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March 20, 2011

Wisconsin looks to build on Big Ten title

Wisconsin is coming off back-to-back double-digit victory seasons. Last season, the Badgers won their first Big Ten title since 1999. Now coach Bret Bielema will try to keep Wisconsin among the elite.

But the Badgers have lots of work to do, mostly on offense. Quarterback Scott Tolzien, a two-year starter who compiled a 21-5 record, and tight end Lance Kendricks, who led the team with 43 catches, were seniors last season. Running back John Clay turned pro after running for 1,012 yards and 14 touchdowns. And All-America offensive linemen Gabe Carimi, the Outland Trophy winner and Big Ten offensive lineman of the year, and John Moffitt are gone.

In addition, the defense needs a playmaker with star end J.J. Watt, an All-America selection and the team leader in sacks and tackles for loss in 2010, off early to the NFL.

Bielema's staff was shaken up. Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren left to become coach at Northern Illinois, and secondary coach Chris Ash was bumped to coordinator. Running back coach John Settle left for the same job with the Carolina Panthers and nickel backs coach Greg Jackson bolted for the San Francisco 49ers to be assistant secondary coach.

The Badgers hired DeMontie Cross to coach safeties and coordinate special teams, Thomas Hammock was tabbed to coach running backs and Dave Huxtable to coach linebackers.

But the biggest moves may have been two non-moves, as offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and offensive line coach/run game coordinator Bob Bostad opted to remain in Madison after being offered similar jobs at Texas.

WISCONSIN AT-A-GLANCE
Bret Bielema will look to fill a lot of holes, but the Badgers still have talent.
THE BASICS
Coach: Bret Bielema
Last season: 11-2 overall, 7-1 in the Big Ten. Lost 21-19 to TCU in Rose Bowl.
Spring dates: March 22-April 23.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (4): C Peter Konz, WR Nick Toon, T Ricky Wagner, G Kevin Zeitler.
Defense (6): T Patrick Butrym, CB Antonio Fenelus, FS Aaron Henry, T Jordan Kohout, E Louis Nzegwu, LB Mike Taylor.
Special teams (2): P Brad Nortman, K Philip Welch.

Here's a look at the Badgers as they get ready for spring practice.

Positions of strength

Yes, RB John Clay left early for the NFL, but cry not for the Badgers. They remain loaded at running back with Montee Ball and James White. Ball ran for 996 yards and 18 touchdowns, while White was a freshman sensation with 1,052 yards and 14 scores. Additionally, senior Zach Brown is back from a redshirt season and will provide depth and be a solid third-down back. The staff also is high on Jeff Lewis, who redshirted as a true freshman. FB Bradie Ewing is one of the top blocking backs in the Big Ten and gives coaches a lot of versatility in the backfield. This impressive collection of runners will be escorted by a line that returns three starters in Ricky Wagner (who will move from right to left tackle), Peter Konz (center) and Kevin Zeitler (right guard). After he started a handful of games as a true freshman, Travis Fredrick is back after redshirting in 2010 and will be plugged in at left guard. Right tackle is appears to be wide open, with Josh Oglesby and Casey Dehn battling. The kicker/punter duo of Philip Welch and Brad Nortman should be one of the best in the nation.

Help is needed

With Curt Phillips still recovering from a second knee injury in as many years, Jon Budmayr has the inside track on the quarterback job. He has the tools to be another classic "game manager." Keep an eye on the cornerback spots. Antonio Fenelus is back, but the Badgers have to replace Niles Brinkley on the other side. Texas natives Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie will battle for the spot, but neither impressed last season. Wisconsin would love for true freshmen Jameson Wright and Peniel Jean to give Smith and Cromartie a serious run. The defense needs to improve at end. Though J.J. Watt was a monster on the strong side, the Badgers generated little quarterback pressure from Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert on the other side last season. Both must be pass-rushing threats with Watt off early to the NFL.

3 guys to watch

QB Jon Budmayr: He'll enter spring drills as the starter and will be given every opportunity to carry that title through fall camp. Budmayr, a sophomore, has taken only a handful of snaps and has just 10 career passing attempts, but he has the tools to be an effective Big Ten quarterback. Budmayr (6-0/205) always has been knocked by critics for his height but will have a chance to prove critics wrong this spring. Perhaps no player on the roster has more riding on this spring than Budmayr.

DT Jordan Kohout: He has the potential to have a breakout 2011. A starter as a redshirt freshman in 2010, Kohout was solid but didn't do much to separate himself from the pack. Carrying that experience with him into the offseason, the former four-star prospect has a chance to emerge as a leader in 2011.

TE Jacob Pedersen: He is expected to be the next productive tight end/H-back in Wisconsin's offense, following the likes of Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham, Travis Beckum and Lance Kendricks. Pedersen (6-4/238) showed flashes in 2010 and will be given every opportunity to thrive this season as a sophomore.

The pressure is on

OT Josh Oglesby: He was ranked the No. 1 offensive tackle and No. 10 overall prospect in the nation coming out of high school in 2007. But with just 15 career starts, Oglesby hasn't come close to matching the hype. Oglesby (6-7/335), a fifth-year senior, has one more chance but will have to fight for a job at right tackle after his 2010 season was cut short by a knee injury. Oglesby is coming off knee surgery and won't be 100 percent for spring drills, but he needs to make some kind of impression on the coaches during spring practice.

The buzz

Barry Alvarez's shadow no longer looms quite so large now that Bielema has a Rose Bowl berth on his resume. He has this program humming as he enters his sixth season in Madison. But Bielema has many areas to solidify this spring, with the most important being at quarterback. Is Budmayr the guy? And playmakers are needed on defense. The return of LB Chris Borland from a shoulder injury that ended his season in September could be a boon to the defense. He was the 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, but he will be limited this spring. Bielema has a nice blend of youth and experience to make this another strong Wisconsin team.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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