University of Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema has praised the progress of his two healthy quarterbacks, sophomore Joe Brennan and redshirt freshman Joel Stave, through three weeks of spring practices.
But in the first major scrimmage of the spring on Saturday — with transfer quarterback Danny O’Brien from Maryland watching from the sideline — both struggled to complete any passes down the field.
“I think confidence in the huddle, they’re light years ahead of where they were a year ago,” Bielema said after the scrimmage. “Obviously, we want them always to be better, but I think they can continue to grow.”
The good news for the Badgers was the defense appeared to be farther ahead than it was at this time last year, with less than two weeks to go before the spring game on April 28.
The pass rush was good throughout, with Bielema yelling at senior defensive end Brendan Kelly at one point for knocking down Brennan. The quarterbacks wore green jerseys as usual, meaning no contact, but would have been sacked at least four times.
Senior walk-on Robert Burge continued to work at right guard with the first offense, with UW junior Casey Dehn moving to right tackle.
“I think it was (being in) a scrimmage situation and the protection wasn’t there,” Bielema said of the quarterbacks’ struggles. “We have four of our five starters solidified on the offensive line, but the fifth spot shows how quickly you need somebody to pop in there.”
Sophomore Rob Havenstein is expected to start at right tackle, but he has been limited following shoulder surgery. That leaves right guard as the spot waiting to be filled.
Dehn quit the team last season but returned during the offseason. He had been working at right guard with the second unit. But the strong performance by converted defensive lineman Kyle Costigan at right guard prompted Dehn’s move back to tackle, where he played last season.
Costigan missed the first two weeks of spring before being cleared after suffering a broken foot last season. He has looked comfortable and could challenge for the No. 1 spot at right guard.
“I think Casey Dehn is a guy you want in that rotation,” Bielema said. “Also, Kyle Costigan has been unbelievable. He never went through winter conditioning, he didn’t practice the first four practices, he only joined us after spring break.”
Another problem for the offense was it featured a group of inexperienced wide receivers. Junior Jared Abbrederis (foot), the top returning receiver, is sitting out all spring. Junior H-back Jacob Pedersen (groin) also sat out.
The two quarterbacks were unofficially a combined 10-for-23. Most of the completions were short throws. The quarterbacks started out 2-for-9 before Brennan finally completed a 17-yard pass down the middle to A.J. Jordan, the first completion beyond the line of scrimmage.
One two-play sequence during a third-down period summed up the quarterbacks’ day: Brennan threw high to Chase Hammond on third-and-5, then had Isaiah Williams wide open on a crossing route when the line picked up a blitz on third-and-6, but threw the ball at Williams’ feet.
Among the players who stood out defensively was sophomore Warren Herring, who was paired with sophomore Bryce Gilbert as the tackles on the second defense. Herring has been was moved from end.
Also, junior A.J. Fenton has moved ahead of junior Conor O’Neill as the starting strong side linebacker. Bielema said he was glad he didn’t listen to assistant coaches who talked about moving Fenton to fullback or another position.
“A.J. has probably had as good a two weeks as he could have,” Bielema said.
Backs pick it up
Starting tailback Montee Ball was held out of the scrimmage, but junior James White and redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon both ran well at times.
White had a 27-yard run around left end on third-and-2, the biggest offensive play of the scrimmage until he came back with a 35-yarder around right end. The second run set up the offense’s only touchdown, an 18-yard pass from Brennan to sophomore tight end Sam Arneson.
Gordon used his speed to get outside defensive end James Adeyanju on an 11-yard run, then lowered a shoulder to pick up 2 yards out of nothing.
“His high school film (at Kenosha Bradford) was all lateral plays, he played in a wing T,” Bielema said. “Even last year, I was amazed how well he adjusted so quickly to downhill running. ... He’s very, very gifted athletically.”
Arneson, from Merrill, weighs 255 pounds and is a candidate to replace departed senior Jake Byrne as the
No. 1 tight end who plays on the line of scrimmage. Pedersen returns as the top H-back.
“(Arneson) did a nice job in the out-of-season (workouts),” Bielema said. “You can really see it in his blocking, he’s holding his own against D-ends. I’m really excited about Sam’s future.”
But Arneson also catches the ball well, which is why Bielema compared him to former UW tight end Jason Pociask, a fifth-round draft pick of the New York Jets in 2006.
“(Arneson) ... that’s a big guy out there running, that’s a mismatch for linebackers,” Bielema said.
The Badgers suffered no new injuries in the scrimmage. Herring limped off, but returned. ... Sophomore linebacker Derek Landisch suffered a broken hand in practice on Thursday, but played with a wrap on it. ... Sophomore running back Jeff Lewis sat out with a hamstring injury. ... Sophomore defensive end Konrad Zagzebski, who had been working with the second unit, sat out after aggravating a shoulder that has undergone two surgeries. ... Former Maryland offensive tackle Max Garcia visited UW over the weekend, watching the scrimmage with O’Brien. UW is one of five finalists for Garcia and a decision where to transfer to will be made by the end of this month, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.