Wisconsin's 2013 spring game will be a first look into the Badgers' quest to win four straight Big Ten championships.
That's one incredible opportunity.
However, it won't come without obstacles as Sconnie loses key players such as Montee Ball, Ricky Wagner, Travis Frederick, Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith to the NFL. Factor in the departure of coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas, per Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports, and new head coach Gary Andersen has his plate full.
So, let's get to it and check out what the Badgers have in store for us on Saturday.
When: Saturday, April 20, at 5 p.m. ET
Where: Camp Randall Stadium; Madison, Wisconsin
Watch: Big Ten Network/BTN2Go
Listen: Badger Radio Network
Running back James White is obviously a focal point of the offense because he has been a solid contributor in the past few seasons. That said, he's among certain players not participating in the spring contest, as reported by Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
According to Andersen, linebacker Chris Borland, defensive end Ethan Hemer, safety Dezmen Southward, running back James White, offensive lineman Ryan Groy and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis will not play in the spring game.
Other players who have been held out while nursing minor injuries and aren't expected to play Saturday include defensive tackle Beau Allen (ankle) and defensive end / outside linebacker Brendan Kelly (hip).
As a result, anticipate the bulk of the feeds to come from Melvin Gordon and Jeff Lewis.
Of the two, Gordon produced more last season with 621 yards and three touchdowns. Plus, he gained 65 yards on two receptions (one touchdown), which displays dual-threat ability to change the pace on second and third down.
Lewis was sparingly utilized but does offer the size to punch between the tackles. And he did average 5.7 yards per attempt in 2011.
Defensively, watch for the secondary.
There's a good amount of depth between Michael Trotter, Donnell Vercher, Darius Hillary, Peniel Jean and Reggie Mitchell. Wisconsin fielded a consistently reliable pass defense in 2012, but echoing that this fall will be much more difficult given Cromartie's and Smith's departures to pro football.
Position Battle to Eye: Quarterback
Last season, the Badgers had a carousel of quarterbacks take snaps. Altogether, Danny O'Brien, Joel Stave and Curt Phillips combined for 14 touchdown passes, six picks and a 58.7 completion percentage.
Clearly whoever ends up winning the starting role will need to produce more efficiently, otherwise the other two will be prepared to take over. The good news is that they have three game-experienced quarterbacks to choose from, as opposed to no experience.
The bad news was an overall lack of production, especially when you consider the impact on the ground game. Setting up play action and surveying from the pocket should have been much better.
Therefore, don't discount the potential of Bart Houston. His strong arm alone is a competitive advantage because that will press a secondary back and prevent a defense from stacking the box against the run.
Senior to Watch: TE, Jacob Pedersen
With receiver James Abbrederis sitting out the spring game (sourced above), tight end Jacob Pedersen is the senior to focus on.
Last season, he was Wisconsin's second-leading receiver in yards (355), receptions (27) and touchdowns (four). So, regardless of the quarterback under center, he will earn targets to make plays over the middle and get upfield after the catch.
Pedersen was also a sound contributor for the Badgers in 2011. There, he caught 30 passes for 356 yards and scored eight times. For as much as he has impacted the aerial assault, though, Pedersen must prove development as a run-blocker.
His size frame at 6'4" and 241 pounds is solid, but Pedersen needs to block with his feet and hands, as opposed to using power and brute strength. In other words: A quicker jump at the snap will get him positioned better to seal blocks instead of driving defenders back.
Provided he builds this aspect to match his receiving level and Pedersen becomes a complete player.
Underclassman to Watch: Safety, Michael Trotter
Last season, Michael Trotter collected 24 tackles and defended one pass while appearing in 13 games. Impressively enough, he logged nine tackles against the Nebraska Cornhuskers during the September matchup.
At 6'0" and 210 pounds, Trotter supplies the size and tackling ability to roll down in Cover 3 and/or for a blitzing linebacker. His experience is also appealing, because the Badgers can't afford to lack in coverage with teams such as Michigan and Ohio State expected to be more explosive.
Without question, Trotter's man-coverage skills need to improve; however, he's solid for Cover 1 and 2 back deep. During the spring game, Trotter has to take advantage of every playmaking opportunity. Not to mention, he will be challenged with fellow safety Dezmen Southward sitting out (mentioned above).
The Badgers passing game isn't overly dominant and not generating some turnovers or fending off completions will give reason for concern. Plus, Trotter's overall experience can be expected to help with his development.
The rest of the Big Ten will be aiming for Wisconsin.
After appearing in three straight Rose Bowls, you can bet on the entire schedule brings its A-game to the Badgers. To that end, Sconnie will remain a strong rushing team and the receiving corps is there to establish balance.
Offensively, the potential output rests with the quarterbacks. And quick development is needed.
On the defense, Wisconsin must dominate the line of scrimmage. Losing dependable cover players in Cromartie and Smith aren't easy to immediately replace, which puts more pressure on the front to stuff the run and get pressure. Doing so simply prevents opponents from exploiting the coverage.
Facing Ohio State (away), Northwestern (home), Illinois (away) and Iowa (away) in consecutive games, the Badgers have a rough road.
In short, a Big Ten title this season is a bit unrealistic after taking three straight.
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