MADISON - Immediately after Bret Bielema gathered his team around the 'Motion W' centered on the 50 yard line inside Camp Randall, a loud chorus of excitement broke out.
There were 105 Wisconsin football players hooting and hollering about the chance to finally hit and tackle each other. Friday marked the first time the UW football team engaged in a live, full tackle scrimmage.
And it did not disappoint.
James White opened the scrimmage with a 29-yard run off left tackle. His teammate, friend and competitor Montee Ball followed that scamper with a 21-yard run of his own. Had it not been for Mike Taylor, Ball might have had a chance to do even more damage.
In fact, each of the first six plays the No. 1 offense ran against the No. 1 defense came on the ground. Even Russell Wilson's number was called on a designed run. If you had any doubts about the senior quarterback's moves on the run, just talk to Antonio Fenelus.
He was completely frozen by the juke Wilson put on him before capping a 12-yard run that moved the chains. The offense set the tone early and maintained the upper hand through the next possession as well.
Wilson was especially sharp during the ensuing third down set of plays. His offense picked up four of the six third down plays during the set, including a 20-yard screen pass to Ball, a 25-yard post corner pass to Jeff Duckworth and another 19-yard screen to Ball.
The defense seemed to be on its heels for the majority of that set.
"It's our first opportunity to truly tackle," UW defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge said. "We've got a lot of work to do that way. There were some opportunities at the line of scrimmage and some plays behind the line of scrimmage to makes some plays. Obviously if you get some TFL's instead of the big play it changes the face of the scrimmage.
"We've got a lot of work to do in terms of our tackling and we'll feel better about where we go from there."
Ball rushed for (unofficially) 54 yards on three carries and also caught two passes for 39 yards during the No. 1 offense's first two sets against the No. 1 defense. White, during the same time, rushed for 35 yards on three carries. He did not catch a pass.
"When you have a tandem back there like that," Partridge explained. "Their a group that can make you miss and a group that can run through you. You get to a point when you feel good tackling them you know that you can tackle anybody in the country."
Though the defense was shaky during the first couple of sets, it seemed to settle down a bit during the third. During move-the-ball drills, the first team defense forced the offense into a quick three and out after Josh Oglesby hamstrung the drive with a false start penalty.
But the momentum burst didn't last long as the high impact offense struck again during its fourth possession. Facing third and eight from his own 35 yard line, Wilson fired a deep pass in the direction of sophomore wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. The walk-on skied for the ball and reeled it in, but as he was fully extended in the air, and under tight coverage from nickel back Marcus Cromartie, free safety Aaron Henry sprinted over and absolutely destroyed both of them.
Though he was a bit shaken up, Abbrederis was able to hold onto the ball for a 49-yard completion.
The No. 1 offense finally scored its first touchdown of the day during its final offensive set. Starting on the defense's 41 yard line it only took five plays before Jeff Lewis capped off a five yard touchdown run.
"There are certainly some guys that are up at the top of the depth chart that we miss their play and their leadership," Partridge said. "But you know how it is. If one guy steps out then we need the next guy to come in and do everything he can to play."
The backups weren't bad
Because Jon Budmayr missed his third practice in a row as he recovers from an exploded bursa sac in his elbow, freshman Joe Brennan took all the reps with the No. 2 offense. Unlike the guys atop the depth chart, the No. 2 offense struggled out of the gate. Brennan only completed one of his three passes, a quick slant to A.J. Jordan, but Melvin Gordon picked up the slack. He logged 18 yards on two carries, including a nice cutback that might have gone the distance had it not been for a shoestring Dezmen Southward tackle.
Brennan continued to struggle during the second set of plays (all third down situations), going only 0-for-3 on the drive with a couple of bad decisions to go along with it. He forced a pass in the direction of a double-covered Sherard Cadogan that fell incomplete, overthrew Connor Cummins by 10 yards on a fly route and threw too high for Sam Arneson.
It wasn't the most impressive set for the No. 2 offense, but a lot of the credit has to be given to the defense because they were harassing the young quarterback throughout. Later in the scrimmage Brennan fired a pass well behind Jordan that was easily intercepted by Marcus Cromartie. That was the only interception during the scrimmage portion of Friday's practice.
