MADISON - It starts with the little things. After a few months off from official practices, the Badgers started out small in their first practice of the spring, working without pads Thursday afternoon. Concepts like ball security need to come first, especially for a program that's looking to both rebuild and reload after a second-straight Big Ten Championship.
"We're obviously very excited to get to this day," head coach Bret Bielema said in his meeting with the media Thursday. "The kids responded very well. There were a lot of guys in the right places at the right time, getting lined up; (It was) a good start to the day."
Bielema stressed a few times that everyone says they're excited about something or other when camp rolls around, but he did see some good things as the Badgers tried to shake off two-plus months of rust.
"I'm not ready to crown us as champions yet, but I really am excited about the way they practiced," Bielema said. "There weren't a lot of mental busts or breaks at any position."
It also wasn't long before Bielema was asked about finding a new quarterback, but like the other positions he was pleased with what he saw out of his young signal callers in their first practice.
"Joe Brennan and Joel Stave both looked extremely quick in their decision-making," Bielema said. "There weren't busts in the huddle, there weren't busts on alignments. Obviously it's the first practice with coach (Matt Canada), I think he really has tried to ease the learning curve to get rid of the football in the throwing game.
"I was just talking with Nate Tice, he was kind of amazed, Joey got to the board and was drawing things at a rate that he was never able to do before, so I think there's a good jump yet."
So the first day of camp seemed about as normal as could be for the Badgers, even though they're working with a completely revamped coaching staff and need to replace several key starters. But they don't need to find answers on the first day of spring ball. For now, it's about getting back to basics, shaking off rust, and getting everybody on the same page. Spring ball is about the little things, and with several months until the first game of 2012, the Badgers have plenty of time to figure out where they're at and where they want to be.
There's lots of injury news to go through today, as this is one of the first few times we've heard from Bielema since the end of the 2011 season.
Several Badgers are missing significant time this spring, including Jon Budmayr, Mike Taylor, Rob Havenstein, Jared Abbrederis, Jacob Pedersen, Devin Smith, David Gilbert, and Ethan Armstrong.
It sounds like Budmayr, Taylor, Havenstein, and Armstrong will miss all or most of the spring. Budmayr is still struggling with a nerve issue in his throwing arm, while Taylor, Armstrong, and Havenstein are still recovering from surgeries they had early in the offseason.
The coaches are hoping Abbrederis, Pedersen, Smith, and Gilbert will be able to participate in the second half of camp or later. Abbrederis and Pedersen did not have procedures but are trying to overcome nagging foot and groin injuries, respectively. Smith is trying to recover from a groin injury and might get involved in some non-contact drills towards the end of camp.
Bielema also said they're hoping to get Gilbert back for the last two to three weeks of spring, after the junior defensive end broke his foot prior to the Nebraska game and was forced to take a redshirt year.
In addition, wide receiver Marquis Mason is about 90 percent back after he tore his ACL this time last year, but he needs to convince himself that he's healthy again.
News and notes
-- The Badgers announced a couple of position changes today as well. Kyle Costigan and Joe McNamara switched from the defensive line to the offensive line, safety Josh Peprah has been moved to linebacker, and the Badgers are thinking about moving Darius Hillary to safety.
In Costigan's case, he's actually moving back to his original position. Costigan was recruited as an offensive lineman, but was switched to defense when there was a need for bodies on the other side of the line.
But now that Ethan Hemer, Jordan Kohout, and Beau Allen have emerged at the tackle spots, Bielema said he was concerned about Costigan getting buried behind players of a similar age group. Bielema called Costigan the strongest lineman "pound-for-pound" on the team, and there was definitely a need for some extra depth on the offensive line this season anyway.
-- Bielema announced that defensive back Frank Tamakloe left the football program recently, but is staying enrolled at Wisconsin.
"Football is just not where it needs to be for him right now," Bielema said. "It's one of the sad days of my coaching profession, because you really want a kid to stay with it, but just for him and his situation it's best for him to move on."
-- Speaking of departed players, while defensive tackle Eriks Briedis has left the program as well, Bielema said there might be a chance for him to come back to the team in the fall if he wants to.
In addition, offensive lineman Casey Dehn is still working his way back on to the team, and is taking part in spring practices. Dehn briefly left the Badgers last year due to disagreements with then-offensive line coach Bob Bostad, but was given the chance to come back after Bostad left with former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst for Pittsburgh.
"(Dehn) is on a path that he knows he's got to stay on for him to be here," Bielema said.
-- Bielema was also impressed with the three early enrollees, who practiced for the first time with the Badgers today. It looks like offensive lineman Dan Voltz might be in line to compete for some playing time as a freshman at either center or right guard, while Hugs Etienne and Vonte Jackson looked good for their first time out as well.
"Those freshmen didn't really look like high school seniors running around out there," Bielema said. "They're pretty advanced in their skill set."
-- Senior quarterback Curt Phillips threw well today, but Bielema said Phillips isn't where he wants to be on drop-backs and other mobility issues yet. Phillips will just do non-contact drills this spring.
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