A return to normalcy is near for Paul Chryst.
The University of Wisconsin football team is set to return to spring practices on Tuesday, their first since 2019 after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out last season’s sessions. He’s got a new staff of assistants set after hiring NFL veteran Gary Brown to lead the running backs. And he’s got a roster of players that experienced both highs and lows a year ago looking to soak in knowledge without the pressure of game day looming.
Speaking with reporters Monday, the Badgers’ head coach shared eagerness both for his new group of coaches and for returning to the practice field with his players.
“(I) certainly appreciate all the guys that were here and left, but the opportunities that we had and who we were able to add to our coaching staff, I think, are really, really good fits,” said Chryst, who’s entering his seventh season as UW’s head coach. “I’m excited for our staff, I’m really excited for our players and I think that’s where this spring will be nice for them to be able to get the opportunity (together).
“There is a different approach that you can take in spring ball. It’s got a little different pace to it, excited about all that.”
Chryst’s coaching staff was shuffled by the departures of Inoke Breckterfield (defensive line), Jon Budmayr (quarterbacks) and John Settle (running backs) this offseason.
UW looked inward to replace Breckterfield, moving former UW lineman and strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej into that role. Budmayr’s absence will be filled by Chryst, which allowed the latter to hire Hank Poteat to coach cornerbacks. Brown’s hire replaced Settle, who left the Badgers for Kentucky earlier this month.
The move divided coaching responsibilities for the corners and safeties between Poteat and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, respectfully, and Chryst will call plays on offense after Budmayr and associate head coach Joe Rudolph handled that last season.
Chryst said he wasn’t worried about balancing the roles of head coach, quarterbacks coach and play-caller.
“You just do it, right?” Chryst said when asked how he’d manage his duties.
“(I’m) not foreign to any of them. I think that helps and like everything, you also don’t feel like you have to do anything necessarily on your own. … It all started with what I thought was best for the program and for all of our players. The ability to add Hank Poteat to the staff … for that to really work meant for me to (coach) the quarterbacks. I’ve had experience with that, had experience being a play caller and now have had experience being head coach. (I) feel confident (I) can do all those and not compromise in any way.”
Brown was the only one of the new coaches Chryst didn’t have previous ties with — Poteat was a graduate assistant at Pittsburgh under Chryst. But he played in the NFL, as did Kolodziej and Poteat, and Brown coached in the NFL for a decade.
Chryst said Monday that former UW center Travis Frederick, who played his entire pro career with the Dallas Cowboys with Brown on staff, recommended Brown for the Badgers’ staff.
Getting his new coaches up to speed will be an ongoing process, as will getting players accustomed to spring practices — 44 players on the UW roster haven’t participated in them before. Chryst said that may lead to more meeting time for coaches to get on the same page, but that time together can be valuable.
“I think you also want to kind of create different opportunities for conversations,” he said. “Maybe you have a new set of eyes looking at something and maybe it’s a drill that we’ve been doing — is there a different way you can do it to get a little bit more out of the drill? Maybe something they’ve done before?
“For instance, with Gary, kind of find the starting point and then I think as he goes and gets to learn more about the offense, he’ll have ideas and suggestions, he’s got a ton of experience. I think Hank and Ross could bring the same defensively. You want to make sure that you’re hearing from them, and also I think that those conversations are good for the guys that have worked together. You’re always trying to find the best way to do something. We ask that of our players: ‘How can you find a way to get better today?’ And I think the same applies to us as coaches.”
From the infirmary
A full spring roster or injury report was not released Monday, but Chryst said freshman defensive lineman James Thompson Jr. will not participate in spring practice after suffering a knee injury last season against Michigan. Chryst also said receiver Stephan Bracey and cornerback Dean Engram, both redshirt freshmen, won’t be available to start spring practices.
After an elbow injury ended his season after two games, junior defensive end Matt Henningsen will participate in spring practices, Chryst said.
