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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Sorry for the late timing... this took longer than expected.

The Story

My angle! My precious angle!
Thousands of Wisconsin previews written by hacks across the country had to be hastily re-edited when Pat Fitzgerald became Northwestern's coach. Brett Bielema was the youngest head coach in D-I for all of six months; now he's not even the youngest in the Big Ten. Whither our angle? Tragedy!

It's probably too much to hope for sportwriters to focus on what will be one of the league's most interesting teams. Blessed with a shameful non-conference schedule and the absence of Ohio State and Michigan State from the conference portion, Wisconsin has the schedule to make a long run but must replace nearly the entire offense save suddenly-great QB John Stocco and a pair of offensive linemen. The receivers are unproven but one is a 6'4" track star and the other one is named "Randel El," the offensive line is prone to launching into doggerel about eating nosy guys with magic beans, and there are supposed to be five running backs. The defense looks strong on paper with eight returning starters and a couple of legit stars in DT Nick Hayden and FS Roderick Rogers, but that paper was good for 92nd in the country a year ago. And, yes, someone who is not Barry Alvarez is coaching the team.

So what will happen? I abdicate. I've spent hours combing stories, previews, player profiles, statistics, tarot cards, &c and have come up with nothing definitive. The OL could be great! It could be awful. The WRs could be great! They could be awful. The defense should rebound! Or maybe not. You'll get nothing definitive out of me on this team ready for mocking at season's end. Wisconsin will either be good or bad. If they are not, they will be average. Bold!


Last Year: Out-of-nowhere great. Brian Calhoun was a one-year revelation, torching Big Ten defenses by ground and air on his way to the NFL. John Stocco went from terrible to damn good seemingly overnight. The offensive line blocked, the receivers caught, and all was well.

Too bad they're all gone now.


Rating: 4. Nowhere was MGoBlog's remarkable power to transform crappy quarterbacks into John Elway via criticism more evident than in the personage of John Stocco. Witness last year's preview:
John Stocco was a mess last year and it would be surprising to see him make it through this year without getting in a serious quarterback controversy. ... I can't understand how he's the starting quarterback of a program with a pulse.
Ha. Ha. Ha. I am the funny guy: Stocco finished last year 13th in passing efficiency. Despite only throwing seven more times in '05 than '04, Stocco added 28 completions, nearly 1,000 yards, and 12 touchdowns to his totals. There were a multitude of reasons for this -- RB Brian Calhoun was a brilliant receiver, the offensive line was at its experience apex, the receivers were veteran an deep -- but primary amongst them was the addition of offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who brought an innovative set of throws that took advantage of the unique abilities of TE Owen Daniels and Calhoun without unduly testing Stocco's middling arm. The pair combined for 75 catches. When Stocco wasn't making high-percentage throws to those two, he was bombing it deep to Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr. He made good decisions, made good throws, and then got a lot of YAC help from a set of athletic receivers. The catch, of course, is that none of those receivers return. Stocco has established himself, but still seems to lack that certain something the greats have. He's not the kind of guy to drive a team by himself and last year's engine is now in the clutches of Matt Millen.

Should Stocco go down, however, Wisconsin is in a heap of trouble. Backups Tyler Donovan and Justin Sherer have not impressed. Witness coach Paul Chryst's response to a question about the two:
"Luckily, we've got John."

Running Backs

Rating: 2. Wisconsin's irritatingly endless supply of yard-hoarding backs will be put to the test after Brian Calhoun transferred, pwned the Big Ten, and jumped to the NFL draft. He's now a Lion, so mutual regret is projected to kick in by September. Also gone is Booker Stanley, who was both awful and prone to beating the hell out of civilians. He made one wrong move too many and was dismissed over the offseason. Returning are a grand total of 31 collegiate carries and nothing resembling the hype generated by Calhoun's transfer-imposed redshirt year.

More disturbing than the tolerance shown for Stanley's behavior was that shown his totally inept running -- please don't pay attention to his approximately five yards a carry last year, as almost all of his carries were against the BGSUs and Hawaiis of the schedule -- as it indicates that his plodding, fall-over-at-slight-contact style was the best option left the Badgers when the ball didn't go to Calhoun. You can probably write off junior Jamil Walker and senior Dywon Rowan as a result. That leaves redshirt freshman PJ Hill as your projected starter. Hill seems to have Stanley's temper -- in February he was arrested for wielding a bat outside of a Wisconsin dorm -- and size at 235 pounds, but Wisconsin has to hope that he has something other than his talent-like substance. I have my doubts despite the puff-job coming from the coaches and media, as Bielema is talking about having four or five guys who are in competition for the job. Running backs are sort of like quarterbacks with greater amplitude: if you say you have five, you don't really have any.

