By TOM LEA
MADISON – If you’re envisioning a Wisconsin locker room full of blaring soliloquy’s, various adaptations of aggression and general verbal assaults when things aren’t going right you’ll probably want to save your mental creativity for a different day.
The offensive lineman, comprising a unit that can boast — or sheepishly try to explain — why the vaunted rushing attack with 20 years of historical success is off to its worst start in more than two decades (125.6 yards per game), aren’t pointing fingers at one another or motivating each other with raised voices.
That doesn’t seem to be their nature.
“You can’t point fingers at each other and you can’t blame somebody else,” junior left guard Ryan Groy said. “It’s about worrying about yourself and encouraging everybody else. You can’t blame anybody else because you make mistakes too.”
The quarterback, usually a football team’s most important leader, is a freshman (Joel Stave) trying to figure out what life is like as the starter at the position. That’s after beginning the year as the backup to a highly touted transfer (Danny O’Brien) that was benched following a disastrous performance at Oregon State and a rough half against Utah State.
Defensively, the two best players — linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor — are two of the more soft-spoken members of the team, even though their play and productivity (UW’s top two tacklers) would probably suggest otherwise.
The argument about leadership — or lack thereof depending on how you look at it — can probably begin and end with the notion the team only has nine scholarship seniors. Considering 85 players are on scholarship for the Badgers, the senior class represents just 11 percent of the guys getting fed at training table.
And the six captains, including Borland and center Travis Frederick, both juniors, aren’t necessarily the type of rah-rah players willing to get in someone’s grill to tell them what they are or aren’t doing well.
“Rick Wagner is just not a very talkative guy,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said. “(He) has a lot of respect (from) our team, but he’s not a guy that comes to the forefront. And Montee (Ball) has not been a verbal guy and he’s gone through his own set of trials and tribulations of late.”
Bielema also pointed out the fact Shelton Johnson, one of UW’s captains and senior strong safety, hasn’t been involved with a game since breaking his arm during the Badgers loss at Oregon State.
“For him not to be involved in that type of scenario is very tough,” Bielema said. “And Mike Taylor, as much as you guys (media) know this from interviewing him, is a pretty soft-spoken guy. That’s four of our nine (seniors).
“The other five guys are guys that are doing what we’re asking them to do, trying to be great and trying to be leaders.”
Robert Burge, Marcus Cromartie, Devin Smith, Curt Phillips and Brendan Kelly are the other five players Bielema referred to.
Three of those five (Cromartie, Smith and Kelly) are starters for the Badgers. Burge is a utility offensive lineman and Phillips is the third-string quarterback, who ironically might not be leaving the team after this year if he’s granted a sixth-year of eligibility following this season.
Therefore, as evidenced by their presence among the captains, UW’s junior class may need to help foot the leadership bill.
Is that something that is beginning to happen?
“I think our juniors have stepped up,” Bielema said. “Jared Abbrederis is a tremendous leader, Chris Borland on the other side of the ball. But it’s just sheer numbers that can kind of be overwhelming to have those younger guys take effect.”
Bielema has gone on the record this season as saying ‘nothing comes easy for this team.’ And he’s absolutely right. For those that have thought the Badgers would be able to pick up right where they left off, even though they lost the school’s best single-season quarterback, three offensive linemen (two to the NFL Draft), its top wide receiver and six assistant coaches, are guilty of oversight.
It’s easy to look back now and think the team was destined to struggle in some regard, but it doesn’t sugarcoat the fact plenty of people thought the Badgers were shoe-ins for December’s Big Ten title game, that the offense was going to pick up where it left off, that Montee Ball was going to contend for the Heisman and Danny O’Brien was destined to be the next big thing at the quarterback position.
Most of us, myself included, are guilty of that.
The fact of the matter is Wisconsin is a 3-2 football team, one that still has seven Big Ten games remaining and only three other teams (Illinois, Indiana and Purdue) to compete with for a spot in Indianapolis. There’s still plenty to be optimistic about, especially considering there has been some marked improvement in each of the past few weeks in various areas.
But when the going gets tough, as it will undoubtedly do as the season progresses, it’s going to be paramount for the Badgers leaders — whether it’s one of the six captains or somebody else — to take control of the situation.
Sometimes calling somebody out (not via the media, but behind closed doors and in practice) can go a long way in establishing that mantra. Maybe that could be the spark the team, especially the offense, needs.
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