A championship mentality
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - When Gary Andersen opened his first spring practice last March the University of Wisconsin coach handed out rubber band bracelets to the players with one of his favorite sayings, ‘Players make plays. Players win games.’ It’s the idea that coaches can get the players as prepared as possible but they are the ones on the field and they will be the ones determining whether the team is successful.
Now, after a year on the job, Andersen handed out new bracelets prior to the start of what he’s calling, “March Ball”, due to weather in Madison not feeling like anything close to spring. And this year’s message on the band is very simple. It has the word, “champions”, inscribed in black lettering on a red background.
“It’s a mentality thing,” senior Warren Herring said. “You have to keep that, ‘we’re going to win a championship mentality,’ through the spring and that’s what we need. We’ve got a lot of young guys not expecting to do much but we need everybody we have this spring. We need a lot of young guys to step up, especially filling the roles all of our seniors had last year. We’ve got a lot of young guys that need to step up and everybody needs to have this champion’s mentality.”
The bands don’t have to be worn all the time, but they are mandatory for any football related activity. For Herring, though, he sees no reason to ever take it off.
“They say you can wear them anytime you want, but anytime we do anything football related, make sure you have this on and make sure you have it in your head that you need a champion's mentality,” the nose guard said. “But I wear it wherever I go because it reminds me of being a champion. I need to keep that in my mind so I (remember) I need to be the best I can be wherever I go.”
That mentality is something the coaches’ hope will rub off on the younger players along the defensive line. One of the most experienced units on last year’s team is now on the opposite end of the spectrum after four seniors departed. Herring, along with fellow senior Konrad Zagzebski, are the only linemen to play in all 13 games last season. And that has the staff looking at them to be the leaders of the line in the Badgers' 3-4 scheme.
“I bring everything that the guys from last year taught us,” Herring said of his leadership skills. “You got guys like Borland – athleticism, drive, will to make every play. You’ve got vocal leadership through Tyler Dippel, Beau Allen, (Ethan) Hemer, (Brendan Kelly). Just seeing those guys. You had Ethan Armstrong and B.K. battling through injuries and just getting after it every snap like it was their last. Intensity is the main thing. That’s one of the biggest things I took from those guys. For them to be able to take us where they did the past four years was incredible. It’s hard not to learn from those guys being around them.”
Much of his learning came on the sideline a year ago. Used mostly in sub packages, and when Allen needed a break, Herring was able to come on the field fresh and create some issues for offenses with his quickness. Despite the limited playing time, he finished tied for second on the team with four sacks and third in tackles for loss with six. But as Herring and his position coach, Chad Kauha'aha'a, will tell you, they came early in the season. Three of his sacks came in back-to-back weeks to open the Big Ten season against Purdue and Ohio State, while he had just 1.5 tackles for loss after the meeting with the Buckeyes.
“He knows it, of all people, he missed some opportunities throughout the season and later in the season,” Kauha’aha’a said after a recent spring practice. “But I think with him getting more reps, if all holds firm from now through camp, he’ll be our guy and he’ll get a bunch more reps, which will give him more opportunities to make plays.”
Herring will essentially take over the role of Allen, who got a majority of the reps at the nose guard position. Like the rest of his teammates a year ago, the 6-foot-3, 293-pound, Herring had a steep learning curve as he made the move from being a defensive tackle with four down linemen to lining up directly over the center, while being flanked by a pair of defensive ends.
“It was very tough. Moving to any position that you haven’t played before is tough,” Herring said. “You have double teams on both sides. Being able to watch Beau Allen and the way he takes up double teams. The way he eats gaps. Watching his film, it teaches me how to be better. Just watching him and having the time to do that last year helped me get better.”
The graduation of Allen and the three other seniors along the line also meant a shift in philosophy for defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, or more accurately, a shift back to his original philosophy. The players he inherited, while experienced and proven, were not the type of athletes that Aranda had at previous stops. So instead of using a lot of slanting and stunting like he did at Utah State and Hawaii, the Wisconsin line was used more like a blunt instrument. As opposed to shooting gaps and using athleticism to get around the offensive line, the Badgers were holding blockers up and then shedding them to make a play. But for the 2014 season, UW plans to get their fastest and most athletic players on the field and that’s meant significant position changes this offseason.
Among the defensive line there are two guys, redshirt freshmen Alec James and Garrett Dooley, who moved down from linebacker.
“The thought at the end of the day is to be as fast as possible to make negative plays whether it’s tackle for losses, quarterback sacks or pressures, effecting the quarterback some form or fashion,” Aranda said of the change, that included moves of safeties to linebacker and linebackers to the defensive line. “Whatever we can do to be faster and to be more agile and to make those plays, especially the plays where things breakdown, when it’s not designed where it’s supposed to go, that we can get that guy down.”
The influx of more young players to the unit means Herring’s role as a leader becomes even more important. Along with James and Dooley, there is also redshirt freshman and reigning defensive scout team player of year, Chikwe Obasih, and incoming freshmen Jeremy Patterson, Conor Sheehy and Billy Hirschfeld will arrive in the fall.
“I think they’re doing good,” Herring said of the guys already on campus. “They’re coming along and transitioning beautifully. It’s a new spot. The first few days aren’t going to be perfect but they’re coming along.”
At this time a year ago, with everyone still adjusting to the new scheme, Herring was looking to others for guidance. A year later it’s now the younger players looking to the Fairview Heights, Ill., native for direction.
“He’s a real good leader,” James said of Herring. “He’s a real hard worker on and off the field. He’s just a good overall person. He’s not one of those guys that puts on a show for people. He’s a real good guy. A real good leader. He’s one of the people I look up to.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin