Spring game: Two-man race
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON – The University of Wisconsin finished off a month of practice with their annual spring game at Camp Randall Stadium.
The first half featured around 40 plays of offense versus defense with no live tackling. The second half was made up of two 15-minute quarters of live tackling that ended with the Cardinal beating the White 6-0.
What we learned:
The quarterback race is a two-man battle
UW coach Gary Andersen made it clear on Saturday that the Badgers starting quarterback job is a two-man race right now – incumbent Joel Stave and challenger Tanner McEvoy.
“I would say we are exactly where we started spring, but now Tanner has some reps,” Andersen said of the quarterback battle. “When we walked into spring, it was more of a situation to where I thought Tanner deserved that opportunity and he wanted that opportunity. He saw himself as a quarterback, and I think he's proven through spring that he's continually gotten better. He had a nice day today. He threw the ball well. He showed you what he can do with his feet.”
With Stave not taking part due to continued pain in his throwing shoulder, McEvoy took all the first-team reps on Saturday. Though the stats from the live tackling second half weren't flashy -- 4 of 10 for 55 yards -- he led three touchdown drives in the first half. That included dropping a beautiful 27-yard scoring toss to wide receiver Kenzel Doe.
“Yeah, it was a great throw,” Doe said. “I told Tanner (McEvoy) that he put the ball exactly where it needed to be. I told him to just give me a chance and I will do the rest and he threw it out there and it was just a perfect throw.”
The junior, who played safety last season after losing out to Stave and Curt Phillips in the quarterback battle, also flashed his ability to take off and run. When the defense brought an all-out blitz on third-and-7, McEvoy calmly stepped up in the pocket and took off for a 35-yard gain.
“It is just instinct,” McEvoy said of running. “I try to lean more towards passing when I can. I think there were a couple plays I left out there where I could have passed it instead of run it. But other than that, sometimes you have to do it and sometimes you don’t, so I just have to make the right decision.”
McEvoy still considers Stave to be the No. 1 quarterback but it’s clear he’s more prepared now than he was last summer to challenge him.
"I think I’m a lot more comfortable," McEvoy said. "I think it shows. Hopefully, I’m playing like it as well. I think I’m a lot more comfortable than I was. I can only make more strides, so I’m looking forward to the summer and I’m looking forward to fall.”
The competition this spring never really materialized due to Stave's lingering AC joint pain but things should pick up when he returns, which Andersen expects to be sooner rather than later.
“I think he knows it's best,” Andersen said of sitting Stave the last week of practice. “He's such a competitor that it hurts him to not be out there. He knows that he's in a battle and he wants to be out there.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the spring was that redshirt sophomore Bart Houston never pushed for the starting spot. Most expected that to happen but for a variety of reasons – including him trying to do too much in the middle of the spring – he’s not in the race.
“Bart is a tremendous young man, he's a tremendous kid, but he's not in the fight right now for the starting quarterback position,” Andersen said. “But there's a lot that goes into that as far as like any position battle with who's in first place, who's in second place I guess you could say. But we'll just keep moving down the lines, and those two kids are going to get most of the reps in the fall, those two being Tanner and obviously Joel.”
The defense is smaller but faster
One of the goals this offseason for the UW coaching staff was to get faster on the defensive side of the ball. Fans saw on Saturday that they’ve accomplished that.
The bigger bodies that defensive coordinator Dave Aranda inherited in the front-seven have been replaced with smaller and quicker players. The idea is to create more havoc for the opposing offensive line and that was on display a number of times.
In the non-tackling portion, the first-team defense had a pair of sacks, several tackles for loss and at least three pass breakups.
“I think we showed really good out there today,” sophomore corner Sojourn Shelton said. “Everyone’s flying around. I think that’s the best part. If we do break something off, you know there’s going to be guys down there chasing them, trying to make sure they don’t score, get any extra yardage, so that’s a good thing to see. Everybody’s just flying around, making plays and I’m pretty excited moving toward summer.”
It’s also a younger group. Gone are nine seniors that played a lot of football at UW, including Chris Borland, one of the school’s all-time greats at linebacker.
“Definitely losing guys like Chris (Borland), Ethan Armstrong and Ethan Hemer, those lineman, that’s a lot of experience,” junior outside linebacker Joe Schobert said. “They’re all three, four-year starters. That’s a lot of experience we have to replace, but I feel we’ll be more athletic overall and faster. We’ll be a lot less experienced, obviously, but I think we can make up for maybe a couple more mistakes with speed and more athleticism to run the ball down and make plays.”
UW is still looking for help at wide receiver
Andersen said effort and attitude aren’t the problem at wide receiver, injuries are. UW was limited all spring with the number of receivers they had, and that was the case again on Saturday.
The guys that played had their moments. Doe had the 27-yard touchdown catch, freshman Jazz Peavy grabbed a crossing route for a 30-yard gain and junior Reggie Love have four catches for 24 yards. But their contributions were somewhat overshadowed by the guys standing on the sideline, not taking part.
Junior Jordan Fredrick, along with sophomores Robert Wheelwright and Alex Erickson, missed large portions of spring ball due to injuries and that was frustrating for the coaching staff.
“At the wide receiver we've identified the problem. We know the problem,” Andersen said. “It's through injuries; it's not because of lack of work, it's not because of lack of want to, and we've got to get players in here that can make plays at that position.”
Especially bothersome was the knee injury to Wheelwright. Wide receivers coach Chris Beatty talked before the start of camp about important the practices were for him, but a knee injury in the first week wiped away his opportunity.
“It's got to happen,” Andersen said of Wheelwright getting healthy this summer. “Because he needs to be on the field to get any better. Right now he's not anywhere close to coming in a game and playing for us. He hasn't taken any snaps.”
Wisconsin will welcome five freshmen wide receivers as part of the 2014 recruiting class this summer, and at least a couple of them will be needed this fall based on what the coaches saw over the past month.
- With Corey Clement and Melvin Gordon not taking part in the tackling portion of the game, Austin Ramesh took advantage. The redshirt freshman, whose actual position is fullback, moved back to tailback and carried the ball 12 times for 71 yards. UW has two incoming recruits at running back but Ramesh might be a good third option if they aren’t ready to help the Badgers this fall.
- Gordon looked sharp during the non-tackling portion of the day. On his first carry of the day, he went for seven yards. Later in the drive, on fourth-and-2, he burst off the left side of the line for a gain of 34. He carried three more times and finished with an unofficial line of eight carries for 72 yards.
- Devin Gaulden appears to have grabbed the third cornerback spot. One of the more talented players when he arrived on campus in 2011, injuries slowed him down. But now, fully healed, he’s starting to resemble the guy that got playing time as a true freshman. Though he was responsible for the McEvoy to Doe touchdown, it took a perfect throw and perfect catch to beat him. He said afterwards that he’s still working himself back to where he was before the injury and feels he has just scratched the surface of what he can be.
- Andersen said that senior Jeff Lewis is hoping to transfer after he graduates in May. The tailback ran for 202 yards and two touchdowns over the past three years. He'll have one year of eligibility remaining.
- Saturday's attendance was annouced as 8,204.
- The pre-snap penalties that were a significant problem in the team’s last scrimmage were not an issue on Saturday. There was only one penalty – a false start by left tackle Tyler Marz – that could be called a mental error. However, the Badgers were called for at least six other penalties during the day.
- Andersen said that Warren Herring is their starting nose guard but that he will see time at defensive end in different packages this fall.
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin