March 23, 2009

Wisconsin has plenty of work to do

Wisconsin was considered a sleeper to win the Big Ten title in 2008, but the Badgers finished a disappointing season with a loss in the Champs Sports Bowl to finish 7-6.

The Badgers must upgrade their offense and rebuild the front seven on defense. They need three new starters on the defensive line and two new starters at linebacker.

They also need to determine if John Clay can be the every-down tailback.

Here's a look at the Badgers as they open spring practice.

Wisconsin AT-A-GLANCE
Bret Bielema needs to do a lot of work this spring.
THE BASICS
Coach: Bret Bielema
Last season: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten. Lost to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Spring dates: March 24-April 18
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (6): WR Isaac Anderson, T Gabe Carimi, WR David Gilreath, TE Garrett Graham, C John Moffitt, QB Dustin Sherer.
Defense (5): CB Niles Brinkley, FS Shane Carter, LB Jaevery McFadden, E O'Brien Schofield, SS Jay Valai.
Special teams (2): P Brad Nortman, K Philip Welch.
Positions of strength

Not many. The tight end spot should be strong with Garrett Graham in the fold, along with Lance Kendricks and Mickey Turner. And kicking (Philip Welch) and punting (Brad Nortman) should be among the best in the Big Ten.

Help is needed

It's condition critical at defensive tackle with Jason Chapman and Mike Newkirk gone. Just two tackles with any experience are back: Patrick Butrym and Jeff Stehle. Central Michigan transfer J.J. Watt figures to win one tackle spot. The search is on to find his counterpart. An inability to recruit quality tackles the past three years could prove costly. Wisconsin also needs two new starting linebackers and three new starting offensive linemen.

Keep an eye on

RB John Clay: With P.J. Hill off early to the NFL, Clay will get the bulk of the carries after a solid debut as a redshirt freshman in 2008.

LB Blake Sorensen: The departures of DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas mean Sorensen a junior needs to come up big. He was considered the team's No. 4 linebacker in 2008. Now, he needs to become a big-time starter on the strong side or weakside.

DT J.J. Watt: He was named the scout team defensive player of the year while sitting out 2008 after his transfer from Central Michigan. Watt needs to be a star on the line if the defense hopes to shine.

His time is now

Free safety Shane Carter played below expectations last fall and ultimately was benched halfway through the season and replaced by walk-on Chris Maragos. It's now or never for Carter, a senior who has the skills to be an all-league performer.

The buzz

Who will be the quarterback? Spring practice will open with five candidates. That number will be pared down by the end of spring drills, but the competition likely will continue into the fall. No doubt, a largely ineffective corps of wide receivers figures to improve if the Badgers get more consistent quarterback play.

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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