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends

Rating: 3. Gone are Jonathan Orr, Brandon Williams, Owen Daniels, and their 121 catches. Back are Marcus Randle-El, Paul Hubbard and their, er, two catches. Obviously, question marks abound.

Deadspin, just in case you didn't get the reference. In
which case you should be ashamed.
Randle-El proves the old maxim "Mothers, don't name your younger son 'Marcus' when your older son is a ridiculously exciting mobile quarterback because he is guaranteed to be a knucklehead if you do." He's holding on to his spot on the Wisconsin team by the thinnest of margins after a pair of arrests in under a year. As a result, his playing time to date has been sparse. This year he's thrust into the spotlight more by default than anything else. Will he live up to the Randle El name? In some way, probably. He's physically reminiscent of his brother as a 5'10" slot receiver-type, but no one will confuse him with Antwaan. He's not explosive but has good hands. Hubbard is another near unknown, a 6'4" track star who sounds tantalizing but only played in five games a year ago. Over the offseason he finally made a decision to pursue football foremost and emerged as a starter in the spring. He's obviously athletic -- national champion in the triple jump -- but is just as obviously raw.

Wisconsin will be relying heavily on one or two of the four freshmen they bring in this year, but the recruit Badger fans had highest hopes for, Daven Jones, didn't qualify and won't make it to campus. The best bet to see a lot of time is Lance Kendricks, a 6'4" vertical threat who ESPN ranked #106 last year and got four stars from both Scout and Rivals.

This group, neither obviously bad or obviously good, are the biggest swing vote on the team. If they excel the offense will hum along like it did last year; if they fall all over themselves Hill isn't going to be able to carry the team by himself.

Offensive Line

Rating: 3. Much like Penn State, Wisconsin has an All-American-level left tackle and a lot of worries. Seniors Donovan Raiola, Jason Palermo, and Matt Lawrence are gone; redshirt sophomore Kraig Urbik moves from right tackle to guard. Only Joe Thomas, the aforementioned badass LT, is sure bet to excel. Or at least he would be if not for offseason surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered in the Citrus Bowl. Two true sophomores step into starting roles, RT Eric Vandenheuvel and LG Andy Kemp. Center goes to junior Marcus Coleman, the smallest man on the line at a mere 6'5".

As stated before, projecting offensive linemen is futile business, but Vandenhuevel and Kemp leapt onto the two-deep immediately upon arrival, saw time as true freshmen, and are now starters. Either Wisconsin is in deep trouble or they're about to have two anchors for the foreseeable future. I lean towards the latter. The silver lining in the Thomas injury was some reassurance that Vandenheuvel is marked for stardom. Coming off the bench cold and facing one of the SEC's best defensive lines, Vandenheuvel held his ground:
The Badgers received a boost when Eric Vandenheuvel, a 6-7, 340- pound freshman from Hudson, stepped in at left tackle and played well against an excellent Auburn defense in his college debut.

"He sure looks the part," Alvarez said of Vandenheuvel. "I didn't see any breakdown. I don't think anyone came over him. It's magnificent for him, a freshman who can step in and perform like that."
In high school he played next to Urbik, albeit on the left side of the line, which should ease his transition into starting. Chalk it up to excessive Badger-related optimism, but this line seems like it'll transition smoothly enough to a new generation of impossibly huge guys paving the way for oft-overrated running backs. It will be rough at the start -- it has to, especially with the Thomas injury -- and thus the "3" rating, but I would look at it more as a 2-progressing-to-4 by year's end.

Besides, how can you go wrong when you've got this guy...
Bob Dole. Bob Dole! BOB DOLE! ... is apparently UW's new offensive line coach. In yet another article about recruiting and text messaging, this passage made my day:
[Text messaging is] bad news for coaches like Bob Palcic, the newest hire on Bielema's first staff. Palcic, who was hired Monday to coach the Badgers' offensive line, said he barely knows how to use a cell phone, much less text messaging.

"If they do eliminate text messaging, that will be a positive for Bob Palcic," he said, "because I'm still just a guy who likes to talk to people on the telephone."
Bob Palcic's teaching the offensive linemen. Bob Palcic's going to the store. Bob Palcic's trying to mash the tiny buttons on a cell phone to tell some punk kid to have a good time tonight. Bob Palcic fought in 'Nam! Bob Palcic has a purple heart... Bob Palcic doesn't need this bullshit! your offensive line coach? Bob Palcic fought in 'Nam!


