On the first day of spring practice Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, the large Jumbotron standing guard over the student section beyond the north end zone displayed the word “beat” on the visiting team’s nameplate and “USC” in the home team’s spot.
Whether the scoreboard hasn’t been reprogrammed since before Wisconsin took on the Trojans in the Holiday Bowl, or some other mysterious reason accounts for this display, it served as a reminder that just four months ago, UW was preparing to take on a defense Justin Wilcox had presided over in 2015. Although Wilcox was let go by USC before it played the Badgers in San Diego, Calif., he’s only been the defensive coordinator for Wisconsin since late January, and Saturday was his first chance to get on the field with his new defense.
Among the offseason of change the Badgers have experienced, the biggest shift they’ve undergone is the transition at defensive coordinator from Dave Aranda, who left for LSU, to Wilcox. Redshirt senior linebacker Vince Biegel, the Badgers’ leader on defense, said the first practice with Wilcox went smoothly.
“Wilcox, it was a little bit of a learning experience to kind of get a feel for him, how he coaches and also how we play,” Biegel said. “I thought coach Wilcox was going to be an awesome fit for us, I’m excited for the future, excited about what else he can bring to the game and make the Wisconsin defense a better defense.”
It’s only natural to compare Wilcox and his predecessor, Aranda. While Aranda brought an even-keeled approach to the game, his equilibrium sat at an extremely intense level. He wasn’t prone to outbursts and screaming and yelling, but he demanded a lot of his players and approached practices and games with microscopic meticulousness. Biegel couldn’t help but think about how that style compared to Wilcox’s demeanor as Saturday wore on.
“I was actually kind of thinking about that in practice… coach Wilcox and coach Aranda were both kind of intense guys,” Biegel said. “I think that’s the presence they have on the field, they’re both very knowledgeable in the game and they’re going to be great assets for our defense moving forward.”
Wilcox will bring some new intricacies to the table this season, including employing a safety-linebacker hybrid that has some parallels with how Michael Caputo was used last season, but for the most part, not much will change. Aranda laid down the model of loading the field with flexible athletes and plugging them in to different alignments and using varying blitz schemes, and this formula will still be present, even if the roster has evolved.
“Same scheme, different verbiage is the best way to look at it,” Biegel said. “A lot of the same scheme, we’re gonna still see the 3-4 defense. Different play calls. Tight-four is now Tulsa, instead of peso, it’s now nickel. So it’s the same core defense, but just different verbiage. And I think that’s what the guys out here were learning today, the different verbiage, the different vocab, getting comfortable with coach Wilcox, him becoming comfortable with our defense and our verbiage.”
Biegel revealed Satuday he’ll be playing field linebacker, meaning he’ll be playing the outside linebacker position with more open grass between the football and the sideline. That position formerly belonged to Joe Schobert, who worked out in UW’s Pro Day this past Wednesday after participating in the NFL Combine in late February. Biegel believes he’ll transition well into the new position, but he admitted it was strange not playing with Schobert, a close friend and fellow defensive leader, for the first time in his career.
“It was, it was my first practice without playing with my partner in crime, Joe,” Biegel said. “But he’s on to bigger and better things and I wish him the best of luck with his endeavors. Me and Joe live right next to each other, so we’re still staying in touch and hanging out. I’ll be following him and and I know he’ll be following me where we go.”
Biegel’s switch to field linebacker is just one of the personnel decisions Wilcox will face this spring. It appears redshirt junior Jack Cichy will stay at inside linebacker, rotating with sophomore Chris Orr and redshirt sophomore T.J. Edwards, while redshirt junior T.J. Watt plays boundary linebacker, based on Saturday’s rotations. Wilcox has the green light to make those changes, but head coach Paul Chryst insisted personnel changes involve a collective decision-making process among all the coaches.
“When putting together the staff, and I’ve always appreciated this as an assistant, and same as the head coach, you want guys to take ownership, but it’s collective,” Chryst said. “It’s never been about one person. That’s one of the reason’s why Justin’s a great fit, was that he approaches it the same way. No one’s going to do it on their own and I think we can all help each other.”
While Chryst does give his coaches a fair amount of autonomy, the second-year coach does get the final say in most matters.
“Specifically with Justin, I’m going to bounce things off of him, he’s going to bounce things off of me, him and [offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph] are going to talk. It takes everyone,” Chryst said. “Certainly want guys to have ownership, I think that makes you a better coach, holds you accountable. And yet, in the end it’s on me and that’s a good thing. Every coach is going to have a strong say.”
The Badgers continue spring practice with sessions on Tuesday and Thursday before taking a week off for spring break.