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7 things we learned and 3 we didn't from Wisconsin Badgers spring football practices
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7 things we learned and 3 we didn't from Wisconsin Badgers spring football practices

From the Check out the State Journal's coverage of Wisconsin Badgers spring football practices series
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A collection of the most interesting quotes and thoughts from Badgers players and coaches during spring practices.

Spring football practices are a special time of year for the University of Wisconsin, a program that prides itself on development.

New faces emerge and get opportunities to show what they’ve learned and how they’ve improved in the offseason and attempt to carve paths to the field.

“I think there's certainly a group of guys that haven't played that are doing a good job of taking advantage of the reps that they're getting,” UW coach Paul Chryst said after the first week of practices.

“As a coach, you certainly notice it and appreciate it. Their opportunity is now, and I think that all our guys got to understand that. What you do now will set you up for the work and in many ways the role you'll have in the fall. Then you’ve got another group that's got to do a better job of taking advantage of those opportunities.”

The Badgers wrapped up the last of 15 spring practices Friday afternoon. So who made the biggest impressions this spring? Who made the biggest leaps from last fall? What questions remain? Let’s take a look at seven things we learned and three we didn’t during UW’s month of training.

7 things we learned

1. Logan Bruss is moving back to tackle

UW associate head coach and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph shuffled around things this spring after losing two starters on the offensive line.

One move that was suggested as permanent was senior Logan Bruss moving from right guard, where he played in 2020, to right tackle, where he started almost the entire 2019 season.

“Bruss is probably our most consistent performer and yet still has a kind of let-it-loose, difference-maker type of ability,” Rudolph said. “Putting him in a spot where he can do just that was an emphasis for this season.”

Bruss was steady as usual throughout spring and provides an anchor on the right side of the line for UW.

2. Maema is ready for a bigger role

After a scary 2020 that featured multiple health concerns, sophomore inside linebacker Maema Njongmeta showed the physicality and speed the Badgers were hoping for out of high school. He looked particularly good as a blitzer, which UW’s inside linebackers have been used as more often over the past two seasons.

“He's more comfortable ... and he is having a good camp right now and is a guy that as he continues to move and we have more of this camp and then get into the fall, that I would feel good about him being in that spot,” position coach Bob Bostad said.

Njongmeta’s also got the stamp of approval from senior Jack Sanborn, who’s heading for his third year of starting this fall.

“He's got an ability to kind of just slip his way through traffic, which is sometimes insane, and sometimes you're like, ‘Wow, that's pretty impressive,’” Sanborn said.

3. Get excited for Jack Nelson

As a local recruit and the son of a former Badger, redshirt freshman guard Jack Nelson had high hopes behind him when he joined the program, and he’s starting to deliver on them.

“There is a physicality and explosiveness, a let-it-loose mentality that is infectious,” Rudolph said. “And I think that's what is really pushing him into the opportunity. And his athleticism shows up because he's going a million miles an hour. There's definitely some things from the standpoint of techniques and fundamentals that he needs to clean up so that he can be consistent.”

Nelson was in the first group at right guard throughout spring practices and often was able to move piles and finish blocks. With his quick first step, he’ll be a load to deal with on a pull or when he gets to the second level of the defense.

4. Depth developing at nickel

Senior Faion Hicks entered spring as the man to beat for the nickel corner spot, having played it last season.

“I want to be as versatile as I can be, whether that's playing outside or inside as needed,” Hicks said. “It was very fun to kind of get that experience last year. It kind of really fits my playstyle a lot and I could see myself playing a lot more of that in the future.”

But the cornerback group gave him some competition for that role and the other vacancies at the position this spring.

Junior Alexander Smith and sophomore Dean Engram worked at both nickel and outside corner when Hicks was at nickel, and both are pushing for increased roles this season. UW played in nickel for 70% of its snaps in 2020, according to defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, so three corners are playing starter’s snaps.

5. Tight end room is loaded

Senior Jake Ferguson was one of just two tight ends to catch a pass last season, but that looks like it will change this fall.

The tight end group as a whole had a strong spring, with players like junior Jack Eschenbach and sophomore Clay Cundiff starting to show a more well-rounded game. They also got a lot of opportunities to play, filling in at fullback and wide receiver for some practices.

One name to watch is Jaylan Franklin, a junior who moved from outside linebacker to tight end last season. When he’s been on the field, he’s shown speed and soft hands that add another dimension to the group.

