Wisconsin Badger football preview part 1: The offense

Badger helmet

By Jake McCormick

Three years ago, Wisconsin Badger football coach Bret Bielema did something the legendary Barry Alvarez never could – win a school record 12 games. With that, Badger fans breathed a collective sigh of relief for a program’s seemingly bright future without the man who changed a football culture faster than Emperor Palpatine converted Anakin Skywalker. But when the most exciting part of a football game is whether or not your team wins the coin toss, you know there are some serious kinks in the armor. Now they seem to be showing up again, as Bielema has responded to his record-setting debut with consecutive seasons of increased losses, including an embarrassing 42-13 thrashing at the hands of Florida State at the 2008 Champ Sports Bowl and a 2008 3-5 record in Big Ten play.

Bret BielemaThe Wisconsin offense has always been a run-first pass-second unit that just expects its quarterbacks to limit mistakes while making plays with their legs as well as arms. However, the 2008 Badger offense struggled outside of its running game, courtesy of inconsistent quarterbacking. Wisconsin returns six offensive starters from last year, including playmakers at the tight end, wide receiver, and running back positions. But the team’s overall success hinges on the man who handles the snap, and Bielema needs a steady captain if he wants to return for a fifth season as the Badger head coach.

2008 record: 7-6 (3-5 in the Big Ten)
Returning starters: 6
Total Offense: 399.23 (37th in the nation, 3rd in the Big Ten)
Scoring Offense: 27.46 (47th, 5th)
Rushing Offense: 211.15 (14th, 1st)
Passing Offense: 188.08 (84th, 7th)

Notable returns:
Tight end Garrett Graham, WR Issac Anderson, RB Zach Brown, RB John Clay, WR David Gilreath, OT Gabe Carimi, C John Moffitt

Key losses:
Tight end Travis Beckum, RB P.J. Hill, G Kraig Urbik, OT Eric Vanden Heuvel

I still have migraines from thinking about the heated Dustin Sherer vs. Allen Evridge battle that took place last year. I would’ve been fine with just snapping the ball to P.J. Hill or David Gilreath, but apparently their arms are slightly less accurate than the actual quarterbacks on the roster. Sherer is returning and will compete against redshirt freshman Curt Phillips for the starting job. Phillips looks more like Brooks Bollinger and Mike Samuel, except he can hit a moving target. Sherer is more of a traditional quarterback, and that could work against him if Bielema realizes a game manager is more important to a run-first team than a gunslinger. In NFL terms, this means I would take Chad Pennington over Brett Favre, but I guess that does make sense at this point in time.

I think Sherer has the edge right away because he had valuable experience last year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Phillips makes a Bollinger-like debut and resurrects some faith in an offense filled with potential playmakers. Phillips or Sherer need to establish their place as the field general early in camp, because going into the season with more questions about the most important position on the field won’t help fan confidence in Bielema and his players.

Running back:
John ClayThis position never has and never will be a problem for the Badgers. Although last year’s leading rusher P.J. Hill left early for the NFL Draft, he was never a breakaway runner and benefited from getting a five yard head start behind five guys averaging 6’5” 300 lbs. Sophomore John Clay turned in a promising freshman campaign with 884 yards and 9 touchdowns and will make Wisconsin fans forget all about a twinkle-toed big man who couldn’t take many hits. Clay is a bruiser and has big play written all over him. Combined with change of pace back Zack Brown, the duo will easily match Hill’s production and continue Wisconsin’s tradition of a great running game. I’m so confident in the depth and talent at the running back position that I don’t think any other explanations are needed. This is the bread and butter of the Wisconsin offense.

Wide receivers/tight ends:
Wisconsin also has a recently established tradition of turning out quality wide receivers like Lee Evans and Chris Chambers. This year’s squad doesn’t have a bonafide star, but David Gilreath catches lightning in a bottle every week with his versatile run/catch/return game. As long as he stays healthy, Gilreath gives the Badgers the very poor man’s version of Percy Harvin, and will mostly play the slot to keep opponents guessing when he goes in motion.

Receiver Nick Toon came on strong at the end of last year and will make a bid to start the season opener. At 6’3”, Toon is built for big plays, and he will have more than a few opportunities to live up to father Al Toon’s legacy as a Badger. Isaac Anderson looks to be the frontrunner to start as well given deep threat Kyle Jefferson’s multiple blows to the head and questionable attitude. The Badger receivers are filled with potential, and if they click with whoever lines up under center, they’ll jump around all the way to the top of the Big Ten standings.

Garrett GrahamWisconsin quarterbacks have also had the luxury of solid pass catching tight ends over the past few years, and 2008 leading receiver Garrett Graham should continue to establish himself as one of the elite tight ends in the nation. He’s a workhorse blocker and always seems to find a way to get open without drawing too much attention, much like ex-Badger and current Houston Texan starter Owen Daniels. Converted receiver Lance Kendricks gives Wisconsin a dangerous tight end combination that should perform much better than last year’s set of Travis Beckum/Graham as long as both stay healthy.

Offensive line:
Departed guards Kraig Urbik and Andy Kemp, and tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel combined for 121 career starts, and their experience and chemistry will definitely be missed. Tackle Gabe Carimi and center John Moffitt are the only two returning starters from last year’s squad, but I’m not exactly worried about a major drop off in production. The Badgers do a good job of preparing for offensive line turnover by holding a corn eating and milk chugging contest to determine which recruits are worthy enough to take cheap shots to the knees from Ohio State. Even with this method of recruitment, the team always finds great run blockers to fit into their scheme. Of course, it’s easy to plug 6’5” 300 lbs linemen into a system that just asks them to hit somebody every play and let the running back do the rest.

Wisconsin does a great job of getting consistent starts out of most of its linemen, but also doesn’t take their durability for granted, which helps younger players like Jake Bscherer and Josh Ogelsby prepare to take over starting spots. Of course, the line was also very good at summoning the yellow flags in 2008 and killed more than a couple drive with false starts and holding penalties. Nothing is more frustrating or confidence-killing, and this absolutely needs to be cleaned up if Wisconsin wants to even sniff a January bowl bid.

The Wisconsin Badger offense had its fair share of troubles last year, and most of those problems can be resolved by better quarterback play and less penalties. The Badgers have playmakers at each position except under center, and Sherer should have built enough confidence as a leader to bring those skills out of guys like Clay, Gilreath, and Graham. The Badgers will run early and often, but they won’t get ahead in every game they play and will need to respond accordingly when they fall behind. A solid quarterback elevates everyone else around him. If Sherer or Phillips can answer the call at three in the morning, the Wisconsin offense will return to elite status in the Big Ten.