Friday, August 16, 2013

Impact Freshmen for the Wisconsin Badgers

For any new coaching staff taking over a college program, one of the biggest challenges is securing commitments for their first recruiting class. Gary Andersen had the benefit of inheriting the start of an already quality class and did a phenomenal job of keeping most of those players on board during the transition to new coaches and new schemes.  The Badgers also have return players with starting experience at all but five positions. For a program like Wisconsin that recruits and develops players having a strong returning core is crucial. It means the opportunity for freshman playing time is hard to come by. The following are the five (ok six) players that have the best chance of getting on the field and contributing this year.

5 – Alec James (Brookfield East) – OLB and Chikwe Obasih (Brookfield Central ) - DE

It is fitting these players tied for the fifth spot. They are similar in size (James is 6’4” 230 pounds, Obasih 6’3” 240 pounds) and both played high school football in Brookfield . James and Obasih will fit in nicely with new defensive coordinators Dave Aranda 3-4 scheme. Last year at Utah State, Aranda’s defense was 11th in the country in sack percentage and 6th in sacks per game. Clearly Aranda loves to pressure opposing quarterbacks and to do that he needs pass rushers. Although the defensive line is deep with upper classman, none of them have experience in the new scheme which levels the playing field for the incoming freshman. James and Obasih will need to show they can get after the quarterback and playing time will come in sub packages as Aranda finds the right blend of aggressive pass rushers.

4 – Leon Jacobs (Golden Valley High School – Santa Clarita, CA) – OLB

Jacobs is part of Andersen and staff’s new recruiting formula targeting players out west which has traditionally not been an area Wisconsin has focused. Jacobs is a raw football prospect and flew under the radar by national recruiting publications mostly because he has only been playing organized football for two years. He spent most of high school playing basketball and winning a slam dunk competition (2010 National Prep Classic) as a sophomore. DC Aranda has already noted Jacobs flash plays during the first week of practice and along with Alec James is working interchangeably at both outside linebacker spots. His versatility in picking up both LB spots along with his athleticism means Jacobs will see the field sooner rather than later.

3 – Rob Wheelwright (Walnut Ridge High School – Columbus, OH) – WR

The Badgers spent all of last season looking for a compliment in the passing game to Jared Abbrederis. Unfortunately no one has been able to consistently provide that threat. Enter Rob Wheelwright. At 6’2” 198 pounds, Wheelwright has the size and physical capability to play right away. His brother Ernie played wide receiver for Minnesota  and his grandfather was a running back for the New Orleans Saints. With the size and genetics to be a big time player for the Badgers, Rob has to show  consistency in his route running. He has been impressing teammates during summer workouts getting mentions by James White and Tanner McEvoy as someone who stood out. Granted, the coaching staff is unlikely to rely heavily on Wheelwright this season, but he should find himself on the field in multiple receiver sets.

2 – Sojourn Shelton (Plantation High School – Fort Lauderdale, FL) – CB

Shelton enrolled early at Madison and was able to participate in spring practices. Shelton took full advantage of the opportunity in a defensive backfield looking to replace two starters from last season and was one of the more impressive corners on the field during the spring game. He has great footwork and anticipation for a young player and jumped a couple of routes getting his hands on two or three balls. Though he is slight at 5’9” 172 pounds, he also showed a willingness to come up and tackle and did not shy away from contact. Time will tell whether Shelton can withstand the physicality of the Big Ten but he has already added ten pounds since arriving in January. Shelton also brings some “South Florida Swagger” which has produced a lot of quality defensive backs throughout the years. Shelton figures to see action this year as the third corner in the nickel package during passing situations.

1 – Corey Clement (Glassboro High School – Glassboro, NJ) – RB

Clement has taken full advantage of the reshuffling of the running back depth chart. Junior Jeff Lewis was switched to defensive back and sophomore Vonte Jackson suffered another torn ACL and just like that Clement was all alone as the #3 RB. Andersen initially toyed with getting lead blocker Derek Watt some reps carrying the ball, but Clement has been so impressive during the first week of practice the idea was quickly scrapped. James White is an elusive runner, Melvin Gordon is explosive speed and Corey Clement is a sledgehammer. For a freshman, the first full pad college practice can be a challenge adjusting to the physicality. But nearly every practice report so far includes a bit about Clement running someone over or making another big play. While he make have fallen into the third running back spot due to other circumstances, Clement has shown he belongs. If he continues to perform at this level, he will force offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to find ways to involve him in the game plan on Saturdays. The Badger tradition of excellent running backs marches on – seriously check out this stiff arm by Clement.

Until next time, Beer, Brats, and Championships.

- Neal Olson (@olewr7)

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