Saturday marked the final day reporters could watch fall camp for the University of Wisconsin football team and the first two and a half weeks of practices have been more enlightening than usual.
Until wide receiver Quintez Cephus announced on Twitter Saturday that he was stepping away from the team to deal with an unspecified legal matter, nothing earth-shattering happened in camp. UW is in the top 10 in most preseason rankings and its talent matches its ranking. And though there have been injuries, there seem to be no long-term issues.
That doesn’t mean everything is set in stone. Far from it.
The coaches have been heavy on evaluation, giving multiple players opportunities with the first unit at positions — cornerback, defensive end and tight end — that seemingly remain wide open 12 days from the opener against Western Kentucky. The first 15 practices were also used to develop depth, including spirited competitions for spots in the rotation at tailback, quarterback, offensive line, outside linebacker and safety.
What follows are impressions of new developments since the opening of camp:
Quarterback: Third-year starter Alex Hornibrook shows a greater mastery of the offense, but the big story at quarterback is depth. There are many years in UW’s past where Jack Coan and Danny Vanden Boom would have challenged for and possibly won the starting job. Coan has a quick release, excellent speed and plays with confidence. Vanden Boom has size and smarts.
Tailback: No one is going to unseat Jonathan Taylor, who looks a bit smoother catching the ball than he did last year. However, Chris James and Taiwan Deal, perhaps knowing this is their final go-around, are really running hard. Plagued by injuries throughout his career, Deal is healthy and could give UW the power back it needs. True freshman Nakia Watson has a decent burst at 231 pounds but the others have a better understanding of the offense.
Offensive line: When Michael Deiter moved inside to left guard, it was assumed that Jon Dietzen would head to the bench. But Dietzen slid out to left tackle and didn’t look a bit out of place while seemingly beating out Cole Van Lanen for the job. After offseason surgery on both hips, Dietzen is moving better than he did last year. Though the line returns intact, the depth took a hit when Kayden Lyles moved to defense and Patrick Kasl and Brett Connors left the program. Still, the three primary backups — Van Lanen, Jason Erdmann and Micah Kapoi — are starter quality.
Tight end: Zander Neuville, the best blocker in the group, missed time with injuries, giving Kyle Penniston, Jake Ferguson and Luke Benzschawel plenty of snaps. All made big plays in the passing game but none really distanced himself from the pack. Penniston will probably start out as the top receiving tight end in part because he blocks better than Ferguson.
Wide receiver: The returning big four of Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor were impressive throughout camp. Cephus slowly but surely regained his big-play ability after his season was cut short by leg surgery and consistently made big plays in the last week. Pryor has probably been the star of camp on offense, making big play after big play in the passing game. True freshman Aron Cruickshank, though reed thin, has used his speed and quickness to make plays and might be called upon to play a significant role if Cephus isn’t available. If Cruickshank isn’t ready, local products Adam Krumholz and Jack Dunn have had productive camps.
Defensive end: The greatest area of concern at this point has to be end. Nose tackle Olive Sagapolu dropped weight and appears quicker, but the end spots have been an open audition since Garrett Rand was lost for the season with an Achilles injury and Isaiahh Lowdermilk had knee surgery — both in June. Though he’s expected back sometime in September, Lowdermilk hasn’t practiced, leaving plenty of reps for others. Amazingly, Lyles has all but secured one end spot after moving over from offense in June. He’s stout, powerful and already knows how to use his hands. Aaron Vopal opened camp at the other end but seemingly has given way to walk-on Matt Henningsen. Vopal has size, Henningsen is quicker. One wonders where the interior pass rush will come from, though.
Outside linebacker: Andrew Van Ginkel has taken a step up now that he’s a starter. He will be the top pass-rushing threat and showed again in camp that his ball skills in pass coverage are off the charts. The only surprise is that Zack Baun, who missed last season with a foot injury, looks like he could be the next in a long line of athletic outside linebackers at UW. Baun is on the slight side, but he’s fast and quick.
Inside linebacker: Injuries forced Chris Orr into the background during his career, but he resurfaced in camp with his boundless enthusiasm and occasional splash plays. With T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly entrenched as starters, Orr will give UW three outstanding, experienced inside linebackers.
Cornerback: A lack of consistency has kept Dontye Carriere-Williams, last year’s third corner, from replacing Nick Nelson as UW’s lockdown corner. In fact, Carriere-Williams has been relegated to the second team in recent practices. But that’s about the only disappointment at cornerback. On the plus side, the many young corners competing with Carriere-Williams for the two vacant starting spots have been highly competitive and shown good speed and athleticism. Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks have been the most consistent, but rangy Deron Harrell has intriguing potential and length. Madison Cone, who gained some experience last year, has been held back by injury but could be the slot corner. Led by Donte Burton, the group of true freshmen aren’t backing down, either.
Safety: Scott Nelson, who redshirted as a freshman, looks like a natural at free safety, using his length and instincts to consistently intercept passes in practice. Veterans Patrick Johnson and Eric Burrell could play roles, too, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see true freshman Reggie Pearson work his way into the safety mix.
Kicker: Back and leg injuries have kept Rafael Gaglianone out of practice, but no one seems overly worried about the best kicker in the Big Ten. Though Colin Larsh and Zach Hintze aren’t Gaglianone, they are viable options based on their camp performances.