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April 19, 2013

Spring game: 5 things to watch





MADISON - The Wisconsin Badgers will have a much different look when they take the field for their annual spring game Saturday afternoon. It'll be the first time Gary Andersen takes the field as Wisconsin's head coach, and the Badgers will also put some of their new schemes on display for the fans who make their way in to Camp Randall Stadium.

With that in mind, here are five things to watch for during Wisconsin's spring game.

How will the top two quarterbacks perform?

The battle between Joel Stave and Curt Phillips was pretty even during spring camp. Their strengths and weaknesses have been picked apart to no end: Stave's arm is much better than Phillips', but the sixth-year quarterback is more mobile than Stave. But after 14 practices, Stave and Phillips have one more big opportunity to show the coaches what they can do before the start of summer conditioning.

A good performance by either Stave or Phillips could leave a lasting impression with the coaches, and give them a head start over the rest of the competition and over incoming quarterback Tanner McEvoy, who will be given a shot to win the job when he gets on campus.

How will the 3-4 defense look?

The Badgers will alternate between a 3-4 front and a 4-3 front on defense during the 2013 season, and they began installing their 3-4 scheme this spring. The Badgers have used a lot of motion out of their 3-4 front during the spring, and have said their goal is to make another team's offense react to them instead of the other way around.

We also should get a good idea of just how often the Badgers will use the 3-4 or the 4-3, but the 3-4 is definitely their base defense moving forward. Keep an eye on the outside linebackers when they're in the 3-4. They're the playmakers in that kind of defense, and if things work well for the defense they'll be the ones getting in on the action.

Secondary concerns?

The Badgers return just one starter from last season's secondary: safety Dezmen Southward. Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary are the expected starters at cornerback, and Reggie Mitchell has played at strong safety a lot this spring. The Badgers will need their young secondary to grow up quickly if they want to keep opposing offenses in check this season, and the spring game should be a good barometer of where they're at.

The Badgers don't have a very deep group of wide receivers, so too many long completions might be a sign of trouble. Also keep an eye on Southward when the Badgers use a nickel package. More often than not he has shifted to play at nickel in those sets so the Badgers can take advantage of his man coverage skills. You might also want to make a note of how often the Badgers have their cornerbacks press the wide receivers. They've said they're going to try and do that more often this season, rather than giving receivers a cushion and playing it safe.

Youth movement

The Badgers will hold out several older players from the scrimmage, including Chris Borland, Ryan Groy and Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers can't afford for those players to get injured, so younger players will have plenty of chances to step up in their absence and show the coaches what they can do when they get an extensive amount of reps.

Keep an eye in particular on the offensive line, where Dallas Lewallen, Tyler Marz, Dan Voltz, and Ray Ball should all get plenty of reps in between the first and second teams. The Badgers are very concerned about their depth on the offensive line for this season, but strong performances from those linemen could go a long way towards ameliorating those concerns. They'll be going up against some tough defensive linemen and linebackers, and performing well could be a good launching pad as the move into summer conditioning and fall camp.

What's the energy level?

After 14 practices, players are dinged up and probably looking forward to getting some time to heal up before they dive into their summer conditioning. But don't be surprised to see a high energy level on Saturday, at least out of the defense. New defensive coordinator Dave Aranda wants his players to get hyped up and celebrate together after big plays like sacks and tackles for loss, and I don't think that will change in something that resembles a regular game. Beau Allen has been one of the most vocal players this spring, even though he hasn't practiced at all as he rests his ankle following offseason surgery. The defense will also be able to score points on big plays and by stopping a drive, so I don't think you'll see players sleepwalking through the Spring Game. Andersen wants his players to get excited and play with a lot of energy in both games and practices, and I think you'll see that on the field tomorrow.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.


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