Last Year: Ugly. Unable to decide if what they were bad at was defending the pass (458 yards to Omar Jacobs, 361 to Brett Basanez) or defending the run (a whopping 411 yards to Minnesota, and 282 to Penn State), Wisconsin decided to go with "both" and finished 92nd in total defense. A spate of injuries I would have sympathy for if I didn't spend all of last year watching shots of Mike Hart on the sideline mitigates those numbers somewhat. At times last year Wisconsin was missing 3/4ths of its starting defensive line.

That injury run may turn into a blessing in disguise, as a ton of experience returns but there is still a lot of reason for concern: the cornerbacks are still under suspicion and the linebackers are almost entirely raw.

Defensive Line

Rating: 5.

Hayden: much tougher than this photo implies.
Returns a ton of experience despite the dismissal of two players but no dominant stars. Defensive tackle Nick Hayden is the closest thing to one and may reach that level this year, however. He was a big-time recruit two years ago (Michigan finished second for him) who saw time immediately upon arrival and started his entire sophomore year, finishing with outstanding numbers: 56 tackles, 9 TFL, and 5.5 sacks. If he plateaus at that level he'll still be an All-Big Ten type. If he makes a further jump he'll be pushing for All-American honors.

Next to Hayden will be joined by Jason Chapman, who was downright respectable as a true freshman, and Justin Ostrowski, who was going to be Hayden's running mate before suffering a slew of injuries. Both should be at least competent and will probably be better.

Unfortunately for UW, the defensive end spot is still injury-wracked. Jamal Cooper and Matt Shaughnessy both were both hampered in the spring with knee injuries, Shaughnessy out entirely. In their absence Kurt Ware, Joe Monty, and Brian Kelly all got positive reviews. Expect the Badgers to rotate their defensive ends extensively based on down and distance. Cooper, Kelly, and Shaughnessy are all undersized edge-rushing types -- though Cooper may be less so now with a few years in the weight room -- whereas Ware and Monty are bigger and stiffer against the run. Starting may be a ceremonial duty, but in the case of defensive ends if you have five you really do have five.


Rating: 3. TFL leader MLB Mark Zalewski returns but there is no experience anywhere else on the unit. Sophomores DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas step into starting roles; behind them is not much other than redshirt freshman Elijah Hodge, Abdul's brother. Both projected OLB starters did see time a year ago (Levy had 18 tackles, Casillas 10) but it will be different when they're relied upon to play against teams not named "Temple" or "Indiana."

Zalewski is a good middle linebacker who should have impressive numbers this year operating behind Hayden, Chapman, and Ostrowski. He's not much for cutting through chaff but that particular weakness is not likely to come to the forefront this year, which should allow the three linebackers -- reputed to have great speed, all -- to flow to the point of attack without too much disturbance. The OLBs will no doubt have their share of growing pains, though.

Defensive Backs

Rating: 2.

Langford. There's a joke in here somewhere.
This was a horror show on par with anything the Northwestern or Illinois defenses could throw out there. Stripped of talismanic Jim Leonhard and underrated Scott Starks, the Badger secondary established that they were available for torching early on in a crazy Playstation opener against Bowling Green that the Badgers won 56-42. Falcon quarterback Omar "Predator" Jacobs went whatever the Predator-equivalent of buckwild is, going 30-51 for 458 yards and five touchdowns. Brett Basanez had a similar day (361 yards, 3 TD) and Drew Tate was similarly efficient if less spectacular. The only thing that saved Wisconsin's secondary was yeoman work from the defensive line and a rich procession of teams with bad quarterbacks. As a Michigan fan, I wake up every Tuesday screaming about the Wisconsin game after seeing another wide open Michigan flailing ineffectually at a Henne rocket six yards over his head. (Tuesday is Wisconsin horror day; Wednesday Notre Dame; Thursday Minnesota, etc., etc., etc.) Wisconsin was very fortunate to miss Troy Smith and Drew Stanton a year ago or things may have gotten ugly.

Things will be touch and go again this year. Cornerback Brett Bell graduates, leaving the position in the hands of two true sophomores, Allen Langford and Jack Ikegwuonu, who struggled a year ago. There is no depth to speak of. Senior Zach Hampton, a career special teamer who "could be moved to safety" (read: "is slow") is the nickel back going into the fall. Behind him is redshirt freshman Aubrey Pleasant, who Wisconsin stole from Michigan State late in the 2004 recruiting year and is also constantly accused of being slow. If either starter gets injured the consequences will be severe; even if they stay healthy there will be trouble in nickel and dime packages.

