Whether it’s in the huddle or the locker room, inside linebacker Chris Orr, a fifth-year senior for the University of Wisconsin football team, looks around and sees things in an entirely new light this spring.
“My freshman year I remember looking at guys like (Michael) Caputo and (Joel) Stave and being like, ‘Y’all are old,’ “ said Orr, who has started 16 games at UW. “I’m the old guy now. It’s kind of weird.”
Actually, it’s weird for everyone connected with the Badgers. When UW finally opened its spring practices to reporters Tuesday, it became abundantly clear this is the start of a new era in UW football.
Since Paul Chryst took over as coach in 2015, the roster has had uncommon stability. During Chryst’s first four seasons, the team had a 42-12 record and was anchored by a core group of players who became household names around the Big Ten Conference. The lineup was full of three- and four-year starters who were more than just starters. They were players who seldom, if ever, left the field, leaving precious few snaps for others.
It is the nature of college football, however, that players come and go. And now, almost all of UW’s old guard has departed.
“Everybody’s going to leave eventually,” Orr said. “People thought Stave was going to be here forever, but he too had to leave. We’ve just got new faces, a new hunger and a different attitude.”
Let’s start by discussing the old faces.
Gone in the offensive line are guards Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel and tackles David Edwards and Jon Dietzen. Deiter and Benzschawel were four-year starters, Edwards left one year early for the NFL draft and Dietzen opted to give up the sport due to injuries. As a group, that foursome combined for 163 starts at UW.
It is much the same on defense, where the veteran players who lined up down the middle of the field have graduated and, presumably, are headed for the NFL. Multiyear fixtures such as inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, nose tackle Olive Sagapolu and safety D’Cota Dixon combined for 136 starts.
Throw in three-year starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who is transferring to Florida State, and four-year kicker Rafael Gaglianone and there is a serious shortage of familiar faces participating in spring ball. This is one instance where you truly can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
When you combine those personnel losses with the departures a year ago of stalwarts such as tight end Troy Fumagalli, defensive linemen Alex James, Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy and defensive backs Derrick Tindal and Natrell Jamerson, you can see that UW’s two-year roster makeover has been extreme.
Here is another way of looking at it: After going for years with a veteran-laden lineup, Chryst has only two projected starters — junior tailback Jonathan Taylor and junior center Tyler Biadasz — who were full-time starters in both 2017 and 2018. Orr, senior guard Jason Erdmann and junior wide receivers Kendric Pryor, A.J. Taylor and Danny Davis are the only projected starters who played major roles in each of the past two seasons.
In no way does that mean all is lost or that inexperience should be available as an excuse as UW tries to rebound from a disappointing 8-5 season. Younger players in the secondary and along both lines received valuable starting experience last season. There also is solid returning experience at tailback, tight end and wide receiver.
The defensive backfield is a classic example of how things can change in one year. Other than Dixon, last year’s secondary was as green as it had been in many years and took its lumps. This year, the still-young secondary might be the deepest and strongest area of the defense.
Chryst acknowledged this year’s team has a new feel to it, even for him. But he quickly pointed out that departing players usually leave opportunity in their wake and that spring ball is important because everyone has a chance to get better.
With Biadasz and tackle Cole Van Lanen sitting out the spring, Taylor is using the time to get on the same page with new linemen he believes will be ready to make a seamless transition in the fall.
“It’s really building that trust and communication,” he said. “With the guys we had last year and the year before, we were on the same page. We knew when we got different looks what we were going to do. Now it’s just feeling out what’s comfortable for those guys in certain looks. It’s like, ‘Hey, what do you want to do here? Just communicate with me.’ It’s just about in the spring time building that trust so that come fall, it’s flawless.”
Because of the opportunities that are available, Orr senses an attitude change when he looks around a defense that might start only two seniors — himself and outside linebacker Zack Baun.
“I see hunger, man,” Orr said. “(I see) new faces and a different type of hunger. The guys that I played with when I was younger, they were here three years straight, four years straight. But it’s a different hunger now. Guys are eager to play. Guys are eager to earn the trust of the team and the defense. It’s definitely exciting.”
Keep in mind that even though spring ball has become a land of opportunity, UW isn’t starting over. It’s more like starting anew.