With March Madness now over and the weather starting to warm, Wisconsin fans’ attention can, at least for the time being, switch back over to the football team.
The Badgers are nearly two-thirds of the way through their spring practice schedule, which means that the spring game is on the horizon. The contest will be held in less than two weeks on April 21 at 6:30 p.m. Rather than the traditional Saturday afternoon slot, the Badgers will be playing under the lights on a Friday night, which could have an interesting impact on attendance.
Compared to other programs both in the Big Ten and nationally, Wisconsin’s spring game tends to be fairly lightly attended. Perhaps this time change will help draw in a larger crowd. But whether it’s taking place on a Saturday afternoon or a Friday night, it ultimately still is a glorified scrimmage and I wouldn’t bank on droves of fans coming out for this year’s game.
But those that do make the trip to Camp Randall Stadium in a couple weeks will get a sneak peak at a Badgers squad that will enter the 2017 season with as high of expectations as any Wisconsin team in recent memory.
Though the Badgers do have several key starters to replace on defense and Jim Leonhard will be taking over for Justin Wilcox at defensive coordinator, one would still expect them to be pretty solid on that side of the ball this year. The real interest lies in the offense, the part of Wisconsin’s game that held them back at times in 2016.
In the backfield, Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale are gone to graduation, leaving the top two spots in the depth chart up for grabs. The presumed frontrunner for the starting spot at running back is Bradrick Shaw, a guy who made the most out of his limited reps during his redshirt freshman campaign. Shaw ran for 457 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry last season, and showed off a combination of patience and explosiveness when running between the tackles that can be lethal to opposing defenses.
The other guy currently competing for the No. 1 spot is Pittsburgh transfer Chris James, who sat out last year after following head coach Paul Chryst to Madison. Given that one of his big strengths is pass protection, James looks to be in line to succeed Ogunbowale as UW’s primary third-down back, though both he and Shaw will likely get plenty of touches once the regular season rolls around. They certainly look like they have the potential to be the sort of two-headed monster in the backfield that Wisconsin football has become known for. Things could get even better after Taiwan Deal recovers from ankle surgery that’s kept him out of spring practice.
Jazz Peavy and his endless supply of Jazz sweeps will be back to lead the receiving corps, but Chryst and Co. are looking to find a replacement for the departing Rob Wheelwright. Quintez Cephus has been absent in recent practices due to his father’s tragic death, but he had been earning rave reviews for his performance in spring practice and looks poised to earn himself a starting spot.
Of course, at the heart of it all on offense will be quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who will no longer need to split playing time with Bart Houston. There are obviously some kinks to work out in his game—namely arm strength—before the start of next season, but Hornibrook brings a different level of field awareness and deep ball accuracy to the table that we don’t usually see out of Wisconsin quarterbacks.
With a favorable schedule and a defense that figures to be a strength once again, just how much noise the Badgers can make as they compete for a Big Ten title and a potential berth in the College Football Playoff may rest on what they get out of Hornibrook and the offense.
You obviously never want to draw too many conclusions from spring practice, but the spring game will at least give Wisconsin fans a small glimpse at what to expect come fall.