PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — With the Big Ten on the verge of adding Oregon and Washington amid a busy day in realignment, Wisconsin was focused on its own world Friday morning, completing its third preseason practice under Luke Fickell in what was the most eventful day so far at UW-Platteville.
Contact ratcheted up a notch as players wore spider shoulder pads. Here are 12 on-field observations on the Badgers:
1. Bryson Green was the wide receiver standout on the first day of camp because of his physicality and play strength. He showcased that knack again Friday, coming up with the play of preseason camp thus far. Green reached up for a 50-50 ball from second-team quarterback Braedyn Locke and snatched it away from cornerback Jonas Duclona and safety Austin Brown down the right sideline for about a 30-yard gain.
Green transferred from Oklahoma State during the offseason but did not participate in live reps in the spring while recovering from an injury. He caught 36 passes for 584 yards and five touchdowns last season. It is clear he’ll be a threat to opponents in a wide receiver rotation that should include six players.
“I think the first couple days and even the OTA stuff, he was so anxious to do everything,” Fickell said. “He’s such a play-hard guy and does everything at 100 miles an hour that there is a point and time where you’ve got to take a couple deep breaths, relax a little bit, be smooth in some things that you’re doing.
“But today was another really good day for him. We’re seeing all the other things he can do as opposed to just being a guy that can catch the football. He can set an example, he can block the perimeter and then when you actually need to be physical, there’s a guy out there that I can promise you is going to be physical.”
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2. Another wide receiver who flashed on Friday was Quincy Burroughs — someone who hasn’t generated as much hoopla given all the other big names that arrived this offseason. Burroughs, a Cincinnati transfer, has worked primarily with the third-team offense but played with the second-team unit while Keontez Lewis was withheld from live drills after sustaining an apparent injury Thursday.
During 1-on-1 passing drills, Burroughs made a great adjustment in the front left corner of the end zone to dive for a 40-yard touchdown catch on cornerback Nyzier Fourqurean. Cornerbacks coach Paul Haynes offered pointers to Fourqurean off to the side immediately afterward.
Later in practice, Locke delivered a great throw between two defenders that Burroughs caught after he put a move on his defender to create separation before the second defender arrived down the left sideline. It may be difficult for Burroughs to earn opportunities in a wide receiver group that features Green, Lewis, CJ Williams, Chimere Dike, Will Pauling and Skyler Bell. But he has shown major playmaking ability during stages of spring practice and fall camp.
3. Fourqurean is emerging as a rotational piece for Wisconsin at cornerback. He earned reps Friday with the second-team defense on the outside in place of freshman Jace Arnold. Fourqurean worked with Duclona on the other side and Owen Arnett in the slot.
Fourqurean made his first big play this preseason when he intercepted a pass from Locke intended for Green. Locke took a shotgun snap from the defense’s 37-yard line and stared down his receiver across the field, allowing Fourqurean to break on the ball and step in front of Green. Fourqurean, a Division II All-American at Grand Valley State, is one of two transfer cornerbacks Wisconsin brought in after spring practices, along with Air Force’s Michael Mack II.
“Physically, I just like him as a guy that’s got some length,” Fickell said of Fourqurean. “He’s a guy that probably could play a bunch of different positions: corner, nickel and possibly safety. But those guys that come in that don’t have as much time with us to even do the OTAs or even spring ball, it’s hard to move them around a couple positions.
“So Nyzier and Michael, where we think they’ve got some versatility, we want to be able to find out what they can really do. So we’ve got to put them at one position and let them compete and get them comfortable at least with how we do things to see what exactly their skill sets will be. But they’re going to give us some great depth, some great competition. They’re going to play some ball for us this year.”
4. Locke struggled on Friday as much as he has in any practice since arriving in the winter, throwing three interceptions. After Locke was picked off by Fourqurean, he took a snap from the defense’s 49-yard line and underthrew a pass intended for Green with Fourqurean defending that safety Preston Zachman came over and intercepted.
Locke’s final interception occurred with the offense backed up behind its own 30-yard line. Locke didn’t see Arnett on the right side of the field on a pass intended for Williams. Arnett returned the pick for a touchdown. Locke was immediately replaced by quarterback Myles Burkett, who had been with the third-team offense.
Locke did make a handful of outstanding throws, too. He completed a pass for more than 20 yards to tight end Jack Pugh down the right sideline and later in the drive threw a first down pass to Burroughs up the left sideline between two defenders. But he has been shaky early in fall camp, and there are occasions in which his attempt to make a big throw or a toss across the field comes up short.
5. Starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai had an uneven day. With the ball at his own 26-yard line, Mordecai had Dike on the left side of the field being defended by starting cornerback Alexander Smith. But Mordecai threw the ball toward the middle of the field. Safety Kamo’i Latu grabbed an easy interception past midfield and returned it up the right sideline for more than 30 yards. Two plays later, Mordecai overthrew an open Bell in the middle of the field. Mordecai came right back to Bell and completed a pass to him for a first down, with Bell putting a juke move on first-team safety Travian Blaylock.
