We're a few months ahead of the start of Badger fall camp, but coachs and players a like will tell you that it's the summer months that make the biggest difference in a player. It's a time spent amongst the players themselves as coaches aren't allowed to have contact in terms of actual coaching. So with that, what Badgers have the most to prove from this summer?
1. Danny O’Brien, QB
An obvious choice at #1 here, incoming transfer quarterback Danny O’Brien has the most to prove going into the 2012 season. With a battered corps of inexperienced QBs, O’Brien brings a boost of starts, health, and talent to the position group. But how much talent? In 2010 he was pronounced ACC Rookie of the Year, after posting 2,438 yards, 22 TDs (8 INTs), and a 57% completion rate in a pro-style system. Respectable numbers, although that is far too low a completion % than Badger fans have grown accustomed to (Russell Wilson – 72.8%, Scott Tolzien – 73%). After Randy Edsall arrived, Maryland changed to the spread, a system O’Brien was not suited or adjusted to. As a result, he threw for only 1,648 yards, 7 TDs, and 10 INTs before being benched. Badger fans hope (and some assume) that O’Brien will be the Badger’s starting QB this fall, and that he will be the team’s savior in a similar way that ACC transfer QB Russell Wilson was in 2011. Beware – O’Brien is not Wilson. O’Brien has the most to prove going into 2012 because he is a relatively unknown commodity at the most important position on the field. His career statistics are somewhat sporadic, but was that the result of the system he was in, a decrease in focus, or some other reason? Regardless, his leadership, work ethic, command of the offense, and chemistry with receivers will all be pivotal if the Badgers are to have a chance at a third consecutive Big Ten Title.
2. David Gilbert, DE
At #2 is David Gilbert, a man who many fans hope will revive the Badger pass rush of old. Sacks were a rare sight in opposing backfields last season. With JJ Watt’s departure, everyone asked who would replace him? The response was, “We hope to achieve the same level of production that JJ brought via committee.” It was assumed at that time that David Gilbert, known as a freakish athlete, would be among those contributing, along with Louis Nzegwu and a bevy of defensive tackles. Unfortunately, Gilbert suffered injury and sat out the majority of the season. Even though the defense ranked highly as a whole, sacks and QB hurries dropped, especially on plays without blitzes. There simply wasn’t any consistent or reliable pass rush. Gilbert brings speed and quickness to the edge that Badger fans haven’t seen since O’Brien Schofield, who had 12 sacks and 24.5 TFLs in 2009. Working opposite of Gilbert in 2012 will be Brendan Kelly, and while he should also be improved, it is Gilbert who fans will look to for big plays this fall.
3. James White, RB
It almost hurts me to mention James White on this list, but I feel like I have no choice. Going into 2011, everyone was talking about two things: Russell Wilson, and the two-headed monster at Running Back (Ball/White). As the season progressed, Montee Ball exploded on the scene with big play after big play, posting insane yards and touchdown numbers. He seemed to almost get stronger as games went along, and as the season progressed. Meanwhile, White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, lagged behind. At least at the outset of the year the carries were about even, but something was “off” with White, and eventually Ball became the featured RB. We shouldn’t shake our heads at White’s 713 yards and 6 touchdowns, numbers that starters on some teams would be happy to have. But if you watched him run last season, hesitancy was apparent. Rather than taking the ball to the edge and using his speed like he did in 2010, White seemingly was attempting to be an in-between the tackles kind of runner. It didn’t work. Many times when I watched, he would hit the hole, or come face to face with a defender, and rather than make a gut reaction/allow his instincts to guide him, he thought about it too much, often falling forward or just down, for minimal gain. During his breakout year in 2010 he led the nation with 6.7 yards per carry. In 2011 this fell to 5.1 YPC, a significant drop. Going into 2012 there is no doubt that Montee Ball will be the focal point of the Badger attack. But White, being the #2 (and pressured for that spot by Melvin Gordon) must be ready and able to carry the rock when his number is called. Defenses will be zeroing in on Ball, so when White hits the field, he must make them realize that he’s also a legitimate threat. Who knows, perhaps we’ll have both on the field at the same time, something Badger fans haven’t seen in a very long time. Regardless, White is a phenomenal athlete who brings valuable talents to the Wisconsin RB corps – speed, quickness, good hands and experience. In 2012 he must prove that he’s grown as a player and leader, and that even though he isn’t the feature back like he was (for at least part of) in 2010, that he can still be relied upon to gain yards and score points.
4. Marcus Cromartie
Antonio Fenelus, gone. Aaron Henry, gone. Going into 2012, who will step up to be leaders and playmakers in the Badger secondary? Enter Marcus Cromartie. A young man with physical tools but thus far, inconsistent play, Cromartie could be the next star at CB for the red and white. Along side him will be Devin Smith who, over the years, has blossomed into a reliable defender. Unfortunately last year he was injured, thrusting Cromartie into a much more active role. He had ups and downs through the season, but showed potential. This year he is the guy, and he’ll have to step up, specifically with his mental game and being dialed in on every play. For years, the Badgers haven’t had a lockdown secondary, but I have high hopes for Cromartie, Smith, Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward. Hopefully Cromartie can live up to the potential, but he certainly has a lot to prove.
5. Jeff Duckworth
Fans will never forget the 36 yard pass on 4th and 6 Jeff Duckworth caught in the 2011 Big Ten Championship Game. No matter what else happens in his career, that catch will go down in Badger lore. However, with the departure of Nick Toon, Jeff Duckworth can’t only be a one-play pony, he needs to step up as a reliable #2 receiving option. Jared Abbrederis is experienced and skilled enough to be a #1, but Duckworth has far less playing time and catches. Will he be able to match up, and provide enough of a threat to make defenses take him seriously? From what we saw last year, his hands are reliable and his routes are solid. But he lacks elite speed. As game commentators during the Championship game mentioned last year, Paul Chryst once said of Duckworth, “I don’t design plays for him, but I don’t mind if the ball is thrown to him.” I’m not sure if that’s an underhanded compliment, endorsement, or what. Regardless, Duckworth will be seeing the field a great deal more this season, and must be dependable with the ball in his hands. No doubt that with a new QB, the Badger offense will rely even more on the play of Montee Ball and James White. However, when the #15 is called, Duckworth must be ready to answer.
Alternate: Ethan Armstrong Jr.
In 2011, the Badger linebacking corps returned to glory. Not necessarily in forced fumbles, interceptions, or tackles for loss. But with solid, consistent stops and play-reading ability, Chris Borland and Mike Taylor erupted onto the scene as tackling machines. They both earned 1st Team All Big Ten honors, leading the conference in tackles. The third member of 2011’s crew was Kevin Claxton, a solid run-stopper, but not someone fans could rely on for big plays. Claxton has graduated – now enter Ethan Armstrong, who many think will be the next starter at outside linebacker. While there is some uncertainty about who will be the starter, reports from Spring camp have Armstrong as the current frontrunner. Ethan has a lot to prove because he is an almost unknown. Playing only limited minutes throughout his career thus far, Armstrong is moving to one of the most important positions on the defense, working along side two of the nation’s best in Borland and Taylor. With an emphasis on putting more pressure on opposing QBs, OLBs will play a pivotal role. Does Armstrong have the physical and mental tools to get the job done? And can he lock up the spot this fall camp? Time will tell, and he is certainly someone I’ll be keeping an eye on over the coming months.