August 25, 2010

Tom's Takes: Recapping a week of open practice

MADISON - For the past week, I have had the distinct pleasure of kicking back while taking in Badger practice inside Camp Randall. That also means I've been able to sit back and think about this team for a good amount of time while they've been practicing 30 rows in front of me.

So now, with camp closed to the media, I'd like to share some of the thoughts about this team that I've been able to gather over the past 12 practices.

Best offensive player:

In my mind, and based off of several strong practices, I'm going to have to say it's a tie between Nick Toon and Gabe Carimi. Now, don't call me crazy because I know full well about John Clay, Lance Kendricks and Scott Tolzien and what they're capable of. I just feel that when it comes to playmakers on the Badger roster, Toon stands above the rest. And when it comes to having one of the premier offensive lines in the Big Ten, I had to select the anchor of that group.

From what I saw during practice Toon was basically unstoppable. He runs such smooth routes, gets in and out of his breaks quicker and more succinctly than anyone else on the roster and finds a way to get open for Tolzien.

In the red zone, he's the ultimate threat because his size and athletic ability, particularly his leaping, will separate him from the average receiving threat. Toon, in my opinion, will have a great shot at becoming the team's first 1,000-yard receiver since Brandon Williams did it in 2005.

Up front, Carimi is the foundation of a rugged offensive line that strives on wearing opponents down with continual physicality and fine-tuned fundamentals. The left side of the line, with both Carimi and John Moffitt will likely get plenty of carries in its direction this season.

Clay, the reigning offensive Big Ten player of the year, is going to have another monster season assuming he stays healthy and a lot of that is going to do with the left side of that line. Carimi is a bulldog and one that doesn't tread lightly on a any single play. He exerts his body, his mind and athleticism into every play as if it's a crucial third and one with a chance at sealing the game.

So in my opinion, with Toon and Carimi, as well as several other fantastic skill position players, the Badger offense is and has looked fine throughout fall camp. They'll be the strength of this squad.

Best defensive player:

It's going to sound obvious and I've searched for somebody better, but I'm going to say Chris Borland.

Did I fool you?

Considering many thought I would probably go with J.J. Watt, who is a 1A of sorts in this discussion, but Borland was too hard to pass up.

The kid from Ohio is just too much of an athletic force to be reckoned with. He's faster out of his breaks than he was a season ago. He's about as sure a tackler as the team has and he is always around the ball making plays. And he abused multiple right tackles throughout the past week.

Quick story: While the team was enjoying a water break last week sometime, Borland neglected his chance at hydration for the opportunity to go field balls from the jugs machine. After reeling off about 10-15 one handed catches from approximately 10 feet at a high speed, Borland decided it was time to dust off the old soccer skills. So instead of fielding balls with his hands, Borland attempted to kick the ball up to his midsection with his feet. From approximately 10 feet away, and at a high speed, it was quite the spectacle even though he wasn't able to complete his intentions.

I know Watt is going to play an instrumental role in the success of not only the defensive line but also the entire defense in general, but he'll have a solid sidekick with Borland anchoring what seems to be a pretty solid linebacker core.

Most Improved:

When it comes to answering this question, I'm going to answer it in the purest form. Dezmen Southward may be the most improved player on the team, but because he's so raw and new to the game of football, he likely won't see much action in the actual secondary. He'll be all over the field on special teams, but probably not as much in the actual safety rotation.

Nonetheless, from where Southward was a year ago at this time before a wrist injury hampered his progress, it's light and day. He looks confident out there, he's one of the fastest players on the team and he is starting to make great breaks on the ball. Should he continue to progress throughout the season he will be a player as his career unfolds.

As far as players that will see regular playing time, I'm going to say Patrick Butrym is the most improved. He has elevated his game to a very high level as evidenced by his ability to generate penetration on both pass and rushing downs and his ability to slip through the seams and make tackles.

Entering fall camp many questioned the defensive tackles, but I feel that won't be as big of a problem as many once thought. With Butrym, Jordan Kohout, Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer separating themselves, the front four could do some damage this season.

Most impressive newcomer:

I'm going to take it in a different direction and say Chris Ash. From day one last spring the new secondary coach made it a point to constructively criticize each and every player in the secondary when they make both a good and a bad play. He's a sound technician and believer in fundamentals and in my opinion, that's exactly what the secondary needed.

He's a proponent of pressing receivers with the corners and sending safeties on blitzes. He's seems to be a very strong teacher with a passion for the game and I think his coaching style is going to help the secondary, another position of question entering fall camp, reach new heights.

As far as players go, I've been very impressed with both James White and Manasseh Garner. They are two freshmen I suspect will see a decent number of reps during their freshman seasons.

Garner is another big body at wide receiver, but one with great speed. He's also got a knack for making tough catches in traffic and finding ways to get open. Then White, probably the most talked about freshman in camp, is the prototypical change of pace back the team has been looking for since Lance Smith left the program.

He's quick, decisive and explosive. During Saturday's scrimmage it seemed like White was breaking into the secondary on a consistent basis and reeling off 20-plus yard runs. He also has soft hands and a knack for picking up blitzes in adequate fashion. He's a player to watch as this season unfolds and he could make his earliest impact as a punt returner.

Biggest team weakness:

Quarterback depth is my greatest concern when it pertains to the 2010 Badgers. That's not to say Jon Budmayr isn't going to be a great player, I just feel that he's still in the learning phase of the game which makes it more difficult to go out there and perform in a loose manner.

He's thrown a bevy of interceptions throughout camp that stem from poor decision-making and has struggled with getting his passes knocked down by defensive linemen. In time, I really feel Budmayr may elevate his game to an extremely high level, I just fear this season, should his number be called, he may not be ready. And with Curt Phillips on the mend from a torn ACL, he is the best option to backup Scott Tolzien should something go wrong at any point.

The defensive line will be adequate like it was a season ago. I feel the linemen in the middle are close to being as serviceable as players such as Jeff Stehle and Dan Moore were a season ago, plus there should be plenty of rotation so guys should stay fresh. I love the way Allen plays the game as he's proven to be a bit of a pit bull in the trenches. He'll be a good player and the valuable experience he'll gain as a true freshman will help him down the road.

And as I mentioned before, the secondary will be better than people believe. I'm not saying they're going to contend for a national ranking as one of the better secondary units, I'm saying they'll be adequate and make the plays that will help get the defense off the field.

Biggest security blanket:

The specialists. Philip Welch had his ups and downs a season ago but looks to be kicking with a high level of confidence so far in camp. Maybe having Kyle French working behind him has kept him more focused. Then again, making kicks in practice are a little different than making them in a game. Still, I fully trust Welch to have a solid season this year.

As far as punting goes, UW's in safe hands with Brad Nortman. He still has the strongest leg on the team and seems to have found progression in his ability to pin defenders deep in their own territory. In short, the specialists are the team's biggest safety blankets. The offensive line probably comes in second in that regard.

What I'm excited about:

The team chemistry seems to be at a very high level already this season. I've noticed in the four years I've covered UW football that the teams that perform the best have the highest chemistry and togetherness. I know that's not rocket science, but I truly believe this team senses they are capable of something special this season and they're staying focused and in-tune with the task at hand.

I get the feeling that they're aren't many, if any, "me" guys on this squad. Everyone wants to win and they want to win for each other. There are also many leaders on this squad. Whether it's Tolzien leading the offense or Watt anchoring the defense, there are plenty of leaders on this team that will keep people grounded.

That, in my mind, is what separates this team from others with high expectations, particularly the 2008 squad that limped to a 7-6 record.

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