April 17, 2010

Players to watch in spring game

Come this afternoon, the Wisconsin football team will look to capitalize on an effective spring of fundamental and repetitious work on the gridiron. Through 14 practices over the past five weeks, it seemed as though most players and positional units were able to improve and better their craft.

Now, as the annual spring game is set to kick off, the team will have an opportunity to showcase that progress to the Badger faithful inside Camp Randall Stadium. Before kick off, BadgerBlitz.com outlines several players worth keeping an eye on during the scrimmage.

-David Gilbert (Sophomore defensive end)

If athleticism was any sort of concern for Gilbert, just take a look back at his freshman game film against Purdue when he literally went airborne over a punt shield and blocked a punt that directly translated to an Aaron Henry touchdown.

After watching that, athleticism will be the least of your concerns.

To put it lightly, Gilbert is an athletic stud. Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing in around 240 pounds, Gilbert looks like a seasoned veteran even though he's only 18 years of age. He is explosive off the line, powerful at the point of attack and fast enough to wreak havoc in the backfield.

This spring season, after losing O'Brien Schofield to graduation, Gilbert endured a heated position battle with fellow defensive end prospect Louis Nzegwu during spring drills. While that battle will come to a head today, it won't likely truly be complete until the opening snap at UNLV to start the season.

Still it seems as though Gilbert has positioned himself in a manner that should translate to reps on the field as summer turns to fall.

"I'm just trying to make plays," Gilbert said during the midst of spring camp. "You've got to work hard every play. They're not easy to come by. Once they're coming to you, I've just got to try and make as many plays as I can. I'll just let that show as many times as I can.

"You can never make too many plays."

-Louis Nzegwu (Junior defensive end)

Like Gilbert, Nzegwu is one of the more athletic specimens participating in UW's defensive front seven. He also possesses great size (6-foot-4, 247 pounds), speed and strength that will do nothing but present a difficult challenge for any opposing linemen.

Against Josh Oglesby today, it will be interesting to see if the junior right tackle will be able to match intensity with the junior defensive end as Nzegwu surely brings it each and every play.

Now, as the 2010 spring season concludes, Nzegwu is starting to look more comfortable with a healthy set of practices in his rearview mirror and that should translate to success on the field.

"Some kids come in having played defensive end their whole high school career," UW defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said during spring camp. "Louis was a running back and O'Brien Schofield was a linebacker for three years here. Some of that comes into play, too. At defensive line, if you step out of line two inches you're in trouble.

"It takes a while to commit all those things to muscle memory. That's the transition they go through."

Considering there are no seniors on this defensive line, it seems as thought Nzegwu (junior) and Gilbert (sophomore) will be main stays for a unit that looks to build upon last season's success.

Losing Schofield, Dan Moore and Jeff Stehle will be difficult, but that transition will likely go smoother than many expect and that is a credit to both those young players.

"I like the fact that they're competing with each other every day," Partridge said. "Because they are making each other better."

-Jared Abbrederis (Sophomore wide receiver)

Simply put, nobody had a more jaw dropping spring camp than Abbrederis. It seemed any time the Badgers had a big play Abbrederis was directly involved. During Saturday's spring game, pay attention to the chemistry between Abbrederis and quarterback Jon Budmayr as they have a solid connection after working together in the off-season.

Historically, Wisconsin has had great success with its walk-on tradition. Now it seems as though Jared Abbrederis is on the fast track to similar success judging by his play during both his time on the scout team and throughout spring drills.

"There are some plays I've still got to study and be able to figure out," Abbrederis said back in the spring. "But for the most part I feel pretty confident when I go out there and line up. So it's gotten a lot better especially with spring ball."

Not knowing anything about Abbrederis entering camp, a player who primarily played quarterback throughout his days at Wautoma (Wis.) High School, the first thing that jumped out was his speed.

He is simply one of the fastest players on the squad and knows how to use it to his advantage. Early in spring camp it was evident that defensive players underestimated his speed as he repeatedly burned members of the secondary for big gains or touchdowns. He proved he could be an asset in an offense that is stacked on paper.

"He's done a great job and he understands his assignments a little bit better," UW wide receiver coach DelVaughn Alexander said. "He's playing really, really fast and he's not afraid of contact. You just kind of mold that through the spring and see what is available and if he's the same person in the fall."

With a stable of receivers (Toon, David Gilreath, Isaac Anderson and Kyle Jefferson) already established, it seems as though Abbrederis would have a hard time breaking into the regular rotation.

But if he enters fall camp and makes a comparable impact during August as he did in the spring, Abbrederis may inch his way into contention for regular playing time. A solid showing in the spring game wouldn't do anything but help as well.

