As Badgers football players poured out of the tunnel and onto the field Friday at Camp Randall Stadium, their excitement was palpable.
The University of Wisconsin is 29 days from its season opener on that turf against Penn State, and the team’s training camp got underway as Mark Morrison’s 1996 hit “Return of the Mack” cascaded from the stadium’s speaker system.
Reporters were able to watch the first 30 minutes of Friday’s debut practice, most of which was position group warmups and special teams work. Still, there were some interesting bits of information to glean from the first look at this year’s Badgers on the field.
RB room healthy
The toughest position for UW coaches to judge this spring was the running backs because none of the players expected to compete for significant roles were healthy.
But position coach Gary Brown had his full complement of 10 tailbacks and two fullbacks Friday. If that remains the case as training camp progresses, the coaching staff can get a true sense of which backs can contribute this season.
The early front-runners are redshirt freshman Jalen Berger, the team’s leading rusher last season and one of the prizes of the 2020 recruiting class, and Chez Mellusi, a junior transfer from Clemson. Brown told reporters at UW’s media day Thursday that “the sweet spot” to reach would be having a third tailback to rotate in. That role could be filled by junior Isaac Guerendo, sophomore Julius Davis or freshman Braelon Allen.
Brown got the chance Friday to see his whole group and begin evaluating their play on the field rather than tape and potential.
Handful of punt returner options
One of the standouts from the short window of Friday’s practice that was open to reporters was punter Andy Vujnovich, who was skying balls deep across the field. His improvement and steps toward more consistency will be a story throughout camp.
The players catching said punts were even more interesting. Special teams coordinator Chris Haering said Thursday the competition was open for the punt returner spot, and four players were snagging balls Friday. Redshirt freshman receiver Devin Chandler, senior receivers Danny Davis and Jack Dunn and sophomore Dean Engram rotated fielding punts. Haering also said sophomore receiver Stephan Bracey will factor into the competition when he returns from a right leg injury.
UW was 13th in the Big Ten Conference last season at 2.9 yards per punt return.
Rucci at left tackle
Freshman offensive lineman Nolan Rucci, a five-star prospect and one of the highest-rated recruits in UW history, spent Friday’s work at left tackle.
That makes sense for a player listed at 6 foot 8 and 294 pounds. He was in the second group Friday as senior and projected starter Tyler Beach was in a walking boot and watching practice. Former five-star recruit Logan Brown was working with the first group.
From the infirmary
Redshirt freshman Cole Dakovich, a Waukesha product, is out for the season with a left leg injury, per UW’s first injury report. Dakovich didn’t play in a game last season, but he was pushing for a rotation spot at tight end behind starter Jake Ferguson.
Long snapper Duncan McKinley, a freshman from Eau Claire, also was confirmed to be out for the season after tearing the ACL in his left leg during spring practices.
Here’s a look at the players who were held out of Friday’s practice:
- OLB Ayo Adebogun (right leg)
- LT Tyler Beach (left leg)
- S Travian Blaylock (left leg)
- WR Stephan Bracey (right leg)
- ILB Jake Chaney (right arm)
- OLB C.J. Goetz (right leg)
- OLB Aaron Witt (right leg)
Check out the State Journal's coverage of Wisconsin Badgers football media day
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Get to know the Wisconsin Badgers' 2022 football recruiting class
Myles Burkett became the Badgers’ first Class of 2022 recruit when he announced his decision in January.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder from Franklin is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and Rivals, and showed great mobility and arm strength in his junior season. He battled back from a knee injury as a sophomore to throw for 1,236 and 11 touchdowns and rush for 180 yards and a score in a pandemic-shortened season.
He’s the first in-state quarterback to earn a scholarship out of high school since 2011.
As his recruiting stock started to rise, the Badgers were able to secure a commitment from Fall Rivers’ Barrett Nelson in late June.
The offensive tackle was 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds after his junior season, and his quickness off the ball has made him a load on both the offensive and defensive lines. Nelson is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star on Rivals.
He had offers from Iowa State, Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue and others before choosing UW.
