Russellmania? QB suddenly in spotlight for Badgers
MADISON Even Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema acknowledges that there’s nothing particularly glamorous about his team’s traditional formula for winning: Running the ball and playing defense. Quarterbacks, typically, are an afterthought in Madison.
Not this year, though. It’s Russellmania.
Bielema pulled off one of the biggest recruiting coups of his career this summer when he got former North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson to quit minor league baseball and return to football. If Wilson can meet surging expectations, he’ll make Wisconsin a contender for the Big Ten title and beyond— and, perhaps, challenge long-held perceptions about the Badgers.
“Wisconsin is what it is,” Bielema said. “We’re not real sexy. I always say we’re not the first girl taken to the prom, but we’re not the last.”
Quarterback was the main question facing the Badgers after a stellar season that included a share of the Big Ten title and a berth in the Rose Bowl, where Wisconsin lost to TCU.
Bielema had to replace steady quarterback Scott Tolzien, who completed 72.9 percent of his passes for 2,459 yards with 16 touchdowns and only 6 interceptions.
Wilson, who is eligible to play right away for the Badgers after graduating from N.C. State, says he’s spending up to 12 hours a day learning the playbook.
“I’m a quick learner,” Wilson said. “I graduated in three years for a reason.”
He’ll have to be fully up to speed soon. The Badgers’ Big Ten opener looms Oct. 1, a night game against new conference heavyweight Nebraska.
“Russell has worked out well,” wide receiver Nick Toon said. “He has a very high football IQ. He came in and picked up the offense pretty fast and meshed with the team. In a sense, it has felt like he has been here as long as anyone else.”
Assuming he wins what Bielema insists is a quarterback competition in camp, Wilson will take over an offense that averaged a school-record 41.5 points per game last season, including 45.2 points per game in Big Ten play.
The Badgers must replace six starters on offense: Tolzien, wide receiver David Gilreath, tight end Lance Kendricks, offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt and running back John Clay.
Kendricks, a second-round draft pick by St. Louis, was the Badgers’ top receiver last season.
There is less concern about replacing Clay, as Montee Ball and James White largely supplanted him in the Badgers’ running back rotation as last season progressed.
Wisconsin’s calling card, as always, will be its offensive line. They’ll have to replace Carimi, a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears, and Moffitt, who went to Seattle in the third round. As usual, though, there’s no shortage of big guys in Madison.
“I was surprised how big they were,” Wilson said. “I’d always been told that. That was good. They were great guys and had the same mindset I did, that I have. I told them that if I did come to Wisconsin, the reason I would come here is to play hard every day and be part of something special.”
On defense, the Badgers will have to replace five starters: Defensive end J.J. Watt, a first-round draft pick of the Houston Texans, plus linebackers Blake Sorensen and Culmer St. Jean, cornerback Niles Brinkley and safety Jay Valai.
They also lost defensive coordinator Dave Doeren, who took the head coaching job at Northern Illinois. Wisconsin will play Northern Illinois at Soldier Field on Sept. 17.
Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash now are co-defensive coordinators, and defensive back Aaron Henry said the defense can be “way better” than it was last year.
“We lost some key players defensively,” Henry said. “Every year it’s something different and you truly don’t know. We are kind of changing our philosophies a little bit so some different things are going to be happening on defense. So I think it can be that much better.”
The Badgers also get back linebacker Chris Borland, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury.
“I think we’ve changed our defensive mentality,” Borland said. “We’re a little bit more aggressive, not on our heels as much as we were in the past, which I think is going to pay off. We still have a ton of work to do. But the attitude is great and the guys are getting their work done.”
Henry said the team is ready to deal with expectations.
“Yeah, we were an extremely good team, and yeah we did get to the Rose Bowl and that’s great,” Henry said. “But the target has gotten even bigger on us for this year, so teams are going to be gunning for us.”