After saying farewell to 26 players on Senior Day last season, including 17 who were on the two-deep roster, the University of Wisconsin football team has a lengthy list of positions that needs filling as the team kicked off spring practice on Wednesday.
From another open quarterback battle, to finding a No. 1 receiver, to replacing three senior tight ends — not to mention most of the front seven on defense — the Badgers have much to get accomplished in 15 practices.
But despite all of the new faces dotting what figures to be a starting lineup in almost constant flux, Gary Andersen made one thing clear going into his second season as UW’s coach: He is not in the midst of a rebuilding project.
“We’re a young football team, and I’m excited about this football team,” Andersen said after practice. “But I do not view it as a rebuilding year. These kids expect to play at a high level every week, and we expect to jog out on the field and put ourselves in a position to win football games.”
For the second straight spring, depth on the offensive line will be a major issue.
“A couple kids go down and it’s going to be hard to actually run a practice,” Andersen said. “We’ve got to be careful there.”
With two projected starters out all spring following surgeries — sophomore center Dan Voltz (upper body) and senior guard/center Dallas Lewallen (knee) — freshman early enrollee Michael Deiter was the starting center.
Alex Walker, a 239-pound sophomore converted tight end, was the backup left tackle.
Freshman D.J. Gillins was one of three players to rotate at quarterback with the first team, along with sophomore Bart Houston and junior Tanner McEvoy, who was a safety last season.
Junior Joel Stave, the starting quarterback last year, took part in the early portion of practice before leaving for a class. After suffering a right shoulder injury in the Capital One Bowl, Stave isn’t expected to be fully cleared until after the first six practices, which will be held prior to spring break.
“Then we’ll see if we can get him full steam,” Andersen said. “It’s a precautionary deal. We just don’t want him throwing a few balls down the field and getting too competitive, so we’re kind of putting the brakes on him. If he were going to play tomorrow, he would play.”
Andersen is also taking it easy with the top two running backs, junior Melvin Gordon and sophomore Corey Clement.
“(We) won’t tackle them one time in the spring,” Andersen said. “They may get on the ground a couple times, but it’s not because we’re trying to tackle them. We’re going to be very creative again in those areas. I don’t feel like either one of those backs need to be tackled in spring ball to prove themselves.”
Then there’s an almost entirely new front seven on a defense that must be rebuilt.
“There are so many new faces,” said Andersen, who was speaking about the defense but could have been referring to the entire team. “Talented, inexperienced, youthful. They’re fun kids to coach, so that’s going to be a big question mark.”
• Junior A.J. Jordan, who moved from wide receiver to cornerback during bowl practices, is now at safety. And given how wide open that spot is, don’t be surprised if Jordan is in the running for a starting job.
He intercepted a pass throw by Gillins down the middle, making a nice play on the ball.
“That’s his mindset, to come in and start,” Andersen said. “I’m proud of A.J., he made a nice play today. (He) feels comfortable as far as the way he carries himself back there and his demeanor.
• “He’s worked very hard to get the techniques down and he’s worked very hard to understand the playbook. It’s going to be exciting to watch him.”
Other position changes include sophomore Alec James, who is listed at 239 pounds, going from outside linebacker to defensive end, and redshirt freshman linebacker Garret Dooley (227 pounds) going to the defensive line.
• Freshman offensive tackle Jaden Gault, who attended Monona Grove and enrolled early, is sidelined following knee surgery. “He should be fine in the fall,” Andersen said. “It’s not a serious injury.”
(bullet)In addition to Stave, Houston also left early due to a class, giving more snaps for the young quarterbacks. “Today was a great day for those young kids to stick their flag in the ground and stake claim on their area,” Andersen said.
(bullet)Andersen got creative in practice, running a pass skeleton session -- which does not include linemen -- that lasted for 45 minutes. That’s about one-and-a-half times longer than normal. Andersen said it was due to the lack of depth in the offensive line and wanting to look at the quarterbacks.
(bullet)Dieter and Gillins both did a nice job having to handle the ball so much in their first practice. “Those two kids, to be in that spot, walk in here and running with the ones and the twos, I thought handled the day very well,” Andersen said. “They’ll be a big part of this football program as we move forward.”