When star running back Montee Ball announced he was returning to Madison for his senior season just days after the Badgers lost the 2012 Rose Bowl, a baseline of expectation was set for the 2012-’13 campaign.
It was not clear who would take over for Russell Wilson under center and nobody could have foreseen six assistant coaches leaving the staff, but a Wisconsin team with a Heisman trophy finalist in its backfield is expected to produce victories.
New coaches were hired, an experienced quarterback was summoned from the Atlantic Coast Conference—again—and the preseason No. 12 Badgers enter this campaign heavily favored to return to Indianapolis Dec. 1 as the Leaders Division champion.
It almost sounds easy.
That would be understating the fact that UW is replacing half its 22 starters and both kicking positions. Glossing over the tremendous offensive production that has moved on. Keep in mind, as head coach Bret Bielema pointed out late last week, this coaching staff has never navigated a Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium together.
This sort of turnover has become common in certain areas of the UW roster. The offensive line seems to be tasked with replacing All-Conference and All-American talent each winter. This offseason was no different, as guard Kevin Zeitler and center Peter Konz were selected in the first two rounds of the National Football League draft. Redshirt junior center Travis Frederick, who is moving from guard to replace Konz, thinks the Badgers will be all right.
“The guys we lost were great, obviously, but I think we’ve replaced well,” the 6-foot-4, 338 -pound Frederick said. “The guys that were playing next to them have stepped up and we’ve just sort of shifted over. The people that got some experience last year now have the experience. “
Though only 11 starters return, the Badgers return 19 players who have started at least one game. In the secondary, redshirt senior Devin Smith returns after missing nearly the entire 2011 campaign with a broken foot. Redshirt junior free safety Dez Southward is also a “newcomer,” despite starting three games, including the Rose Bowl, a year ago. That means despite replacing two stalwarts in Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus, the athletic secondary has the chance to be better than a year ago.
“Going 48 out of 50 isn’t good enough, it’s about getting those last two plays and preventing big plays,” Southward said of the unit’s focus in preparation. It’s not the athleticism, it’s not the toughness. We have all those things.”
Every offseason brings questions. How fast can transfer quarterback Danny O’Brien assimilate to the offense once the bullets start flying? Can the Badgers’ depth at running back help balance inexperience at wide receiver? Will the defensive line rotation be able to provide enough of a pass rush to give the secondary a chance and also allow star linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland the freedom to make plays?
These questions will not be completely answered after Saturday’s tilt with Missouri Valley Conference foe Northern Iowa. Never mind the fact that the Panthers are a Football Bowl Subdivision squad—albeit a good one, UNI is 99-40 under head coach Mark Farley— no team is a finished product after one game. However, this is the first chance to begin putting together answers.
It is the first opportunity for a newly assembled coaching staff to put their construction project through a stress test. For some, the day will feel familiar. For others, new roles await.
“For me, it’s exactly the same,” said Matt Canada, the first-year offensive coordinator hired after a year in the same position at Northern Illinois. “ The (assistant) coaches will be on the field where they can coach their positions and … I’ll be in the box coaching from upstairs, which is what I’ve always done.”
“Totally different,” offensive line coach Mike Markuson said of his role on game day. “I’m with a new head coach for the first time in 20 years, but it’s been refreshing and this is an awesome, awesome place.”
Markuson worked in the Southeastern Conference at Ole Miss and Arkansas with former head coach Huston Nutt.
“I’ve yet to be coached in a game by Coach Markuson, so I think that’s going to be the next test of where we are,” Frederick said. “Practice is the same whether it’s spring or fall or game prep, it’s at least pretty close. Where there’s another chance for something else to come out will be during a game and post-game prep.”
Saturday is the next step in a project that—even under the continued guidance and steadfast philosophies of Bielema—will still be of new eight months in.
It is also the first step that counts on paper.