Nelson’s father, Todd, was a Badgers offensive lineman in the late 1980s, and his brother, Jack, is currently an offensive lineman for UW.
After wowing UW coaches at a pair of camps, Monroe tight end JT Seagreaves accepted a scholarship offer in late June.
Seagreaves is an intriguing prospect for the Badgers — at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he has the physical frame to grow into an imposing tight end, and he possesses sprinter speeds. He’s averaged more than 21 yards per catch each of the past two seasons and was starting to gain more Power Five conference interested when he committed to UW.
Seagreaves is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and a two-star according to Rivals.
In multiple trips to UW’s campus in June, Cade Yacamelli was called “a football player” by UW coaches rather than locking him into a position. He earned a scholarship offer after an impressive camp workout and accepted it in late June.
The consensus three-star athlete was starting to earn more recruiting attention from Power Five schools when he accepted the Badgers’ offer. UW was the first Power Five offer for the 6-foot, 200-pounder. He’s played receiver, running back and defensive back in high school, but likely projects as a receiver or defensive back in college.
The Penn Trafford High School product has good quickness and change-of-direction that make him dangerous with the ball in his hands.
When A’Khoury Lyde accepted a UW scholarship offer in late June, he became the first player on the defensive side of the ball to commit in the 2022 class.
Lyde (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), a consensus three-star recruit, has strong ball skills and a willingness to hit that separates him from other cornerbacks.
The Wayne, New Jersey, native is the eighth-ranked player in his state, per Rivals.
The Badgers landed a tall, speedy receiver when Tommy McIntosh committed in late June.
The DeWitt, Michigan, native stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 200 pounds. He uses his body to shield off defenders at the point of the catch and does well catching the ball away from his body. His Hudl page lists a 4.47-second 40-yard dash time, and he has breakaway speed when he gets in the open field and can use his long strides.
A consensus three-star wide receiver chose the Badgers over offers from Cincinnati, Indiana, Iowa, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.
UW beefed up its defensive front by landing defensive tackle Curtis Neal.
Neal — a 6-foot-2, 310-pounder — had more than 25 scholarship offers, and reportedly was deciding between UW and Ohio State at the end of his recruiting process. Neal is a product of William Amos Hough High School in Cornelius, North Carolina, where the Badgers found receiver Devin Chandler in last year’s cycle.
Neal, with his size and strength, likely fits best as a nose tackle in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme.
Jim Leonhard may have found another rangy, smart cornerback to add to his secondary in Avyonne Jones, who committed in to UW in late June.
Jones — who hails from Southlake, Texas — was on campus the weekend of June 18 for an official visit and had narrowed an extensive offer list to UW and California. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back was previously committed to Oklahoma State, but retracted that commitment in late May.
With good recovery speed and a good feel for getting his hands between a receiver’s at the point of the catch, the consensus three-star prospect is a good fit for what UW cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat said he wants from his position group.
The Badgers landed the top-ranked player in Wisconsin for the sixth consecutive recruiting class when Joe Brunner committed the last week of June.
Brunner — a 6-foot-6, 300-pound prospect from Milwaukee who attends Whitefish Bay High School — is a consensus four-star recruit and a top-10 offensive tackle in the nation.
He held at least 16 Power Five scholarship offers, including ones from a majority of the Big Ten Conference, LSU, Notre Dame, Oregon and Tennessee.
VINNY ANTHONY II
Receiver Vinny Anthony II — a consensus three-star prospect from Louisville, Kentucky — joined UW's class on June 30.
Possessing a good burst of speed and long arms that extend his catch radius, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Anthony has a chance to play across the formation as a receiver.
Anthony chose UW over Cincinnati and Duke.
Austin Brown — who hails from Johnston City, Illinois, a small town outside of Carbondale — was considering offers from Boston College, Illinois, Michigan and Northwestern before choosing UW. The consensus three-star prospect had 21 known scholarship offers.
Brown committed to UW on the Fourth of July.
At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he has a good frame already and his high school film shows a willingness to lay big hits and attack blockers. He also plays quarterback for Johnston City.