Thursday, January 3, 2008

Football thoughts: Feeling hollow about '07, good about '08

OK, had about two days to digest the finality of the 2007 season. On Tuesday, I said if you feel like complaining about a 9-4 season, I feel sorry for you, but ...

This isn't a complaint, but this season does leave me feeling hollow, especially after blowing a shot at 10 wins. This feeling really set in for me the week of the Ohio State game, when I realized that everyone had picked us to finish ahead of the Buckeyes, and here they were in position to run away with the Big Ten. How often does Wisconsin enter the season as a consensus choice to play in a BCS game? Once every 6-8 years? That's why this season, without any major milestones, feels empty. I like that comparisons are being made to the aftermath of the 1998 Outback Bowl loss to Georgia, that is exactly what I was thinking of later Tuesday - we'll have a shot at something special next year, but after this year it won't be expected, we won't be ranked in the top 10 to start the season.

In a way, I felt the same way in March about the basketball season. Here we had our best team in modern times, our best player ever ... and a bunch of teenagers from Ohio State won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles, and UNLV's gunnin' grad student beat us in the second round. So what did we actually win, other than some very memorable regular season games? At least we made it to #1 and won 30 games for the first time in school history.

I'm starting to sound like one of those spoiled kids who enrolled at UW in 1998 and complained when we missed a bowl after the 2001 season, so let's get back to talking football, mainly with an eye on the future.

When Tyler Donovan was a backup, he looked horrible, and I feared the day he might have to start. Then he became a starter and, despite his flaws, was one of our all-time tough guys and played pretty damn well. This is why I'm not too concerned yet with Allan Evridge. He looked overwhelmed when inserted into game action this season, but give him a full spring as the starter, all the reps with the first-string line and receivers, and I think he'll be fine. I am excited to see what Curt Phillips is all about, but hope Evridge is good enough that Phillips can redshirt, then start for four years. This position is more important than ever, and may be the difference between another 8- or 9-win season and a truly special one.

Running back
Feeling good here if everyone stays. Even if one guy leaves, we should be OK, but we need three solid guys back there. As should have become clear by now, I still think P.J. Hill is our best guy by far. Lance Smith is fast but dances too much at times. Zach Brown is tough but doesn't have P.J.'s burst. John Clay is an unknown going in.

You know another guy I'm happy is coming back? Chris Pressley. Not so much for his on-field play, although it's solid, but because he strikes me as the kind of thoughtful, charismatic locker room leader type that great teams need, like a Joe Panos or Chris McIntosh.

Beckum's back, he's a known entity. It remains to be seen whether he puts on weight and works on blocking (and how that affects his receiving) or if he stay sat 225 or so and remains the same type of player - a dominant college player. Very excited about him and Garrett Graham in two-tight end sets next year. Kyle Jefferson had a nice rookie year but tailed off late, he can put on 20 good pounds without losing his athleticism. Who's the other starting wideout? My money is on Daven Jones. Something strikes me about this kid - he had to fight to get to Madison, then he worked his butt off on special teams this year. We really just need 25 catches or so out of that spot, and I think he can get them.

Offensive line
Marcus Coleman is the only loss, and while he was good and will be missed, we usually come up with a good center. Really liked Gabe Carimi's freshman year, and he can put a good 20 pounds on the 292 he played at this season. I think he could be the first four-year starter at left tackle since McIntosh. Unless Josh Oglseby is as good as advertised and pushes Carimi to right tackle, which I would not mind seeing. Figure Andy Kemp and John Moffit will play left guard and center. And Kraig Urbik might be the best of any of these guys, wherever he ends up. This should be a strong position.

Defensive line
Matt Shaughnessy is a nice player, but I would really like to see him dominate in his senior season - no more second team All-Big Ten, how about first team All-American? I think he's got it in him. Feel pretty good about Kirk DeCremer and/or O'Brien Schofield opposite/behind Shaughnessy, they showed good signs this year. Worried about defensive tackle - think Chapman will come back strong, but Brandon Hoey apparently has injury problems and if Jeff Stehle were capable, he would have played this year. Mike Newkirk reminds me of Ben Herbert from earlier this decade - a nice swing DL who is too small to be a regular DT. Hoping one or both of these junior college recruits can give some quality snaps - the coaches would not have brought them in if they didn't think it was necessary.

