With the conclusion of Saturday’s annual Spring Game, the University of Wisconsin football team saw its spring practice session draw to a close.Although still much remains to be decided during summer workouts and fall drills, the spring practices gave fans a first look at what Wisconsin might look like in year 1 A.B. (after Barry). Here’s what was learned and what still is a mystery, in each of the position battles that took place this spring.Running backsThe one question that has been on everybody’s mind: who is going to replace Brian Calhoun as the UW starting tailback this upcoming season?At the moment, there is still no answer, especially considering that talented recruit Lance Smith has yet to arrive on campus.”I like how the running backs have come along,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said. “But we’ll see what Mr. Smith can bring to the table.”Redshirt freshman P.J. Hill has shown probably the most natural talent, and was the first-string runner for the Cardinal squad in the Spring Game. However, Dywon Rowan probably had the most impressive camp of any offensive player, showing great vision and surprising elusiveness to go with his raw power.Jamil Walker has been impressive at times, but inconsistent. He too could very well be the Opening Day starter though. Freshman Jerry Butler is a burner, tough to hit squarely, but didn’t stand out enough. Ditto for freshman Dion Foster.FullbacksEither Bill Rentmeester or Chris Pressley will start; that much is certain. Both have drawn the praise of Bielema for improving from one year ago.”They’ve been able to do the things we’re asking them, more so than they were a year ago, [which] has really made a big difference as far as the way you can think offensively,” Bielema said of his two fullbacks earlier this spring.Pressley looks downright dangerous both as a blocker and especially as a ballcarrier, as he seems too seek out defenders to bowl over. Rentmeester has been very solid, if not spectacular. The two represent excellent depth at the fullback spot.QuarterbacksJohn Stocco is the undisputed starter, and God help the Badgers if he goes down, as both backups Tyler Donovan and Dustin Sherer have been terribly inconsistent, turnover-prone, and generally unfit to lead the offense at their current state of development. Donovan has shown flashes, so for depth the team could use him getting his game back in full stride. A big question: Will UW carry five quarterbacks next year, with the additions of incoming freshmen Maurice Moore and Scott Tolzien?Offensive LineThis has been a serious area of concern for Wisconsin during the spring. Having to replace three starters, as well as dealing with several other injuries along the line, has forced the Badgers to put together something of a patchwork line during spring drills.”We’re not where we need to be along the offensive line, just because of people not practicing,” Bielema said.The good: Kraig Urbik has played excellently, while Mike Van Someren proved that he is dependable and durable, and could challenge for a guard spot this fall, or at least represent solid depth.The bad: There were a bevy of mishandled snaps this spring, and while the quarterbacks are often to blame, new center Marcus Coleman hasn’t made enough strides in spring.”Marcus Coleman isn’t where we need to have him to be for that opening game, Sept. 2,” Bielema said.Will Joe Thomas recover fully? All signs point to yes, but there is still much to be seen.Wide ReceiversJunior Paul Hubbard improved his stock monumentally and should see plenty of playing time this season. Marcus Randle-El showed hands of glue and is very elusive in the open field.A question mark will be ultra-talented Jarvis Minton, who missed most of spring due to injury. Bielema said this was a position where the incoming freshman like Lance Kendricks and Daven Jones can come in and contribute right away.Tight EndsMaybe the most up-for-grabs position on the team. Out of Andy Crooks, Travis Beckum and Sean Lewis — all of whom changed positions — the one that can come out and wow the coaches in fall should get the No. 1 spot.Beckum has the ability to be a game-breaking receiver at this position, but he is still learning.Defensive LineThe deepest and maybe strongest unit on the whole team. The group looked flat-out dominant against the offensive line many times during spring, and that was without projected starting defensive ends Matthew Shaughnessy and Jamal Cooper.Justin Ostrowski could still challenge Jason Chapman for a starting tackle role, but Nick Hayden will certainly start at tackle. Kurt Ware had a monster spring and could be poised for a breakout year.LinebackersIf the defensive line is as good as it should be, and the tackles can keep opposing o-linemen off middle linebacker Mark Zalewski, then Zalewski could be a serious challenger for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Elijah Hodge is being groomed as his successor and is a great No. 2 guy right now.The two outside linebackers, DeAndre Levy on the strong side and Jonathan Casillas at weak side, are somewhat green but very talented. The depth is solid there too.Bielema has raved about the motors of the group and seems to feel as good about linebacker as at any position on the team.CornerbacksSophomores Jack Ikegwuonu and Allen Langford went through the fire a year ago and look all the better for it. The coaching staff believes Ikegwuonu has all the tools to be an All-American corner if he wants.Langford could still be challenged for a starting spot, but he had a solid spring and it isn’t clear who could truly steal a starting spot from him. While Zach Hampton has shown to be a gamer, as well as a dependable option, the depth at this position is lacking.This is another unit that Bielema identified as being open for freshmen to grab playing time.SafetiesThe duo of Joe Stellmacher and Roderick Rogers looks to be a very solid one. Stellmacher is a general on the field and Rogers has shown to be quite the playmaker this spring.Johnny White is a great backup and Shane Carter probably had the best spring on the team, so this should be a position to feel good about come this fall.Special TeamsThe unit is set, period. While kicker Taylor Mehlhaff has been inconsistent on field goals, there is no one on the roster to supplant him right now, so his job is safe.Punter Ken DeBauche is a legit Ray Guy candidate right now.