"He's really had a good camp," Partridge said of Cromartie. "He's a young man that has had problems focusing every single play and that's what he's done better than anything this camp. He's focused a way higher percentage of the time than he has in the past.
"Now his talents are starting to show because of it."
Brennan bounced back from his interception when he threw an absolute rocket to Cummins approximately 25 yards downfield. The pass was just far enough out of the reach of a diving Adam Hampton for Cummins to haul it in and take it to the house for a 66-yard score.
Third string report
The third string players, offensively led by Joel Stave, only received a handful of reps at the end of practice, but there were some impressive plays nonetheless. Kyle Zuleger ran hard, Jesse Hayes proved he has some burst at the defensive end position, Joe McNamara recorded a sack and Stave showed he has some wheels with a naked bootleg.
Considering the third stringers stood around and watched the entire scrimmage before getting their opportunity, the way they played was pretty impressive.
Luckily, especially considering what's already a lengthy report, the injury stayed away from Friday's scrimmage for the most part. Only Ethan Armstrong left the scrimmage without returning. It looked as though it was an upper body injury, but speculating at this point won't do any good. Bielema is scheduled to address the media Saturday so he'll likely inform the press then whether it's anything significant.
Otherwise the only other injury that seemed to take its toll happened to DeMontie Cross, UW's secondary coach. Wilson fired a deep ball down the far sideline in the direction of Kenzel Doe. When it became apparent the ball was a bit under thrown Doe adjusted his route and came back for the ball. Unfortunately when he dove for it, he rolled up on Cross who wasn't expecting any contact. It looked as though Cross may have suffered some sort of lower leg injury. After talking with the trainers for approximately 10 minutes, he was able to stand up and rejoin practice.
-Last season the defense was average because it was too prone to giving up the big play. I'm a little bit concerned that this defense is going to have the same problem. I know the Badgers No. 1 offense is good and that the running back tandem of Ball and White is exceptional, but the fact that the No. 1 defense gave up 98 rushing yards on only six plays is a bit harrowing.
They know what is coming and they know what the offense is going to do, but they still couldn't stop it. What are they going to do when they go against a high powered offense when they don't know what is coming?
-Individually, the following are my top five players from Friday's scrimmage:
5.) Montee Ball
I had already liked what I saw out of Ball when the defense wasn't tackling. He looked faster than he ever has, but also looked to have the same power that punished opponents throughout the second half of the season a year ago. I was curious to see how he handled his newer, sleeker body when the defense was allowed to tackle. I can say with full confidence that he did not disappoint. He was still authoritative, he was still powerful, he still didn't go down easily, he still broke tackles and he was still explosive. He's going to be a candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year this fall.
4.) Jared Abbrederis
With Nick Toon sidelined with a foot injury I have been waiting for somebody to step up to the plate at the wide receiver position. I thought there were a handful of guys that were capable of assuming that leadership role, but none were really doing so. During the scrimmage, though, I thought Abbrederis really took a step forward. He was really sure handed and really tough for defending corners to handle. The play where he got absolutely crushed by Henry and still held onto the ball showed me quite a bit.
3.) Bradie Ewing
The fullbacks don't really get a lot of talk because they play at a thankless position, but I think Ewing has been exceptional during this past week of camp. When Jeff Lewis took a handoff late in Friday's practice and scored easily from five yards out I was impressed by the way Ewing finished his block. Though he was away from the play, the senior fullback still drove Shelton Johnson to the ground. That was an impressive moment.
2.) Marcus Cromartie
I wrote a story earlier today highlighting Cromartie's change in attitude over the past several months and that was apparent throughout the scrimmage Friday afternoon. He made an interception and he didn't miss many, if any, tackles, and he logged what would have been a sack on a corner blitz. He was sure in coverage and really seemed to take another step forward in his development. He had a great practice.
1.) Mike Taylor
He's regaining his speed, folks. He was completely explosive during the scrimmage. I remember one time when he came free on a blitz and looked like he was ready to absolutely punish Wilson. It seems as though the power, confidence and poise he played with prior to his ACL injury as a freshman is back. Expect big things out of the junior linebacker in 2011.
The Badgers will return to the field for the second installment of two-a-days tomorrow. The first practice is scheduled to start at approximately 10 a.m.