CHICAGO - Dressed in a sharp blue vest with a nifty motion 'W' necklace, Wisconsin senior Jaevery McFadden was quick to point out the 2006 version of Badger football when asked if the lack of expectations was bothersome entering the 2009 season.
"When we went 12-1, I think we were picked second or third (from the bottom) in the Big Ten and I think it's no different this year," he said at day two of the Big Ten Media Days in downtown Chicago. "I got no problem with that. I actually kind of like it.
"I think we play better when we are the underdogs, whether it's the game or the season, whatever you want to call it. It's us against the world so let's show people what we can do."
It was announced Monday that Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State were picked by members of the media to finish in that order during the upcoming season. Though the Big Ten Conference does not release the entire poll, it is widely believed the Badgers fell somewhere in the middle of the pack after a 7-6 campaign in 2008. Still, some like flying under the radar.
"I do because you don't have to meet anybody's expectations," UW senior defensive end O'Brien Schofield said. "You can't be talked down as a team. For some reason, since I've been here, as good as we've done in certain seasons, or maybe not, we've never done good enough. We've never got enough respect.
"As hard as guys work, as hard as we put in on the offseason, we never got that respect during the season. I think it's a good thing."
In 2006, the Badgers finished tied for second place with Michigan and secured a birth in the Capital One Bowl against Arkansas. Now, with not many pundits or analysts high on the Badgers, UW looks to emerge as the dark horse yet again.
"People probably don't have us (and) don't expect us to be that much this year," McFadden said. "But we know who we got, what kind of players we got and what kind of attitude we got. I feel like, like I said, we are going to surprise some people.
"It's not a bad thing, its just motivation. Coach Bret Bielema is a motivational guy and he's probably going to let that sink in to his head a little bit and get ready for training camp and spark us up a little bit."
On Monday, Bielema made it known that he thought up to 14 incoming freshmen were capable of contributing their first season on campus. On Tuesday, all three players representing Wisconsin echoed that sentiment.
"Just their work ethic," Schofield said. "They came in and bought right into the program. Usually you see freshmen come in and they struggle. I haven't really seen that big struggle. Guys are just following the lead of the seniors and the leaders on the team and working out real hard."
In particular, all three players were very impressed with Travis Frederick, an offensive lineman that enrolled early and participated with the team during spring camp.
"He impresses me in the weight room" UW senior tight end Garrett Graham said. "We call him 'Big Thunder' for a reason. On the squat rack, he's pretty impressive."
McFadden, though impressed with the progress Frederick is making, was also high on a couple of fellow defensive players, including several freshmen.
"We got guys like Mike Taylor, pretty good guy, pretty explosive," he said. "If he just stays healthy, he will definitely help this year. We got some incoming freshmen, Chris Borland, pretty athletic guy, big guy too, very athletic guy I should say. I like the way he moves.
"Nick Hill is surprising me. He reminds me of DeAndre Levy. He's from Milwaukee (and) he's a freak athlete. When we went against each other, he beat me in some of the competitions. He's a pretty beasty athlete. I'm really excited about him."
Hailing from Florida, it was also clear McFadden was excited about a couple of players from St. Thomas Aquinas, even though it was that high school that ended his senior season of prep football with a 10-7 win in the playoffs.
"Conor O'Neill from Florida, I got to know him too," McFadden said. "Conor comes from a good school, good background in football. His mind is like a steel trap. We were going over the play in the film room and he got it down just like that and he don't forget. It's pretty cool."
Finally, even though Dezmen Southward has only been around football for a short period of time, he has made quite the first impression this summer in Madison.
"He's a freak athlete too," McFadden said. "He can jump out of the world, out of the building. I think he's played like one year of football. He was a basketball guy. They told him to play some football and he got some scholarships.
"So he's going to be nice too."
More quarterback talk:
Monday, Bielema told reporters he considers Jon Budmayr in the race for the starting quarterback spot entering fall camp. On Tuesday, Graham, the only offensive representative in attendance, also had good things to say about the Illinois native.
"He's done a lot of good things," he said. "He's picked up on the offense rather quickly. I'm not sure the extent of what he knows, but what he's been in on, he's done a good job.
"I mean, I'm glad it's the coaches decision and not mine, but he'll definitely be in the mix at the start of camp. Wherever it goes from there, who knows?"
With the start to camp less than two weeks away, senior Dustin Sherer will arrive Aug. 10 as the starter. During spring ball, it was obvious Sherer had improved and took it upon himself to get better. But, with Curt Phillips nipping at his heels, anything can happen leading into the season opener.
"As long as the best guy plays, that's all I want" Graham said. "To give our team the best opportunity to win ball games."
Under new strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert, many UW players and coaches are raving about the progress being made in the strength and conditioning program.
After revamping winter workouts, the Badgers were able to get out of spring ball relatively healthy, much improved from what happened during spring ball of 2008 where injuries were as common as incomplete passes. Now, with summer coming to a close, the same progress has been made.
"Personally, I've made some huge strides," Schofield said. "I'm impressed with where I'm at from where I was at last year. Just at weight standpoints, last year I was at 232, now I'm real close to 250. I'm about a pound or two off 250. I'm trying to get bigger, faster and stronger."
It seems some of the biggest gains have come on the defensive line, a unit that lost three starters from a season ago that is looking to replace the talent. One potential contributor is freshman David Gilbert, who has taken the offseason opportunity to greatly enhance his body.
"He's put on 30 pounds since he's been here," Schofield said. "He's about 230 right now. He's just a big kid. I think he's going to be something like (Brian) Orakpo at Texas the way he came in and just put on weight so fast. He's strong. He's only 17-years-old and sometimes it's hard to believe when you look at him and be like, 'Wow, this dude has four or five more years left to add to his frame or to his game.'"
Then, of course, there is J.J. Watt, who figures to play a prominent role on the defensive line this year.
"He's about 292, 295," Schofield said. "He's just a beast man. That's all you ever hear about J.J. Watt. He's just a beast. For him to be that big, he's an athletic freak."
-Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker on playing Wisconsin in his team's conference home opener:
"A key to the historical rivalry game, I mean you can't beat playing for Paul Bunyan's Axe in the first Big Ten game at the new stadium. It's going to be something special. I'm excited for it. Every time we get our calendar, I always circle the Wisconsin game because that's always one I look forward to. So it will be an exciting time."
-Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster on playing Wisconsin in his team's conference home opener:
"It's huge. There is no way of downplaying the significance of Paul Bunyan's Axe playing Wisconsin. It's one of the great rivalries in college football. When we get to that game, it's always a lot of fun. We got a couple of games before that, but it's interesting that Wisconsin will open the Big Ten season for us in TCF Bank Stadium. It's unique."
-Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton on Northwestern's resurgence:
"I think it's tremendous. The support that we had in the bowl game, coach Pat Fitzgerald was saying that was one of the greatest showings by fans since the Rose Bowl. So everybody out there is really starting to get the buzz of Northwestern football."
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