220-pounder was limited to 36 catches while struggling to shake a turf toe injury. If Toon can be a legitimate number one threat for Wilson, the Badgers will be more than ok at receiver. Giving Toon help on the outside will be redshirt sophomore Jared Abbrederis who had a solid freshman season with 20 catches. Abbrederis will need to be better in big games. Against Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and TCU he had a combined three catches for 39 yards.
Converted defensive end Manasseh Garner had all but wrapped up the number three receiver role when he had to undergo unexpected hernia surgery a couple weeks ago. Garner will be back but might miss the first week or two. The Badgers are looking for one or two of the following four freshmen to contribute in the role Abbrederis played last year: redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams, and true freshmen Kenzel Doe, Fred Willis and Jordan Frederick.
Replacing All-American tight end Lance Kendricks will not be easy but it starts with redshirt sophomore Jacob Pedersen. Bielema loves what he sees in Pedersen and believes he can carry the torch on tight end greatness at UW. Pedersen will undoubtedly be the leader of a group of guys who will receive ample playing time at the all-important position in offensive coordinator Paul Chryst’s system. Senior Jake Byrne and redshirt sophomore Brian Wozniak will be counted on to play big minutes as well.
Wisconsin’s offense produced huge point totals in an 11-win 2010 season. Expecting this team to score 40+ per game might seem like outlandish expectations but the feeling around Madison is it can, and should, be done. Wilson is a dynamic, two-way quarterback who will make this offense tick. With teams again having to respect the run game, Wilson should be able to work the play-action passing game all day long. In such a short amount of time, Wilson already has learned the complex offense and has gained his teammates respect. He was named one of the teams four captains this past week, an honor voted on by teammates. Ball and White will help carry the load, and this offense, much like its talented quarterback, will be dynamic.
About the Author
Written by Chad Seely
Hey sports fans! Welcome to my Wisconsin Badgers football blog. For any Badger scores, news or questions you may have, come check out this blog! For those who don't know me, I'm a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I graduated in May 2009 with a Broadcast Journalism degree and returned in Fall 2009 to get a Minor in Multimedia which I completed in May 2010. In the summer, you can catch me on AM1230 WSBB, splitting time as the play-by-play announcer and color commentator for the Daytona Cubs, the Advanced-A Affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.