Wisconsin spring football report: Badgers’ competitive spirit comes through on Day 2

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell began his remarks after the second spring practice Tuesday by stressing that even though the session was non-padded, “there’s not much of any difference.” He meant that as high praise because of how much he has emphasized competitive spirit since returning players — as well as 23 freshman early enrollees and transfers — came to campus in January.

It’s safe to say that players have heeded Fickell’s words based on the intensity level displayed. There was live tackling on fast-paced red zone run plays early. And twice, skirmishes broke out during 11-on-11 work. First, it was running back Jackson Acker and outside linebacker Leon Lowery, the transfer from Syracuse. Then, running back Cade Yacamelli took exception to a hard tackle delivered from inside linebacker Tackett Curtis, a USC transfer.

While Fickell acknowledged that players needed to learn how to control themselves, he also doesn’t mind occasional dust-ups because of what he believes it says about the mindset required to succeed.

“If you can’t push these guys and make sure they understand that there is an edge that you have to play with, it’s going to be difficult for us to be the type of team we want to be,” Fickell said.

Here is a look at other notable developments from Tuesday’s practice:

Quarterback battle

When quarterback Tanner Mordecai transferred into Wisconsin from SMU last year, he was the unquestioned starter, taking reps with the first team during the first spring practice, while Braedyn Locke handled the twos. Mordecai is gone, and Wisconsin again went to the portal by bringing in Miami transfer Tyler Van Dyke. This time, however, Van Dyke appears to have work to do to earn the starting job because he and Locke are splitting first-team reps early this spring.

There weren’t many big passing plays Tuesday during brief 11-on-11 sessions, so neither quarterback separated himself for the day. Locke hit a deep throw down the left sideline to receiver Quincy Burroughs and also threw an interception in 11-on-11 work on a pass intended for wide receiver Vinny Anthony. Cornerback Nyzier Fourqurean was behind Anthony but got his hands on the ball, which lifted into the air and right to Fourqurean for a would-be pick six. Van Dyke put some nice zip on his throws and made a handful of solid passes, including finding receiver CJ Williams coming back for the ball on the right side of the field.

“I want to see him kind of continue to come out of his shell,” Fickell said of Van Dyke. “But he’s in a battle as well. So I think that for him learning the offense and repping and working with a guy that’s been in the offense that knows it like the back of his hand in Braedyn, I think that puts a little bit more pressure on him. But I think he’s done a great job. I think we’re going to continue to see him kind of come out of his shell and not just as a football player but as a leader as well.”

Redshirt sophomore Nick Evers worked with the second team. Evers, who struggled last year to learn the playbook, looks smoother and more comfortable with the offense. Freshman early enrollee Mabrey Mettauer took third-team snaps. Quarterback Cole LaCrue is not participating while recovering from surgery.

Running back reps

Fickell said in February that he thought running back Chez Mellusi “won’t get a big load, if any load, in the spring” as he recovered from a broken leg suffered in September. Instead, Mellusi not only is a full participant but is the first-team running back. Mellusi’s workload will be managed, Fickell said, but Mellusi earning snaps, taking shots from defenders and regaining confidence is also important.

“I thought maybe we would hold him in a lot of situations,” Fickell said. “But I don’t know that that’s the best thing for Chez, and I don’t know if that’s the best thing for us. And that’s not what Chez wants.”

Oklahoma transfer Tawee Walker, Acker and Yacamelli all earned significant reps, with Nate White behind them. Walker (222 pounds) and freshman early enrollee Gideon Ituka (235 pounds) are punishing downhill runners who present a change of pace from Mellusi.

Dangerous slot receivers

Two of the three wide receivers starting spots feel pretty defined with leading returning receiver Will Pauling in the slot and Bryson Green on the outside. Anthony handled initial first-team reps at the other outside spot, and Williams did later in practice as well. Burroughs also worked in with the ones, though the majority of his reps were with the twos, either alongside Anthony, Williams or briefly Tyrell Henry.

Perhaps the most intriguing development is what Wisconsin chooses to do with Pauling and slot receiver Trech Kekahuna, as both players earned their share of snaps on the field together. Kekahuna’s speed and playmaking ability was evident in the ReliaQuest Bowl, when he caught four passes for 64 yards in his first game on offense. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo said before spring practices began that Kekahuna competes like he wants to prove he is better than Pauling. Longo will have a variety of options with those two players.