“Jaylan, just off the tape, his athleticism, but I think when you add in his length and his suddenness … he's got the ability to be sudden and he can make DBs on our team look silly sometimes with how he changes direction,” tight ends coach Mickey Turner said.

‘You add the 6-6 piece into it and how he jumps ... I've had enough players where they're awesome at technique and you got to get the most out of them physically, he's a guy that's the other way. He's got great physical traits, and now I just need to whittle him down to being in a tight end.”

6. Spencer Lytle is coming

Outside linebackers coach Bobby April’s hopes for Spencer Lytle came to fruition this spring. April wanted Lytle, a sophomore who’s battled injuries throughout his career, to be “loud on tape.” Lytle responded with a spring in which he showed speed and good bend around the edge and proper technique in his coverage drops.

“In my opinion, the guy that's made the biggest step so far has been Spencer Lytle,” senior outside linebacker Noah Burks said. “I think that it's a (testament) to his work that he's done in the offseason. I think he's made some really big strides so far.”

Lytle was a four-star recruit and is starting to show why now that he’s healthy.

7. Devin Chandler is a playmaker in waiting

However he’s gotten the ball this spring, redshirt freshman Devin Chandler has shown a burst of speed that’s different than the rest of the wide receiver group.

Be it as a receiver or kick and punt returner, Chandler has shown flashes of being a game-changing player.

“One thing I've appreciated about Devin in his approach this spring is that he's been eager to learn,” Chryst said.

“Been taking a lot of reps and I think taking the coaching from coach Whitted and puts himself out there. Certainly has put himself in a position to get those reps, earned them. I think the second half of spring, you're starting to see a little bit more where he's playing a little bit more. I think anytime you get to the point where you're playing more and thinking less, then that I think you get a better, more accurate picture of their abilities.”

Keep an eye on how the Badgers try to use him this fall because he looks to be a potential big-play threat on every touch.

3 we didn’t learn

1. Who can play at RB behind Berger?

Injuries were the key storyline of spring at the running back position. Freshman Jalen Berger, sophomore Julius Davis and junior Isaac Guerendo were out for more than half of the practices due to leg injuries, limiting how much any player could show. Finding a backup for Berger is essential this offseason given how much the Badgers run the ball.

UW’s new running backs coach Gary Brown is optimistic about the group, but didn’t get much on-field time to work with them.

“These guys are like clay,” Brown said. ‘And it's given me an opportunity to mold them the way that coach Chryst wants them, the way that coach Rudy (Rudolph) wants them, and frankly the way I want them. So we're going to do our best to get them in a situation where they're exactly where we want them to be so they can help us win games.”

The Badgers have three running back recruits arriving in the fall, but a Rivals report Wednesday said UW is heavily recruiting transfer running back Chez Mellusi, a former four-star prospect who spent two years at Clemson. He played in 21 games for the Tigers as a backup for Travis Etienne and tallied 427 yards rushing and six touchdowns on 71 carries and five catches for 38 yards and a score.

2. Can Keeanu Benton play defensive end?

Junior Keeanu Benton wasn’t on the field as much because the Badgers play so much in their nickel package. The nose tackle was a force in the Badgers’ base defense but was used sparingly in nickel. Leonhard said Benton still was learning the different footwork and angles to attack from the defensive end position in nickel.

Benton unfortunately missed a good deal of the 11-on-11 work this spring and didn’t show how much he’s learned in that area. Coaches are still very high on Benton, but adding the defensive end work to his game would allow him to play more.

“Keeanu’s special,” defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej said. “He's got great athleticism, some really good understanding of pressure and how to use his body and use blockers’ momentum and position against them. Not many guys come through here with the talent, ability and the ceiling that he has.”

3. Who’s going to kick?

This question might not have an answer until late September.

Senior Collin Larsh is the incumbent starter, but sophomore Jack Van Dyke is pushing him for the placekicking role. Van Dyke clearly showed the bigger leg in spring practices, making multiple 40-plus yard kicks, but both have accuracy issues at times.

“It is a battle right now, a true competition,” special teams coordinator Chris Haering said. “Collin obviously has the game experience when it comes to field goals and PATs, but Jack's done a really good job in the offseason and going through this first part of spring practice competing for the job. So I see this competition continuing as we go into fall camp.”


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