Badgers: News and notes as Wisconsin gets set to open spring practice
Luke Fickell didn’t want to wish the next few days away, but the new Wisconsin football coach “can’t wait” for Saturday when his team will open up spring practice with the first of 15 sessions over the next month.
“For me, it kind of starts to feel like Christmas morning…,” Fickell said. “We’ve done a lot of different things, got to know each other in a lot of different ways, did some walkthrough stuff, did some jog through stuff, threw some balls, but you haven’t really done it together. So, I’m excited for Saturday to kind of be that first time where we get a better glimpse of ourselves and who we are.”
Fickell and eight of his players spoke with the media Monday, in addition to reporters getting an updated roster and a practice schedule. Here are some of the more notable things we learned.
Mordecai and other transfers fitting in
In the summer of 2011, Russell Wilson stepped on campus in July and was named a team captain about six weeks later. His mix of talent and vocal leadership found a receptive audience in Wisconsin’s locker room. It appears the talent and work ethic from the latest senior transfer quarterback — Tanner Mordecai — is finding a similar positive reaction among the current crop of Badgers and his new coach.
“He has done a phenomenal job. He’s been everything that I would hope for,” Fickell said. “He came in and kept his mouth shut, went to work, proved a lot of things, I think not just to me and the coaches but to the players.”
Mordecai commanded at least some respect from the moment he stepped on campus after throwing for 7,152 yards and 72 touchdowns over the last two seasons at SMU. But he’s earned even more with his work ethic during winter conditioning. That was most evident when the team took to the wrestling mats for competitions like tug-o-war or fighting for control of a tire, events not exactly suited to the normal quarterback lifestyle.
“It’s tough. It’s always tough,” Tanor Bortolini said of the drills. “Just to see your quarterback dig in deep at times where a lot of guys are having a hard time and kind of leading by example is something I really appreciate. I think a lot of guys respect that and look up to that.”
The 23-year-old was one of 13 transfers that joined the program this offseason. Like it was for the previous staff, finding the right fit socially was nearly as important as what they could do on the field. Still, you can’t be totally sure it will work until a player arrives.
“I have not sensed any of the things that I (normally) worry about just yet,” Fickell said. “I think bringing in guys with a lot of different backgrounds, there was 13 of those newer guys, that in my mind is unique. How do these guys mesh together with the core nucleus of what we’ve had here and the culture that has been here?”
There is little doubt that Mordecai will be Wisconsin’s starter when it steps on the field against Buffalo on Sept. 2. He didn’t come to Madison for his final year to sit on the bench and watch. Yet, instead of feeling entitled to anything, Mordecai has worked hard to prove himself to his new teammates and build relationships. That started almost from the moment he chose to transfer to Wisconsin, including reaching out to running back Chez Mellusi to go over plays within the first week or two of being in town.
“I think he has embraced the unique cultures and the guys in that locker room and didn’t walk in and expect to be handed anything,” Fickell said. “He’s just done it and in a really humble way with an incredible work ethic.”
Wisconsin’s roster is fully updated with heights and weights twice a year — once before spring ball and again before fall camp starts. It usually leads to the more obsessed fans (and reporters) poring over it to see who gained or lost weight, who changed their number or position, in addition to getting confirmation on guys no longer with the program. Monday was no different in that respect, as school officials distributed the first updated roster since last fall.
The #Badgers spring roster. pic.twitter.com/J5xBGy1ewD
— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) March 20, 2023
The first thing that jumped out was that reserve cornerback Al Ashford was not on the roster. A part of Wisconsin’s 2021 class, the Colorado native missed his freshman year due to a shoulder injury. Last season he played in four games before his season was cut short by injury again.
Though not on the roster, Ashford’s status is a little murky after he tweeted Monday night, “I’m a Badger.”
There were not too many position changes that weren’t already known, though the roster made it official. That included Jackson Acker going from fullback to running back, Riley Nowakowski going from fullback to tight end and Cade Yacamelli switching from safety to running back.
As for weight changes, most of the roster either added to their frame or stayed about the same. Among those that added was running back Braelon Allen going from 235 pounds a year ago to 240.
“I’m definitely definitely heavier than I was last year,” Allen said. “It’s kind of where I plan to stay. I feel good. I’m faster than I was, and definitely a lot stronger than I was. I think that’ll be good (weight) for me play.”
Others potential contributors that put on five pounds or more included outside linebacker Kaden Johnson (+18) to 248, outside linebacker TJ Bollers (+17) to 268, inside linebacker Maema Njongmeta (+11) to 240, inside linebacker Jordan Turner (+10) to 235, defensive lineman Darian Varner (+13) to 278, cornerback Alexander Smith (+7) to 190, safety Travian Blaylock (+10) to 208, kicker Nate Van Zelst (+20) to 204, kicker Nathanial Vakos (+10) to 198 tight end Jack Pugh (+16) to 252, tight end JT Seagreaves (+10) to 234 and wide receiver Chris Brooks Jr (+10) to 225.