Building O-line depth

Wisconsin’s top offensive line group consisted of left tackle Jack Nelson, left guard Joe Brunner, center Jake Renfro, right guard Joe Huber and right tackle Riley Mahlman. The lineup, other than Brunner, started in the bowl game, and Brunner’s ascension is not a surprise. The bigger storyline may be the lack of depth and experience in the second group.

The second-teamers on Tuesday featured freshman early enrollee Kevin Heywood at left tackle, redshirt freshman James Durand at left guard, walk-on Kerry Kodanko at center, JP Benzschawel at right guard and walk-on Peyton Lange at right tackle. Durand was a reserve center last season. The third group was Manny Mullens at left tackle, Sterling Thompson at left guard, freshman early enrollee Colin Cubberly at center, John Clifford at right guard and Evan Brown at right tackle. Thompson and Brown are walk-ons who were recently added to the spring practice group and are not featured on the official spring roster.

Wisconsin does have three more scholarship offensive linemen signed in 2024 who will join in the summer: Emerson Mandell, Derek Jensen and Ryan Cory.

“For us to get better — and I mean that as a whole program — we have to be able to rep three groups in spring,” Fickell said. “And without having some of those guys, it makes it really difficult. … It’s very critical to try to get some of those guys in early, and then baptism by fire.”

Defensive energy

Wisconsin rotated a ton on defense. But the top group consisted of defensive linemen James Thompson Jr. and Curt Neal, outside linebackers Darryl Peterson and John Pius, inside linebackers Jake Chaney and Christian Alliegro, outside corners Fourqurean and Jonas Duclona, slot corner Austin Brown and safeties Hunter Wohler and Kamo’i Latu. Starting cornerback Ricardo Hallman had offseason shoulder surgery, which has impacted the top group.

On the D-line, Ben Barten worked in with the first team and tipped a Van Dyke pass at the line of scrimmage. Cade McDonald, TJ Bollers and Mike Jarvis earned much of the second-team work. There are still questions about how impactful the D-line group can be with Thompson being the only player up front who recorded more than one sack last season. Albany transfer Elijah Hills, who earned third-team work, could be part of that answer.

Where Wisconsin expects to be much more dynamic is at the linebacker spots. Curtis, who had offseason surgery, worked in live reps for the first time this spring with the reserves. Arkansas transfer Jaheim Thomas earned second-team snaps alongside Tyler Jansey. Fickell said he expected inside linebacker to show the biggest difference of any position group from last year to this year.

The playmaking ability at outside linebacker was evident even on a day with few highlights. Lowery earned work with the top group alongside Peterson and also lined up with Pius and Aaron Witt. On one snap with the second-teamers, Lowery beat Heywood off the edge for a pressure. Later, while working with the first team, he tipped a Van Dyke pass. Witt missed two full seasons with injuries and returned to play in two games late last season and could be a factor.

“There is a physicality and an intensity that comes with what he does that we need and I think in some ways we missed a little bit last year,” Fickell said.

Freshman early enrollee outside linebacker Thomas Heiberger had one of the most impressive plays of the day, when he ran from the far side of the field to contain and stop Evers, who rolled to his left on a scramble. Heiberger fits the mold of the length and athleticism this staff wanted to add.

Secondary and punt returners

Toledo transfer RJ Delancy III paired with Jace Arnold as corners on the outside on the second-team defense, with Owen Arnett and Max Lofy earning snaps in the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, Delancy played 182 snaps last season in the slot and 198 as the wide corner.

It was thought that Delancy could perhaps be a replacement in the slot for departed senior Jason Maitre. But so far, Brown has held the top slot corner role, as Wisconsin likes his size at 6 feet 1 and 212 pounds. Brown, a safety before this season, started in the slot during the team’s bowl game. Lofy could be a candidate as well after missing last season with an injury. Wisconsin’s second-team safeties were redshirt freshmen Braedyn Moore and Justin Taylor.

No field goal kicking took place during practice Tuesday, but there were punt return drills. Vinny Anthony, CJ Williams and Tyrell Henry were part of a small group back on punt returns. Henry returned 13 punts for 89 yards at Michigan State last season and is a top candidate for the role at Wisconsin.

(Photo of Braedyn Locke: John Fisher / Getty Images)

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