With the University of Wisconsin football team’s first spring practice in two years in the books, the program released a roster with few changes Tuesday.
UW coach Paul Chryst said Monday the staff hadn’t moved many players between position rooms this offseason, but added it could happen as practices unfold. The only position change on the roster was redshirt freshman Preston Zachman moving from inside linebacker to safety.
“Kind of always believed that you know you need some time to kind of see where guys best fit,” Chryst said. “So I think that certainly if we had any ideas, you’d have done it right after the season so they have kind of the offseason to prepare themselves for it.”
Chryst said the players’ progress in their winter strength and condition program prompted him to start spring practices later than usual. The results of those workouts are evident on the spring roster.
The largest jumps in weights from last season’s roster to this year came from a quarterback, a specialist and the offensive line. Redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Wright jumped from 215 pounds last year to 257 pounds on the spring roster. Redshirt freshman kicker/punter Gavin Meyers added 21 pounds and is listed at 196.
Freshman lineman Ben Barten added 16 pounds to his 6-foot-5 frame and is up to 285 pounds. Junior center Cormac Sampson, now solidified as an offensive lineman after playing tight end earlier in his career, was up 15 pounds to 305. Junior tight end Jaylan Franklin, who was moved to the position before training camp last fall, was up 15 pounds to 243.
Redshirt freshman outside linebacker Kaden Johnson added 13 pounds and is listed at 240. Al Ashford III, an early-enrollee freshman cornerback, posted on social media earlier this month he was up 11 pounds in under two months. He posted he came to campus weighing 169 pounds and the spring roster lists him at 180.
Two key linemen dropped double-digit points, with senior center Kayden Lyles down 11 pounds to 323 and senior defensive tackle Bryson Williams down 16 pounds to 280.
Sophomore defensive end Boyd Dietzen, junior receiver Taj Mustapha and junior offensive lineman Aaron Vopal were not listed on the roster.
There were two number changes for returning players, with junior linebacker Leo Chenal switching from 45 to 5 and long snapper Peter Bowden going from 63 to 47.
COVID protocols different in spring
The players will not be tested daily for COVID-19 during spring practices, Chryst told reporters on Monday.
Players, coaches and staff members took rapid-result antigen tests each day during the season, with positive results being confirmed by a PCR test. According to a school official, the team’s current protocol calls for players to take PCR tests each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at campus testing sites. These tests are the most accurate available and results are typically returned within a day.
Fourteen of UW’s 15 spring practices are scheduled for Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays. The final spring practice is slated for Friday, April 30.
“Certainly try to do everything you can to be smart with everything that’s happening, but I think part of what makes it go smooth is that our players have gone through it a lot, too,” Chryst said. “They’re, I don’t want to say they’re used to it, but you’re familiar with what needs to be done. The difference is they’re testing outside of the building. But on the other hand, for them to be able to work out, for them to practice that, that’s what they’ve got to do. There’s no problem; they’re going to do it.”
Five things to watch on defense during Badgers’ spring practices
Five things to watch on Wisconsin's defense as spring football starts
RELOADING AT DEFENSIVE END
After two years of productive play at the defensive end spots from Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand, the Badgers must find a new top unit. Loudermilk is making a run at the NFL while Rand stepped away from football due to injuries.
Junior Matt Henningsen, who missed five games last season after an elbow injury, and sophomore Isaiah Mullens are the most experienced players in the group and can serve as the starters, but building up the talent behind them will be crucial this spring.
Freshmen Cade McDonald and James Thompson Jr. played in two games each last season, but Thompson suffered a season-ending right leg injury against Michigan and his availability for spring practices is unlikely. Two names to watch are freshmen early enrollees Mike Jarvis and TJ Bollers. Jarvis is the only true defensive line recruit in the 2021 class and Bollers — a touted four-star prospect — is someone Leonhard believes can play an “outside linebacker-plus” role, potentially playing along the line at some point.
RISING BATCH OF OLBs
The Badgers have been churning out pro-ready outside linebackers in recent years, with players like Zack Baun, Vince Biegel, Andrew Van Ginkel, Leon Jacobs and T.J. Watt becoming NFL starters. The current group of outside backers has high-level talent, but didn’t have the most productive year in 2020. UW had 11 sacks last season, with four coming from their outside linebackers.
Both starters return in senior Noah Burks and freshman Nick Herbig, and key rotation players like C.J. Goetz, Spencer Lytle, and Marty Strey are also back. This group could be defined by the development of freshmen Kaden Johnson and Aaron Witt. Johnson was a four-star recruit and saw action in three games last season, while Witt played in five games and tallied a strip-sack in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl win over Wake Forest.
Bollers again is a player to watch in this group, as is junior Izayah Green-May. It’s been a difficult pair of seasons for Green-May, with a thumb injury derailing him in 2019 and a right-arm injury limiting him to one game in 2020.
DEPTH BEHIND CHENAL AND SANBORN
When inside linebacker Jack Sanborn announced his return for another year at UW, it gave the Badgers one of the best tandems of linebackers in the Big Ten for another season. Sanborn (52) and Chenal (46) led the Badgers in tackles and Chenal (three sacks, seven hurries) was the most productive pass-rusher on the team.
Senior Mike Maskalunas will play his final year at UW this fall after serving as the backup at both inside ‘backer spots last season. This spring could be a showcase for young players in this group like Tate Grass, Maema Njongmeta, Malik Reed and Jordan Turner to push for roles.
It’s difficult to earn snaps on defense behind a duo like Chenal and Sanborn because they rarely leave the field, but Grass proved to be a valued special teamer last year, playing all seven games. Ensuring this crew is ready if Chenal or Sanborn were to suffer an injury is pivotal to ensure the defense doesn’t come unglued without one of its stars.
FINDING BURRELL’S REPLACEMENT
The only vacated starting role in the Badgers’ defense without a proven replacement is at safety. Eric Burrell played in 48 games and made 26 starts over four seasons at UW, but the Badgers need to find his replacement this spring as he makes him way to the pros.
There are options for the spot in players like Titus Toler and John Torchio, who have seen time over the past two seasons. Leonhard could opt for Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder to man both safety spots after the two rotated at one last season.
Impressing this spring could help a player get his foot in the door of the starting lineup before a pair of four-star freshmen arriving this fall — Braelon Allen and Hunter Wohler — make the competition at safety even tougher.
UW cornerbacks were short on highlights in 2020. None of the team’s seven interceptions came from corners, they were beat for big plays on multiple occasions in rivalry games at Northwestern and Iowa, and they didn’t take the step forward one would expect from a group that had between six and seven players with significant playing time under their belts.
New cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat inherits a room with multiple starters back, including Faion Hicks and Casear Williams, and young players needing to become more consistent like Donte Burton, Deron Harrell and Semar Melvin.
One position in this group that is of key importance this spring is the nickel back, or slot corner. Hicks filled that role most of last season, and he could once again, but UW needs to have more options to move inside other than one of their better outside corners. Or, if one of the younger corners can improve on the outside this spring, UW can feel more comfortable having Hicks move to the slot in sub packages.