-Kevin Rouse (Sophomore linebacker)

Considering the linebacker depth is relatively up in the air with both Chris Borland and Mike Taylor recovering from their respective injuries, several young players were able to work their craft and hone their skills during spring camp.

One of the more visible players at weak side linebacker was Kevin Rouse. Rouse, a player that has been nicked up throughout his playing career, finally has a healthy spring behind him, one that could potentially springboard him into a playing role this season.

"Now is the first time I really know the defense and it's the first time I'm really 100 percent healthy," Rouse said during spring camp. "It's nice to have my body back to 100 percent and be able to mentally have everything down for the most part and just be 100 percent mentally and physically."

When fall camp begins in August, both Taylor and Borland are expected back and will likely be in line to regain their starting status. Both players played such an instrumental role during their time as a freshman that other players understand their value to the defense.

However, Rouse, who has been working hard throughout spring practice, plans to play as well as he can with hopes of breaking into the rotation come fall camp.

"When they come back is when they come back and we'll go from there," Rouse said during spring ball. "Right now, I'm going to take advantage of my opportunity with the No. 1 defense and have the ability to push them in the fall."

-Jake Byrne (Junior tight end)

Both Garrett Graham and Mickey Turner played instrumental roles for the Wisconsin offense as two consistent and proficient tight ends. Graham was an above average route runner and pass catcher that will be tough to replace. Turner, though he didn't receive many passes, was one of the better blocking tight ends in the Big Ten.

As the team moves on without them, a chance for a player like Byrne to establish himself will become prudent come fall camp. As one of the bigger bodies to fill out the UW skill positions, Byrne can fit the mold of both a blocking and receiving tight end. He's big enough to chip a defensive end and fast enough to create problems for an opposing linebacker.

As a junior who hasn't really broken into a steady role as a tight end, it seems the time is now for Byrne to contribute.

"He's doing good," UW tight end's coach Joe Rudolph said. "He did a lot of good things last year but he had some good people in front of him. But I see things really starting to come together with him. It's really a consistency standpoint. Can he be the best Jake Byrne each play?

"That's what's starting to emerge so I'm excited about that."

-Jordan Kohout (Freshman defensive tackle)

Entering the program as an early enrollee, Kohout really benefited from the extra work he received as a true freshman during spring camp in 2009. Then, as spring turned into summer and summer into fall, Kohout showed flashes of talent at the defensive tackle position.

As the team prepares for another season with high expectations it seems as though Kohout is in line to break into the starting role as one of two defensive tackles based on his strong effort this spring.

"Without question," Partridge said when asked if Kohout is a legitimate starting talent. "He's definitely a guy to be in the mix to be a starter."

When fall camp breaks it seems that Kohout will have a bit of an edge over other players at the position, including highly regarded defensive tackle recruit Beau Allen who will enter fall camp with a chance to raise some eyebrows.

Regardless of whether Kohout is named a starter or not, it is obvious he has done enough this spring to secure a spot on Partridge's rotation.

"In all honesty I think we're going to have a decent rotation," Kohout said back in the spring. "Ethan Hemer, Patrick Butrym and I are coming along nicely. We want to have eight guys that can play so we can have a good rotation.

"Whoever can play is going to play."

-Ricky Wagner (Sophomore offensive lineman)

What a luxury Wagner could be for an aging offensive line. Should any of the players on the edge (Gabe Carimi or Josh Oglesby) suffer an injury, Wagner has proven capable of filling in.

As a player that added over 70 pounds to his frame after coming into the program as a tight end prospect, the 6-foot-6 Wagner is adjusting favorably to his role as a utility offensive lineman. He has proven to be one of the more versatile players on the unit as he can play both left and right tackle seemingly without missing a beat.

Barring injury, Wagner won't be an opening day starter. Should any injuries arise around the line, though, Wagner would be one of the first to be considered for the back up role.

Keep your eye on…

-Dezmen Southward who is one of the more athletic players on the entire roster. Though he is raw, he is making strides as a cornerback and could play a role on special teams with his speed.

-Jacob Pedersen and Brian Wozniak, two tight ends that are capable of becoming the next big thing at the position with their athleticism, pass catching and speed. If they fall short of the rotation, they will likely play roles on special teams units.

-Marcus Cromartie at cornerback. Of all the defenders in the secondary, it seems as though Cromartie has the most natural knack for the ball. Should he continue his momentum from spring ball, he could find himself in on nickel and dime situations.

-Antonio Fenelus at corner. Of all the players having to adjust to new secondary coach Chris Ash's principles and techniques, it seems as though Fenelus has caught on the fastest.

-Jon Budmayr under center, particularly when he gets a chance to play with the No. 1 offense in the second half. He consistently proved he is one of the better pass throwers on the squad, so he will likely want to cap off spring camp with a good showing in the spring game.

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