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January 30, 2013

Pressing Q's before Signing Day

With Signing Day just one week away, BadgerBlitz.com takes a look at the pressing questions for Wisconsin and first-year head coach Gary Andersen.

Staff members Jon McNamara, John Veldhuis and Jon Gorman contributed to this report.

The new staff seems to be putting a higher priority on speed on both offense and defense. Do you think this is a good idea?

Gorman: Adding team speed is never a bad thing, however, there's an opportunity cost. Guys who are fast are usually "more raw" in terms of actually football skill or else they would have been four- and five-star prospects. By bringing in raw athletes, the staff is taking a risk that they will have to be coached up in order to play at a high level in the Big Ten. I think you'll see the Badgers - if they keep this recruiting style up - with a higher ceiling compared to teams of the past, but with a lower floor as well. A lot is going to come down to Andersen and his staff's ability to develop players.

Veldhuis: Yeah, I think it's a good idea if it's done carefully. The Badgers have been lacking in the "speed and athleticism" categories recently, and it really came back to bite them last year. Just look at the wide receivers - Jared Abbrederis is deceptively athletic, but he was their only deep threat and the Badgers didn't really have anyone else who could get past their man and open up big plays in the passing game. Adding that extra element will be crucial to their success over the next few years, because we saw last year that having a great set of running backs can help you win, but the passing game needs to be a threat, too. The only caveat I'd add is that while speed is important, they need to make sure the guys they recruit and sign have enough football smarts to put their physical tools to good use. Having blazing speed is great, but a 40-yard dash isn't the end-all be-all.

McNamara: I think a lot of it has to do with the staff's ability to develop talent. Players like Jakarrie Washington, a lightly recruited prospect from the East Coast, prove Andersen is willing to take a gamble if the speed is there. If anything, it's an exciting approach. I think we'll also have better idea of how Andersen operates once he's able to attack the 2014 class as the head coach at Wisconsin.

With the new staff turning more to JUCO players, we are seeing Wisconsin pursue some recruits who stray away from Bret Bielema's "two parent home" background. Should that be a concern?

Gorman: I think it should be. And that isn't to say every kid with some questionable comments on their Twitter page, or every kid with an arrest for underage drinking, is going to be a problem for the staff. But it's certainly more of a risk than in the past when they have brought in kids with mostly sparking backgrounds. This will be something to look at a few years down the line to see if it became an actual issue.

Veldhuis: No, I don't think so. Guys end up in junior college for a variety of reasons, and I've never thought that a 'JUCO' label should automatically disqualify a player from consideration. Some guys are under-recruited, and some guys just need a fresh start. JUCOs can help a team, especially in positions of need like the Badgers have in the secondary this year. My biggest concern for the Badgers would be if they bring in too many JUCO players. A few here and there is fine, but too many can sap a team's depth and stunt the growth of other players who will be there for four or five years instead of two or three. And if there is something in a player's past that made them enroll in junior college, I don't have a problem with that as long as it stays in the past. I think the Badgers probably feel the same way.

McNamara: Junior college prospects certainly break with the tradition at Wisconsin but can be very effective in filling holes and patching up past recruiting mistakes. I think a lot of the alumni who follow recruiting take pride in Wisconsin being a "clean program" and Bielema certainly had a lot to do with that. But if they fit at UW academically and socially, there's no reason not to plug them in.

Quarterback Tanner McEvoy is visiting Wisconsin this week in what will likely be the biggest official visit between now and Signing Day. How important is it that Wisconsin land McEvoy? And if they miss on him, how should they proceed?

Gorman: I think McEvoy could be the biggest get of the class. I was recently able to watch a full game from his junior college season, and he simply has more raw talent than most of the Badgers' quarterbacks (I'll reserve judgment on Bart Houston). He has above average arm strength and tremendous athletic ability. McEvoy's biggest area of weakness is his footwork as he consistently fails to step into throws, resulting in balls that land short of their targets. If he can get that fixed - and he would have three years to do so - he would be a major weapon for Andy Ludwig.

Veldhuis: The Badgers could use another quarterback, so that makes his visit pretty important. Three scholarship quarterbacks are set to graduate after this season in Curt Phillips, Danny O'Brien and Jon Budmayr, which will leave the Badgers with just Joel Stave, Houston and current 2014 commit Chance Stewart for the 2014 season. All three quarterbacks are pretty highly regarded, but we've seen what poor depth at the position can do for a team. Think back to 2011 - if Russell Wilson hadn't stepped in and saved the day, the Badgers probably would've had to start Joe Brennan as a redshirt freshman. The fact that McEvoy is a good prospect is just icing on the cake. But if they miss on him, it makes holding on to Stewart's commitment for another year even more important.

McNamara: While I think it would be a huge statement on the recruiting front, McEvoy won't make or break the recruiting class for Wisconsin. Should they miss on him, I still think it's important to take a quarterback in this class. It will help if the Badgers can get in-state prospect Connor Senger to walk on this summer.

What are your thoughts on Dave Aranda moving the Badgers to a 3-4? Could it help recruiting?

Gorman: I like it for them. The Badgers have employed a bend but don't break style of defense for the past few seasons and while it has been successful at times, they have rarely been able to hang with more of the more explosive offenses. By employing a 3-4 they will attack far more and presumably force more turnovers, which was another weakness of recent Badger defenses. If nothing else, it will be more entertaining to watch.

As far as recruiting goes, I think there will be major benefits. In the 4-3, you really need dynamic, game-changing type players on the defensive line and with a few exceptions, they Badgers haven't gotten that. In a 3-4 they just need one tackle and two ends, none of which have a primary responsibility of rushing the passer. Between guys like Craig Evans, Chikwe Obasih, Conor Sheehy and Billy Hirschfeld, UW should be able to fill that slots from in-state alone.

With the decrease in importance of the line comes an increase in importance of the linebacking corps, which is another thing that works in the Badgers' favor. The state produces a number of linebackers annually and they should be able to get two inside linebackers who can attack downhill and two outside linebackers who can rush the passer.

The biggest issue will be the secondary, and the staff will likely have to go out of state for the kind of athletes needed to play man coverage on an island. The success they have in recruiting cornerbacks and safeties could define just how potent Aranda's 3-4 becomes.

Veldhuis: I think a 3-4 defense could help in recruiting, since you could sell that scheme to top defensive talents as the system that will get them to the NFL. And for running a 4-3 defense for all of these years, I think the Badgers are set up to run the 3-4 pretty well, at least initially. I'm not so sure how the rest of their younger players on the depth chart would fit the scheme, but it certainly sounds like the Badgers will be recruiting to the 3-4 from here on out. I like the 3-4 for it's creativity and how flexible it is, but it's important to remember that while about half of the NFL runs the 3-4, there's a reason it's not as prevalent in the college game. The Badgers would be the only Big Ten team running the 3-4, and I think part of the reason it's a little more rare at this level is it's a more complicated scheme than the 4-3. That's not to say that the Badgers couldn't make the switch effectively with good teaching from Aranda and his defensive staff, but a caution that the switch will probably take a little time for the players to get used to and to show its full effectiveness.

McNamara: Again, it's an exciting move for fans. I would worry about landing the nose tackle necessary to run the defense effectively on a consistent basis, but tapping into the Polynesian market in Utah and Hawaii could help.

How would you grade the staff Andersen has put together so far? What do they need in a wide receiver coach to compliment the rest of the roster?

Gorman: It was vital for Andersen to keep the in-state pipeline going, so retaining Ben Strickland was a great choice on his part. Getting Thomas Hammock to stay was also a major victory for him. T.J. Woods, Aranda and Bill Busch all came from Utah State with Andersen and at this point, fans need to trust they are all capable of doing their jobs.

Jay Boulware was brought in from Auburn as the new tight ends coach, and it was a tremendous hire. Boulware has success both coaching tight ends and special teams, and is the kind of recruiting presence needed as an assistant coach. Ludwig is more of a question mark. He has a lot of experience after making offensive coordinator stops at Utah, Oregon, California and San Diego State, but the fact that he keeps making lateral moves could have Wisconsin fans a little nervous. It doesn't seem like he will deviate from what has worked for Wisconsin recently, so I think his hire should be greeted with what can best be described as cautious optimism.

To round out the roster, Wisconsin could really use another stud recruiter, preferably with Midwest ties. Outside of Strickland, Hammock and Busch a little bit, no one has recruited a number of areas that have been fruitful for the Badgers in the past. Look for them to either bring in someone who has a presence in either Ohio or Illinois. Chris Beatty, the recently fired ex-Illinois offensive coordinator, could make a lot of sense here.

Veldhuis: I like the new staff for the most part. It was good planning to keep both Hammock and Strickland for continuity and recruiting purposes, and Chad Kauha'aha'a certainly has a great resume. Aranda sounds like another solid defensive coach, and you have to like that he'll probably try and run more press and man coverage with the secondary if they have the athletes to do it. Busch has a good resume as a recruiter, and it's good to see that they brought in Boulware to coach both the tight ends and special teams, and that his special teams units have had a lot of success in coverage.

I was a proponent of keeping Bart Miller as the offensive line coach, but I can understand why Andersen went with Woods, and as of now Woods sounds like someone that will coach the line effectively. Ludwig was probably the most questionable hire in my mind, but he wouldn't be the first offensive coordinator to struggle under Jeff Tedford, so I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. It certainly helps that most of this staff has worked together at various points during their careers, which you couldn't really say of the staff last season.

As for the wide receivers coach, it would certainly help the Badgers if they can find someone with a little more experience recruiting the Midwest. I believe that good recruiters can recruit anywhere, but it would be a mistake to let their pipelines to states like Ohio run dry.

McNamara: To start, it's commonplace for a new coach to clean house and bring his own guys in, so Andersen was just following suit. Keeping Strickland and Hammock was a smart move and I think Aranda could really do some positive things at UW. Woods may have the most pressure on him with Miller a favorite amongst fans and players.

As mentioned above, I think the wide receivers coach should have ties to the Midwest, specifically Ohio. Expect that hire to be announced around Signing Day.


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