This position should be very strong next year. Jonathan Casillas is on the verge of an All-American performance for his senior year, he's so fast. DeAndre Levy is so versatile, and I rarely find myself fingering him for missed tackles. The key to this unit, and maybe the whole defense, is Elijah Hodge's knees. if he can stay healthy and practice regularly and play, our run defense gets a lot better. And though he's a liability in coverage, Jae McFadden is a pretty good nickel or dime LB, depending on whether or not Levy lines up at end.

This all depends on whether or not Ike returns. If he does, we're average here. If he doesn't, we're well below average. Let's assume he's off to the NFL. Ordinarily I'd like the Langford-Henry pairing, but both are coming off knee injuries, and we saw what that did to corners like Brett Bell. Shane Carter has great ball skills, but missed so many tackles this year. Strong safety is a crapshoot. It looked like Aubrey Pleasant got benched in the Outback Bowl, and it's hard to argue with the move. Jay Valai was OK, but Kim Royston continued to miss tackles as well. As noted earlier, apparently Chris Maragos will get a shot here, hopefully he can bring some consistency. Bottom line: we need Ike's ability to neutralize top receivers.

Special teams
David Gilreath was clearly a shot in the arm for the return units, and let's give credit to the blocking as well - he wasn't making something out of nothing, he was making something out of the window of opportunity presented him. In the kicking game, no matter who replaces Taylor Mehlhaff and Ken DeBauche, there will be a drop-off. It just can't be as big as the drop-off in the post-Davenport/Pisetsky/Stemke years, when the kicking game was god-awful. Also: long snapper Steve Johnson graduates, but we usually find an NFL-caliber guy there.

This year, there were two games where we didn't seem prepared to play: Penn State and Tennessee. That's curious, since you think we would have been fired up coming off the Illinois loss, and we had a month to prepare for the Outback Bowl. Only two games in my mind were well-played all the way around: Indiana and Michigan.

Other than that, the defense wasn't as good as expected, but my sense is that had more to do with injuries and things like the Jamal Cooper dismissal than coaching. Still, the tackling needs to improve, and the safety situation needs to improve. Offensively, the staff seemed to get along fine without Henry Mason, but it sure would be nice to have him back. Hopefully Paul Chryst won't leave, as seems to be a possibility this time each year.

Don't laugh, this has been an important part of all our best teams. My nominees: Pressley, Beckum, Casillas, Langford. These guys need to set the tone for the offseason and keep things headed in the right direction come fall.

So, 2008 in a nutshell:

-Feel good about: running back, receiver, offensive line, linebacker, return game
-Could go either way on: quarterback, defensive line, secondary with Ike
-Worried about: secondary without Ike, kicking game
-Overall: Feeling pretty good. Depending on how things break, this team could win anywhere from seven to 11 games.

My fingers are sore, what do you think?


Millie said...

I generally agree with your assessment of 2008 and the post-mortem of 2007. That said, there are a couple of things to note:

1. Isn't Oglesby better suited for RT? With his size I could see him in an Aaron Gibson role for the Badgers, and the coaches didn't seem to be wowed by Vanden Heuval this year.

2. I don't think the drop off in punting should be too big with Nortman coming in. One kicking coach considered him to be the best punting prospect in the nation. Not that this always means something, but the last time we had a heralded kicking prospect (Melhaff) it worked out pretty well.

3. I'm not as concerned about the safeties as you are. I know that they were generally poor in their tackling this year, but I know that Stellmacher and Rogers made huge strides between 2005 and 2006, so I'm hopeful that Carter and Pleasant/Valai/Royston can do the same.

mjschwal said...

I had the same feeling this year, Taps.

I would really like to see someone take Pleasant's spot. He got benched for a reason, I just think it was done about six games too late.

Two players stood out for me in the bowl game: Pressley and Schofield. Pressley was just blowing up guys. Couple that play with more vocal leadership and he could be a key guy for Bucky next year.

I really liked how active Schofield was. Seemed like a sure tackler and his name was called a bunch of times. Be interesting to see if he can build on that next year. Could be a big boost to the DL, what I think is our weakest spot right now.