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Redshirt freshman Graham Mertz struggled to find consistent rhythm after a record-setting performance in his starting debut. Mertz completed just under 57% of his passes, threw four touchdowns and five interceptions the rest of the season after completing 20 of 21 passes against Illinois, tying a program record with five touchdowns.
Cutting down on turnovers — Mertz also lost two fumbles last season — is the first step, but doing so will be the result of establishing better timing in the pocket. A majority of Mertz’s interceptions last seasons were due to holding the ball too long or trying to throw a pass too late and the window of opportunity closing.
Coach Paul Chryst’s track record of coaching quarterbacks at UW includes the heights of Russell Wilson’s stellar season in 2011 and a through line of consistent, smart play. Spring practices are the time to meld that coaching with Mertz’s talent so the quarterback can take a big step forward this fall.
Jalen Berger showed flashes of being the next in the line of great Badgers tailbacks last season, displaying good vision and a suddenness to his cuts that make him hard to tackle. He led UW last season with 301 yards rushing despite playing four of the seven games — he missed the opener against Illinois due to a nagging injury from training camp then missed games against Iowa and Minnesota due to COVID-19.
The Badgers have a solid starting running back with Berger returning, but the depth behind him is a significant question mark. Isaac Guerendo was expected to be in the backfield rotation last season, but he was limited to one game due to unspecified injuries. Julius Davis is another option, but the redshirt freshman only played in one game last season as well.
UW has three freshman tailbacks joining the roster this summer, but spring is a chance for someone to push for reps, especially with new running backs coach Gary Brown’s fresh eyes on the group.
Junior Jake Ferguson returning to the Badgers instead of taking a shot at the NFL not only gave the team its leading receiver back, but also a guide for a talented but inexperienced group of tight ends behind him.
Redshirt freshman Hayden Rucci established himself as the top blocking option in the second tight end spot and likely will be used in a similar role next season, but associate head coach Joe Rudolph said last fall he felt Rucci was developing as a receiver, too. Sophomore Jack Eschenbach was the only tight end besides Ferguson to tally a catch last season.
Cam Large, a 2020 recruit, and Jack Pugh, an early enrollee in the 2021 class, also are waiting in the wings as receiving threats. Ferguson said in December that spring practices are pivotal for this group to develop.
“I couldn't imagine myself after that first year if I didn't have a spring ball,” Ferguson said. “That's literally where I gained all my knowledge, how I got really good at my technique — blocking or route running, whatever, and they didn't get that (in 2020). And I think that's really tough on them. Not just physically, but mentally as well. Just not being able to learn, day in day out, getting all the coaching.”
UW’s offensive line wasn’t the dominant force that fans have come to know in 2020, but that could change in 2021.
After filling in well at left tackle in the second half of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, that spot is former five-star recruit Logan Brown’s to lose. Center Kayden Lyles will return from a knee injury in the fall, and the right side has established veterans in guard Logan Bruss and tackle Tyler Beach. Josh Seltzner is presumably a frontrunner for the left guard spot, but touted 2020 recruits like Jack Nelson and Trey Wedig could be pushing for a role there.
Few players behind the aforementioned group have much experience. Cormac Sampson provides depth at center and freshman Tanor Bortolini played extensively when Lyles and Sampson were hurt last season. How the young linemen take advantage of spring reps will determine how much competition there is for roles this fall.
UW got welcomed news this offseason when seniors Danny Davis, Jack Dunn and Kendric Pryor all decided to come back for their final years in the receiver room. Davis and Pryor battled injuries most of the season, with Davis missing five games and Pryor four. Dunn emerged as a solid option on short routes, posting career highs in catches (28) and receiving yards (255).
Freshman Chimere Dike had strong moments last season, but he had trouble getting open consistently.
This will be the first spring practices the receivers get with position coach Alvis Whitted, who was hired last year just before the pandemic hit the U.S. Whitted’s task this spring is to develop the younger group of receivers — players like Dike, Devin Chandler and Isaac Smith — into dependable options this fall. Chandler showed good burst as a returner last season, and he might be a candidate for a head-turning spring session after two classes of receiver recruits failed to break through.
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