The safeties are in somewhat better shape as both starters return. SS Joe Stellmacher, a former walkon, was the team's second leading tackler and honorable mention all-Big Ten a year ago, but is limited in coverage at 220 pounds and only exacerbates the nickel-package issue. FS Roderick Rogers was quite good, however, displaying great range and breaking up 11 passes. One play against Michigan stands out: RB Max Martin ran a wheel route down the sideline and Henne managed to hit him right in stride except for the small matter of Rogers managing to get all the way over from a deep middle zone to break up the pass. It was an excellent play and one that made a difference in the Wisconsin win.

Special Teams

Kickers & Coverage

Rating: 4. All Big Ten punter Ken Debauche returns. He finished eight in the country in gross punting average with almost 45 yards a kick a year ago. Even more impressively he managed to get most of those kicks high and limited opponent return opportunities. Wisconsin finsished the year 12th in net punting. Kicker Taylor Melhalf was good a year ago, kicking 14 of 20.


Non-Conference: Embarassing. A odd-but-charming trip to Cleveland to play Bowling Green opens the year and is the only game Wisconsin shouldn't allow fans to watch for free. Home games against Western Illinois and San Diego State follow; the season finishes up with what should be a thriller against Buffalo. Bielema is taking the bull by the plane ticket to anywhere without bulls. Except those of Buffalo.

Conference: Wisconsin misses Ohio State and Michigan State, which will come as a relief to the beleaguered secondary, but has a nasty opener @ Michigan. Coming off the weak non-conference schedule, Lamarr Woodley & Co will be a nasty shock to a young offensive line. If Thomas is still gimpy the task gets even tougher.

We're Sure About

Nothing. Okay, okay...

The Defensive Line. Outstanding depth and a couple of players who can disrupt plays in the backfield. The surest bet on the team since Stocco's performance will hinge dramatically on the performance of the players around him.

We Have An Idea About

The Offensive Line. Admittedly speculative tea-leaf reading indicates that Bob Palcic will have these guys ready to go. If Bob Palcic sees any loafing, Bob Palcic's going to kick some ass. They can't possibly start off very well -- youth everywhere and Thomas probably won't be 100% to start -- but should steadily improve throughout the season and end up as one of the Big Ten's better units.

We Have No Clue About

Bielema. Alvarez made a calculated gamble by naming Bielema his heir a year ago. He's never been a head coach anywhere, though his pedigree as a defensive coordinator at Kansas State is an excellent one. Now he gets to impose his philosophy on a football team for the first time. Wisconsin has been a good program for a decade now, but doesn't have the recruiting base a Michigan or Ohio State does and is thus in a precarious spot. Only time will tell whether Bielema can continue the legacy left by Colonel Kurtz.

The Wide Receivers. Both Hubbard and Randle-El could be great. They could also be useless.

An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt

Best Case

Everything is wonderful everywhere except cornerback and running back -- no one will replace Calhoun this year -- and Wisconsin misses nothing in the transition from Alvarez to Bielema. At Michigan early in the year will be an uphill battle as will that secondary versus Drew Tate, assuming Iowa finds some receivers, but Wisconsin can split those and sweep the rest of the schedule to go 11-1.

Worst Case

The offense has no bottom if Wisconsin finally comes up empty when it goes to its endless pile of running backs and the line plays like a bunch of sophomores the entire year, but there are four to six automatic wins on the schedule and they won't be bad enough to lose the rest of their games no matter what happens. 7-5 is the likely minimum.

Final Verdict

The pain of losing Calhoun will be immense, especially when you consider the loss of not on his rushing but his 53 receptions out of the backfield. People are pumping up PJ Hill as a good receiver, but Calhoun's diminuitive stature allowed him to make the quick shifts that got him open and moving in the right direction before the defense could react. Hill is 235 pounds. He might be able to catch, but defenses will be on him much quicker than they were Calhoun. Stocco will have to look elsewhere. The line will steadily improve but will probably cost the team a game or perhaps two early in the season.

The defense should improve from last year's ugly performance but teams with a tendency to spread the ball around and force extra defensive backs into the game will cause problems. The linebackers are unproven, too, but a good, deep defensive line will shield them from many problems and help shut down the run. Fortunately for Wisconsin, only Michigan and Iowa are threatening teams with experienced quarterbacks.

Wins: Buffalo, SDSU, Western Illinois, Illinois,
Probable Wins: @ BG, @ Northwestern, Minnesota, @ Indiana
Tossups: Penn State, @ Purdue
Probable Losses: @ Michigan, @ Iowa
No Chance: None

I withdraw my previous Wisconsin-pumping. They'll get to 9-3, but a weak schedule will be one of the main reasons.