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6. Cincinnati offensive line transfer Joe Huber has been a jack-of-all-trades this preseason. Huber has played left guard with the first-team offense and served as the second-team center on occasion. Wisconsin has been forced to shuffle its rotation with center Jake Renfro still coming back from a stress fracture in his left leg that he sustained this spring. That moved Tanor Bortolini from left guard to center and brought Huber up to the first-team group.
Renfro played second-team center in fall camp, but Huber took his place when Renfro was slow to get up from a play. Backup right tackle Trey Wedig moved to first-team left guard, with the second-team unit consisting of left tackle Nolan Rucci, left guard Joe Brunner, Huber at center, JP Benzschawel at right guard and Barrett Nelson at right tackle. Huber, who played for Fickell with the Bearcats, has drawn praise from teammates and coaches.
“Joe just does everything well,” Fickell said. “You talk about a guy that you can put the iso cam on and you’re going to see exactly how you want to play. Whether he’s at center, whether he’s at guard, whether he has a bad snap or whatever happens, the next play he’s going to continue to go. I think he’s a great example for the things about what work and what effort looks like. For him, the toughest thing is he has to bounce back and forth.
“Some way, somehow, he’s going to be in there. He’s going to have a lot of opportunities. We’re going to need him, whether we play with seven offensive linemen, whether he’s one of the five (starters) or not. He has got a bright future. He gives us a chance to mix some things around and figure out what’s going to be the best order for us to be in.”
7. Wisconsin is using more combinations along its defensive line than perhaps any other position at this stage. James Thompson Jr. and Rodas Johnson have been paired together with the first-team defense, as has Johnson and Isaiah Mullens or Johnson and Gio Paez. The second-team unit has featured Thompson with Paez or Mullens with Paez.
Other second-team pairings have included Curt Neal with Ben Barten and Isaac Townsend with Barten. At one point, when Wisconsin had its base defense and three defensive linemen on the field, the trio was Thompson, Neal and Cade McDonald. Fickell, the former standout nose guard at Ohio State, said he issued a challenge to his defensive line.
“We’ve got to find a way to play with eight or nine guys,” Fickell said. “So that challenge of figuring out what that role is, even if it’s play three plays and run off as fast as you can, I think I’ve been impressed with how they’ve handled it. Sometimes guys want to be the guy, want to be in there all the time and we’re even rolling around maybe who starts just to see what kind of attitudes guys have.
“Do they really believe in the things that we’re saying? It doesn’t matter who starts, but we’ve got to play eight guys and we’ve got to play at this type of level with this type of effort in order for us to dominate like we want to.”
8. Day 3 brought the first opportunity to see Wisconsin’s field goal kickers this preseason. Nathanial Vakos, who transferred from Ohio on scholarship and is the expected starter, was the first kicker up and made 4-of-5 attempts, connecting from 29, 34, 38 and 42 yards before missing wide left from 46 yards. Walk-on Nate Van Zelst went second and made 3-of-4 attempts. Van Zelst hit from 29, 34 and 38 yards before missing wide right from 42 yards.
9. Freshman nose guard Jamel Howard had an impressive play during 1-on-1 pass-blocking reps when he pushed freshman offensive lineman James Durand backward and won the rep. Howard is listed on the roster at 6-feet-2, 318 pounds and has earned occasional snaps with the third-team unit. He later limped off the field with his left shoe off and was evaluated by a trainer. But his size, physicality and athleticism stand out.
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10. Cornerback Ricardo Hallman continues where he left off in the spring as a lockdown defender. During the first 11-on-11 team rep, Mordecai threw a pass that Dike caught across midfield before Hallman knocked the ball away for an incompletion with great coverage. Hallman, Smith and Boston College transfer Jason Maitre have been the starters since spring practice.
11. Burkett and fourth-string quarterback Nick Evers earned work with the reserves on one side of the field while the first- and second-team offenses worked 11-on-11. Evers, whose arm strength is as good as any quarterback on the roster, delivered a touchdown of more than 30 yards in the back of the end zone to walk-on receiver Grady O’Neill. Burkett has consistently played ahead of Evers this preseason as Evers continues to learn the offense.
12. Tight ends Jack Eschenbach and Clay Cundiff are no longer on the team after voluntarily leaving the program, according to a school official. Fickell said he wasn’t aware that Eschenbach and Cundiff would not be with the team until Monday night. Wisconsin left for UW-Platteville on Tuesday afternoon.
“Not a whole lot of time, and it wasn’t like we knew exactly and we weren’t positive on Monday night that they weren’t going to come with us out there,” Fickell said. “There are still some options open, so we’ll see.”
Wisconsin has seven scholarship tight ends remaining on the roster, with Riley Nowakowski, Hayden Rucci and Pugh as the top three options.
(Top photo courtesy of Wisconsin Football)