UW coach Gary Andersen has made it clear that young players have to play well for Wisconsin to have success.
Counting on youth
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - When Gary Andersen talked at various functions over the summer he constantly mentioned that if the University of Wisconsin was going to be successful, young kids would have to play well. As the team hits the end of the second week of fall camp, those offseason words are playing out.
A subjective look at the Badgers’ roster shows that 10 true freshmen are guaranteed to play this year, with the possible addition of four others. Add in another four redshirt freshmen in the two-deep and UW could see 18 players step on the field for the first time when they play LSU in Houston on Aug. 30.
“We’re not afraid to play freshmen,” Andersen said. “Told them (at the start of the summer) … ‘Best players are going to play.’ And we don’t hide from that as coaches. We don’t’ hide from that as a group of players. We all want to win games at the end of the day, so we’ll all work hard and may the best man get himself on the field.”
The young faces show up all over of the field. You’ll see freshmen play at running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, cornerback, safety and kicker.
What does that say about this freshmen class?
“(That) 2014 is a great class coming out of high school,” said cornerback Derek Tindal, one of those new players expected to contribute in his first year in Madison.
Tindal is correct. It appears that the class UW desperately needed to be ready to play is, for the most part, mature enough. But it does Wisconsin no good to use first-year players if they aren’t ready. Andersen has talked about that at certain positions, like inside linebacker.
“The last thing I want to do is take a young player and put him in a position not to be successful because of where he sits strength wise in his development.”
While in rare cases a young player being thrown into the fire is a matter of necessity – like Taiwan Deal at as the third-team running back -- in most instances it’s been a matter of Wisconsin’s young players winning battles and forcing the coaching staff to put them on the field.
That’s been the case at wide receiver. The two true freshmen sure to see playing time, George Rushing and Natrell Jamerson, have taken part in every practice and made plays on a daily basis.
“I definitely (have) got to have confidence coming out here,” said the 5-foot-11, 180-pound, Jamerson after a recent practice. “In college, you’re not the big man on campus anymore. You got to make a name for yourself. In high school everybody knows you, so you just got to come out and prove yourself (in college).”
The freshmen have relied on each other at times and on the older players at others. Prior to the start of fall camp, senior wide receiver Kenzel Doe, who was Rushing’s Big Brother, made a point of putting in extra work, so Rushing would hit the ground running when practice started.
“I know I’ve come out (to the Camp Randall Stadium field) a couple times with George to teach him the routes, where to lineup on this and that,” Doe said, “just so come camp you’re ready to go instead of trying to learn, learn, learn.”
And when the freshmen do struggle on the field, they can lean on each other. During a recent practice, where crowd noise was being piped in, Jamerson and Rushing were able to use their familiarity to overcome any communication struggles.
“We tell each other what to do just in case,” Rushing said. “We see each other every day, we live in the same hall. I mean we go to class together, so we’re around each other all the time.”
That so many players are in a position to contribute this early was something Andersen predicted in early June when he talked about the new rule allowing coaches and players to meet up to two hours per week in the summer.
“I believe you’re going to see it reflect throughout college football with more freshmen playing,” Andersen said. “They’re going to be able to get with their coaches. They’re going to understand the drills. You can’t go out and take a ball and throw it around but you can do what you did in the old times in January and February and spring conditioning time. So there is drill work that can get done. It’s past running sprints, it’s past what the strength guys do. It is more intensive toward their position group and their ability to learn is extreme on the field.”
That time helped players like D’Cota Dixon make the switch from cornerback to inside linebacker. And for a guy like safety Lubern Figaro to get up to speed in the college game – so much so that he’s running with the first-team defense.
“I’m feeling good,” Figaro said this week. “I’m picking up everything better. Studying the playbook every day. Coaches are encouraging me to do good every day. Everything is moving slow(er) for me now.”
Within the program the expectations for this fall are high, and they’ll need the first-year players to hold up their end.
“Young kids have to play, if we’re going to be a good football team,” Andersen said. “You’re going to see a youthful team that has a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. Takes great pride in what they’re doing and is going to be athletic. That’s where we’re at.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin