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January 3, 2014

Badgers need to replenish talent, and fast





Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen made his way to the podium, 15 minutes removed from his team's 34-24 loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, with senior linebacker Chris Borland close on his heels. And even though his team had just lost another game that they could have won, Andersen sat down in front of the microphone and answered questions as though he was back in Camp Randall Stadium for a weekly press conference.

There were no tears or cracked voices, and Andersen didn't choke up like some coaches have when asked about their outgoing senior class, although Borland was visibly at a loss for words for a second when asked what else his now-former team needed to do to beat a quality team in a bowl game.

Instead, Andersen was his usual understated self. He gave credit to Wisconsin's outgoing seniors and praised South Carolina's wide receivers and quarterback Connor Shaw, who picked apart Wisconsin's secondary after halftime. Five questions later Andersen left the podium and walked towards the team busses - even in the offseason there isn't much time to waste.

Only Andersen can say what he was thinking as his prized linebacker wracked his brains for something else that the Badgers could have done to beat TCU, Oregon, Stanford or South Carolina over the last four seasons.

But Andersen is not dumb - he coached the Badgers in 13 games and ran dozens of practices. He knows his program's strengths and weaknesses better than most. He watched Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and Tanner McEvoy struggle to separate themselves in last fall's quarterback competition. He was on the sidelines when Arizona State, Ohio State, Penn State and South Carolina picked apart Wisconsin's secondary. And he watched Andy Ludwig's offense struggle to move the ball when Jared Abbrederis was either hurt or double covered.

In short, Andersen knows that the Badgers need an influx of talent if they want to stake their claim as one of the country's elite programs once again. The Badgers came close in 2010 and 2011 - winning 22 games mostly against their own conference before stumbling against the Horned Frogs and the Ducks in Pasadena. Andersen and his staff helped the Badgers rebound from an 8-6 season in 2012, but with the pieces they inherited it's easy to see how a 9-4 season could have been so much more.

The truth is that the Badgers would have still struggled to pass the ball well, and stop other teams from doing the same, even if the Badgers retained their entire coaching staff from last year. So while Wisconsin's weaknesses at quarterback, wide receiver and in the defensive backfield were out of Andersen's control for the most part, the Badgers aren't going to start winning many bowl games unless they get those positions some help in their next few recruiting classes.

Just take a look at the wide receivers. Apart from Abbrederis the Badgers had just three scholarship wide receivers who contributed in 2013: Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe and Jeff Duckworth. Walk-on Alex Erickson worked his way into the two-deep, but the rest of Wisconsin's wide receiver corps has been decimated by attrition.

Isaiah Williams, Chase Hammond and Frederick Willis have all left the program since signing with the Badgers. In addition, Marquis Mason has been hampered by injuries and A.J. Jordan was last seen learning how to play defensive back. The Badgers will have to wait and see what Robert Wheelwright, Reggie Love and Jazz Peavy can do in 2014. In short, not many of the players the Badgers signed three or four years ago are still around to even try and make an impact.

This isn't just about signing more Rivals.com "four-star" players. It doesn't matter who you sign in a particular class if the attrition rate takes that big of a toll. It doesn't help that the Badgers are on their third wide receivers coach in three seasons, either. Chris Beatty has proven himself on the recruiting trail for the Badgers so far, but his toughest coaching job yet will start when the Badgers open up spring camp this year.

And while the Badgers had hoped to identify a long-term starter at quarterback during spring and fall camp, Stave had an up-and-down season that finished on a sour note. The 6-foot-5 sophomore completed 58.6 percent of his passes over Wisconsin's final three games, a definite step back from his respectable (if not always pretty) performance through the first ten games of the season.

Stave finished the season with a 61.9 completion percentage and threw 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, but he won't enter spring camp as the unquestioned starter. Stave's disappointing finish aside, the coaches will want a long look at Bart Houston and Tanner McEvoy anyway. In an ideal world they want a dual-threat like South Carolina's Shaw running their offense, and it's hard to argue with the results. The Badgers saw what a lift Russell Wilson gave them in 2011, and the Badgers will find it hard to get back to that level as a program again without a difference maker under center.

The good news for the Badgers is that Andersen recognizes the problem. He admitted as much in his post game presser, just a few minutes before slipping through a side door into the offseason.

"In the end, I don't have all the answers," Andersen said of his team's passing game. "If we had all the answers, we would have done it differently and thrown the ball better all year long, but we have to if we're going to take the next step as a program."

The Badgers have already taken steps to get more athletes on to campus and re-stock the cupboard at their positions of need. Andersen and his staff could sign as many as 30 players next month on National Signing Day, and they already have commitments from athletic wide receivers like Dareian Watkins, Natrell Jamerson, Chris Jones and Krenwick Sanders.

Two dual-threat quarterbacks are also on board: D.J. Gillins will enroll in January and work with the Badgers this spring, and Austin Kafentzis is expected to join the Badgers in 2015. As of this writing the Badgers commitments from a defensive bacsk Austin Hudson, Serge Trezy and Lubern Figaro, and true freshman Sojourn Shelton finished the season as the team's best cornerback and showed promise. The Badgers will also return most of their depth chart in the defensive backfield in 2014, with Darius Hillary, Peniel Jean and Michael Caputo also set to return.

To be sure, 9-4 in a coach's first year at a BCS school is nothing to scoff at. The Badgers thumped the teams they were supposed to, apart from a head-scratching loss to Penn State. They were also in a position to beat Arizona State and led the Gamecocks 14-13 at halftime, and fell to Ohio State on the road by just a touchdown. In short, they were close enough where a few plays here or there would've made a difference.

But the Badgers seem to think it's past time to stop relying on those silver linings. Senior safety Dezmen Southward lost each bowl game he played in during his career with the Badgers, and said it wasn't enough to just "play them tough."

"[We try to] compete in everything you do- compete in the film room, compete in the weight room, because that's the only way we're going to continue to get better, to try and win these games, and not always say 'we played them really tough,'" Southward said. "No one cares we played them really tough. We want to win."

Southward is right - moral victories in big games aren't going to cut it for the Badgers anymore.

The building blocks are there. Andersen and his staff have already started to rebuild Wisconsin's roster: they're on the verge of signing a Top-25 recruiting class next month, with a few more top-tier athletes still considering spending their next four falls in Madison. If they can keep those players on campus and develop them well the Badgers would be set up better than almost anyone in their conference to take advantage of college football's changing landscape, thanks to the new "Big Ten West" division and the recurring Big Ten Championship Game.

But if Andersen and his staff can't infuse the program's already solid base with some more difference makers on offense and defense, the Badgers will likely be first up to the podium after a few more bowl losses to come.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.


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