In a season that the Wisconsin men’s hockey team has taken a step backwards with just a 2-15-3 overall record and a 0-5-1 record in Big Ten play, sophomore forward Grant Besse has taken a big step forward on his way to quietly having a breakout season.Besse began his career as a Badger last year with a promising freshman season, compiling eight goals and six assists, playing in 36 of the team’s 37 games. A year later, with Wisconsin’s top five goal scorers from last season no longer on the team, Besse has elevated his game to a much higher level and stepped into a leadership role for this year’s young Wisconsin team.Not being a top-line guy last season took some getting used to for Besse since he had never played a role like that before in his hockey career. Coming out of Plymouth, Minnesota, Besse was named 2013 Mr. Hockey in Minnesota, thus when he came to Madison he was unaccustomed to a reserve role. However, it ended up being a beneficial learning experience for Besse that allowed him to learn from the veteran Badgers on last year’s team.“It was a bit frustrating at first obviously coming from high school where you’re the go-to guy,” Besse said. “But I’m glad it was like that. I learned from those older guys.”Just 20 games into this season, Besse is leading Wisconsin in goals (seven) and his six assists are tied for second most on the team, making him only one goal away from matching his goal and assist total from all of last season.Besse believes that increased playing time and having more chances to make plays has been a major factor in his emergence as a go-to guy for the Badgers.“I’m getting a lot more opportunities,” Besse said. “Being on the top line and on the power play, you just have more opportunities and more ways to show what I can do.”Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves credited much of Besse’s improvement to gaining strength and using it to keep defenders from taking the puck from him.“Having a year under his belt, he’s bigger, stronger and knows what to expect,” Eaves said. “He’s stronger over the puck, so he has it a lot more.”Eaves also praised Besse for his impressive shooting ability that even caught their attention back when they recruited him out of high school. Eaves called Besse a “sniper” in reference to his gifted ability to shoot with pinpoint accuracy and overall knack for finding the back of the net.“He’s got a great gift to shoot the puck, something that’s not taught,” Eaves said. “When you shoot like that, you want him to shoot the puck as much as possible because not everybody can shoot like that.”Much like Eaves, Wisconsin senior goaltender Joel Rumpel has seen the improved play in Besse. Anytime Besse gets the puck is a reason to get excited due to his wide-ranging skillset that can threaten defenses in different ways.“Grant’s one of those special players that, when he gets the puck, you’re excited because he can make things happen,” Rumpel said. “He can turn a nothing play into something, whether it’s using his quick hands to get through guys or his deceiving shot to beat a goalie from a bad angle. He just brings that energy and that offensive dynamic that we need this year.”With so many leaders from last year’s team gone this season, Besse has not only taken a bigger role on the ice but has welcomed a bigger role off the ice as a leader of the team. Despite being new to the leadership role for this team, and just a sophomore, it hasn’t been an issue for him.Rumpel sees Besse’s maturity level as the main reason why he has been able to handle being a leader on a team with 11 true freshmen.“When you’re a young team, we’ve got to have guys like Grant, who’s mature beyond his age, and guys can look to him in the dressing room, whether it’s modeling our play after him or the things he does off the ice,” Rumpel said.But despite Besse’s strong play this season, the Badgers have been unable to have the same success as a team on the ice, as they’re still looking for their first Big Ten win of the season.The team will be looking for the sophomore forward to step up his game even more to get that first win. Besse said he feels he can do that by becoming a player who always delivers night in and night out.“I’d say consistency is probably the biggest thing I’ve been working on,” Besse said of where he could improve. “Coming game in and game out and being able to produce and not get beat defensively.”Only a sophomore, Besse has plenty of time to continue writing his story as a Badger. Regardless of where that story goes, it will undoubtedly serve as a bright spot amid a season of considerable darkness.