The list below is all of the notable players that gained or lost weight:
Nick Evers +5 to 190
Braelon Allen +5 to 240
Chris Brooks Jr. +10 to 225
CJ Williams +7 to 197
Vinny Anthony +6 to 177
Will Pauling +6 to 186
Skyler Bell +5 to 195
Jack Pugh +16 to 252
JT Seagreaves +10 to 234
Cam Large +7 to 242
Jake Renfro +8 to 316
Trey Wedig +7 to 322
Barrett Nelson +7 to 284
Nolan Rucci +5 to 302
Darian Varner +13 to 278
Curt Neal +7 to 297
Rodas Johnson +6 to 299
Kaden Johnson +18 to 248
TJ Bollers +17 to 268
Aaron Witt +10 to 265
Aidan Vaughn +7 to 220
Maema Njongmeta +11 to 240
Jordan Turner +10 to 235
Amaun Williams +10 to 187
Alexander Smith +7 to 190
Avyonne Jones +6 to 193
Travian Blaylock +10 to 208
Nate Van Zelst +20 to 204
Nathanial Vakos +10 to 198
Jack Nelson -5 to 305
Tommy Brunner -15 to 245
Isaiah Mullens -8 to 295
James Thompson Jr. -5 to 290
CJ Goetz -5 to 235
Spencer Lytle -6 to 228
Bringing the energy and excitement
The excitement around Wisconsin’s program is nearly unprecedented, as Fickell and his staff have seemingly been hitting home runs since taking over in December.
“I love it. Anything that is good for our guys and our players and creates energy I love,” Fickell said. “If there’s not energy out there, there’s not excitement about it, then you got to worry.”
A lack of excitement or energy is nowhere to be found inside the facility and that’s by design. Whether it’s in the weight room with Brady Collins, on the turf inside the McClain Center for workouts or when the recruiting staff hosts players on visits, it’s clear the vibe is an intense one.
“I would say we are a high energy team in everything we do,” Fickell said. “If you don’t have energy, if you don’t have passion for what you’re doing, then it’s not worth doing. There is no such thing as laid back. I tell the recruits, ‘Look, if you’re wanting a laid back coach, and you want to chill at times, that’s not me. This is probably not going to be the best place for you, because there’s no chill in me.'”
Fickell wasn’t ready to divulge any names of guys that won’t take part in spring, in part because they are still deciding on several of them. He did say guys that suffered ACL and hip injuries likely won’t practice, while others could be wearing non-contact jerseys. Senior Travian Blaylock will be included in that second group as he comes back from a leg injury sustained in spring ball last year.
Also, we know from speaking with their position coaches, that tight end Clay Cundiff (broken leg) and outside linebacker Aaron Witt (foot) won’t be out there, though Cundiff may be able to do some non-contact work later in spring.
— Mellusi and Allen praised the hire of running backs coach Devon Spalding, who played the position in college and served in the same role the last three years at Youngstown State. He replaced Al Johnson, who was an All-American offensive lineman for the Badgers and had never coached running backs when he got the job last year.
“It’s kind of refreshing to have somebody that’s played the position and can coach us from from that perspective,” Allen said.
— Maema Njongmeta led Wisconsin in tackles last season and graded out as one of the better inside linebackers in the Big Ten, according to Pro Football Focus. But it was the plays he missed that continue to push him.
“…there is more to be done, more work to be done, more to be had. I left a lot of meat on the bone last year.”
— After serving as Wisconsin’s center in the bowl games, Bortolini will work at guard in the spring after the arrival of former Cincinnati center Jake Renfro, an All-AAC performer in 2021.
“I’m excited for that opportunity. I like playing guard, being able to pull and do all those things,” Bortolini said. “Jake is obviously a tremendously good center and I’m excited to play next to a guy like. Playing next to (Joe Tippmann) last year, I had an opportunity to play next to someone really good. Thankfully, having Renfro stepping in to fill that role, I’m excited just because it’s such a high caliber player.”
— At most programs, the media rarely gets to see practices. That hasn’t been the case at Wisconsin under previous coaches, with Paul Chryst, Gary Andersen and Bret Bielema all allowing the press in for a set number of practices. But access to see the Badgers is about to go way up with Fickell in charge, as reporters will get to see all 15 practices this spring. You can keep up with all of it as we turn our podcast, The Camp, into a daily show starting this Saturday. Make sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.