MADISON — Wisconsin was back on the practice field Monday morning as it continued to prep for the 2022 season.
It was the third session open to the media in its entirety. Here’s some of what we learned.
Player of the Day: Dean Engram
The junior wide receiver showed up all the time in the spring and was back at it on Monday. A guy the Badgers are probably going to use extensively in the slot, Engram was a favorite target during an extended red zone period, especially for backup quarterback Chase Wolf. The former defensive back found himself open numerous times in the middle of the field and made some impressive diving catches, including a slick grab at the goal line.
“He’s got a really good feel for space, he’s savvy and he’s scrappy,” wide receivers coach Alvis Whitted said Saturday when asked what he likes about Engram in the slot. “He’s a good football player, really (smart) kid. I just love his approach to everything.”
In addition to his work on offense, Engram figures to be Wisconsin’s main punt returner once again.
The good: Chez Mellusi
Roughly 9 ½ months out from tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against Rutgers, Mellusi continues to amaze with where he is physically. If you didn’t know he’d missed the last month of the season and the entire offseason program, you wouldn’t be able to tell a difference between him and the rest of the running backs.
With starter Braelon Allen sitting out practice, Mellusi was with the first-team offense and shined. His highlight play came in light scrimmage portion of practice. He took a handoff from quarterback Graham Mertz, burst through the line, made one move and was off for what would have been a 50-yard touchdown. Earlier in practice, Mellusi also showed some short area quickness, juking his way past hard-charging linebacker Tate Grass behind the line of scrimmage.
The Chez Mellusi run from this morning. Remarkable he’s doing this roughly 9 1/2 months out from his injury. pic.twitter.com/8AvbmW0Mq2
The risk for injury is always present and there were some concerning ones that popped up Monday, namely Allen. He was getting stretched out before practice and ended up not taking part. It appeared to be a leg injury, though Wisconsin would only say he was “nicked up” and was being held out as a precaution.
During practice, offensive lineman Tanor Bortolini went down during 1-on-1 pass blocking drills and did not return. After practice, a UW official said the redshirt sophomore was being evaluated but didn’t have any more information. Bortolini had been working as the No. 2 center, while also getting some work with the first-team offense at both guard spots.
Those injuries came as the likes of cornerbacks Alexander Smith, Justin Clark and Max Lofy watched practice from the sidelines, while defensive end Isaiah Mullens was held out of contact drills Monday.
The young WRs:
Markus Allen, Skyler Bell and Keontez Lewis all flashed big play potential on Monday. Allen was especially good in the red zone, going up to rip 50-50 balls down for touchdowns a couple of times. Bell scored on a 50-yard touchdown from Mertz after burning his guy with a double move, while Lewis also had a 50-yard grab, pulling in a perfect pass from Chase Wolf with a defensive back hanging all over him.
There were definitely some throws that Mertz and Wolf would want back, but they put together the best practice of the three the media has seen. In fact, there were more positive plays out of the pass game Monday than in any practice the media saw last fall. That’s the good news. The bad news is there seems to be a lack of consistency practice-to-practice, which coach Paul Chryst noted afterward.
“There’s times where you feel like we are making progress. And then there’s times we need to take advantage of this camp because it’s not where we want to be,” Chryst said. “That applies to the passing game and everything (else) we’re doing. There’s moments but I think we’re not where we want to be yet.”
ILB Jordan Turner:
In a battle for the starting job, the redshirt sophomore just flies all over the field. His diving pass breakup on third down ended the first possession of a move the ball segment for the second-team offense.
“He’s impressive physically. You look at him and you’re like, wow,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said of Turner. “He’s big, he’s physical, he can run and he’s a striker. He probably runs as well as any linebacker we’ve had here recently out of that inside ‘backer group. But when you start talking the physical side, sometimes you overlook (the mental side.) He understands ball. He gets it and he can communicate. So it’s a lot of fun pushing him because the ceiling is extremely high.”
Seen from the sideline
— With Mullens not taking part in contact periods, it was redshirt sophomore James Thompson Jr. and junior Rodas Johnson at defensive end with the first-team defense. Redshirt sophomore Cade McDonald and junior Tommy Brunner were the DEs with the second team.
— The inside linebacker battle continues with Grass and Turner battling at the ‘mike’ spot and junior Maema Njongmeta and sophomore Jake Chaney competing at the ‘will’ position. Grass and Njongmeta have been working together, while Turner and Chaney have been paired up. Both groups saw time with the first-team defense.
— For a second straight practice that was open to the media it was redshirt freshman Riley Mahlman lining up as the first-team right tackle.
“I think he’s improved at a pretty good click. He’s making some good strides in a short amount of time, which we need him to do,” offensive line coach Bob Bostad said. “He’s still a young guy and he needs reps, but I like the way he approaches the game. I like the way he plays the game. He’s physical and wants to be tough.”
Logan Brown, who was held out of contact with a stinger on Saturday, was with the second team at right tackle. The junior was unable to finish the practice, leading redshirt sophomore Trey Wedig to take on the No. 2 snaps in his place.
— It appears true freshman Joe Brunner has made an impression on Bostad. The highest-rated recruit in Wisconsin’s 2022 class had been getting third-team reps at left guard but was with the second team on Monday.
— Nick Herbig is a menace. The junior has had some very good battles with left tackle Jack Nelson during 1-on-1s, but he owned one rep during team drills. Herbig used a nasty spin move that got him by Nelson with ease and ended with him in Mertz’s lap.
— Speaking of Nelson…he is known for playing through the whistle and not backing down from some physicality. The same can be said for redshirt freshman outside linebacker Darryl Peterson. Those two got tangled up in the backfield after a play, leading to some swings and a takedown that brought dozens of other players into fray before things got broken up.
Wisconsin will hold another practice Tuesday night. The next – and final – open practice is Sunday. That is also open to the public. You can find more information about that here.