By TOM MULHERN
Ever since he announced his intention to return to the University of Wisconsin for his senior season back in January, running back Montee Ball has been itching to get on the field for the start of preseason camp.
With all Ball has gone through since then, the feelings have likely only intensified.
That’s why it will probably be a relief for Ball when Monday comes and he’s able to return to the practice field — albeit in a green non-contact jersey.
“I think he’s very excited,” UW coach Bret Bielema said. “It’s something he had dreamed about, obviously, going back to a year ago when he said he was going to stay, to come into his senior year and accomplish a lot of things.
“Not just for himself, but I think he has team goals in mind and is really wired that way, so I think for him to get back out here will juice this whole place up.”
Practices all week have been closed to the media. Ball, who suffered a concussion when he was assaulted near campus on Aug. 1, is scheduled to talk to reporters for the first time since the incident at the team’s media day on Sunday.
NCAA rules require a player to spend two days in a helmet and shorts, then two days in a helmet and shoulder pads before he can practice in full pads.
The Badgers held their first practice in full pads on Friday, which Ball spent in a helmet and shoulder pads. After today’s practice, Ball will be ready to join team drills on Monday, although he will be held out of contact.
“Next week we’ll probably break him in, keep him in a green jersey, out of contact for another week,” Bielema said. “Then two weeks out from the game, we’ll hit the ground running.”
Originally, Ball was expected to get only one week of unrestricted practices prior to the opener against Northern Iowa on Sept. 1. But Bielema said Ball isn’t necessarily returning ahead of schedule.
“Not really, just because there was a lot going back and forth,” Bielema said. “Just those first 48 hours, (we) didn’t know exactly where things were. We’re just being overly cautious, to make sure everything was in order.”
Ball may return kickoffs
Despite the cautious approach, Bielema maintained he is still considering using Ball as a kickoff returner.
Bielema doesn’t want to replace junior Jared Abbrederis as either the kickoff or punt returner. But Bielema wants depth to use as backups during a game if Abbrederis is getting overworked, since he’s also the No. 1 receiver.
“There were times in games (last season) he just got taxed a little bit,” Bielema said.
Bielema has mentioned the idea of using Ball as a kickoff returner in the past. But Ball admitted recently he thought there was no chance he would ever be allowed to return a kick during a game.
Among the potential punt returners Bielema said he would consider are junior running back James White, sophomore wide receiver Kenzel Doe and redshirt freshman cornerback Darius Hillary.
The kickoff return candidates mentioned were Ball and freshman wide receiver Reggie Love. Bielema also mentioned “the possibility of a couple other non-traditional guys, (linebacker) Chris Borland, some guys back there that can bring some size with it.”
No QB frontrunner
Bielema said the team has stayed healthy so far, with no significant injuries to expected contributors. He said the competition has been good at both quarterback and running back.
Among the top quarterbacks — redshirt freshman Joel Stave, junior Danny O’Brien and senior Curt Phillips — nobody has established himself yet.
“One guy will have a day and another guy will have another day,” Bielema said. “It’s kind of back and forth.”
As for the defense, Bielema praised the communication, which was a major priority in the offseason.
“We don’t know until the bullets start flying but the communication is as good as we’ve ever had it and that was a huge point of emphasis,” he said.
• The coaches will have a personnel meeting on Sunday morning in which they will discuss possible position switches. That includes Hillary, who could be tried at safety.
• Bielema said he might conduct a minor scrimmage in the middle of next week, but the first major one will be next Saturday.
• Sophomore guard Dallas Lewallen (knee) still has not been fully cleared and probably won’t be ready for the opener, but Bielema hopes to have him in a backup role by the Big Ten Conference season.
• Sophomore Kyle French is the likely field-goal kicker. Bielema said walk-on Jack Russell, from Waunakee, has shown a strong leg, but is still adjusting to the jump to college. “Last time he was kicking in the state playoffs (in Camp Randall Stadium),” Bielema said. “Now there’s a little bit bigger guys out there and all that’s going on. You can see he’s got a good, live leg,” Bielema said. “He’s been impressive in the kickoff part of it.”