MADISON, Wis. – To those Wisconsin fans worried about what the defense might look like this year without linebacker Chris Borland and seven other starters, the returnees would like to send a message.
"We're still here!"
Coach Gary Andersen likes that this team feels as if it has something to prove going into his second year in Madison.
"You know a lot of guys have played a lot of games here, but they may not have been labeled 'starter,'" senior inside linebacker Derek Landisch said. "So I think people come out here with a chip on their shoulders, and they're ready to prove something."
The Badgers finished 9-4 last season in Andersen's successful debut season. He had built-in experience with a senior-laden defense, though Wisconsin did rotate players in and out with fairly regular frequency.
That gave guys such as Landisch and nose guard Warren Herring, another key player in this year's front seven, valuable experience in what had been a newly-installed 3-4 scheme. Landisch noted that having a full year of grasping Andersen's defense should help.
"A lot of people don't recognize that. I think that's something that's really going to help us, the familiarity with the defense, with the scheme," Landisch said.
There is star power on offense, with 1,600-yard rusher Melvin Gordon carrying on the tradition of strong Badgers backs. Andersen is still sorting through a quarterback competition between incumbent Joel Stave and dual-threat challenger Tanner McEvoy. The readiness of the young or inexperienced receivers remains in question, though the offensive line appears to be as bullish as ever.
Wisconsin is a favorite in the newly-realigned Big Ten West division. The first test doesn't get any tougher – against LSU in the season opener Aug. 30 in Houston.
Five things to watch ahead of the showdown with the Tigers:
Go-Go Gordon: The junior bypassed a chance to enter the NFL draft – bad news for the rest of the Big Ten. Gordon is the nation's active career leader in rushing average with 8.1 yards per carry.
QB quandry: Another year, another quarterback competition at Camp Randall Stadium. Once again, Stave is in the middle of it, this time as the incumbent, though the junior is coming off an inconsistent sophomore campaign and a shoulder injury suffered in the Capital One Bowl that limited him in spring practice.
One issue Stave noticed he needed to fix is to not take off from the pocket as much when in trouble.
"If the protection is there, just relax and stay in the pocket and throw," Stave said. "I'm not always bailing out of the pocket, but sometimes I'm taking a bigger hitch than I need."
Tanner two-step: If Andersen sticks with Stave, McEvoy might not be just holding a clipboard. Andersen has said he is looking at installing more "spread-type" looks, which would suit McEvoy. That could help ease the growing pains for the receiving corps.
Changing up: Speaking of the trendy spread, the Badgers are looking at shaping a lighter, faster, and more versatile defense. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said the goal is to punch up the big-play potential, while tracking down scrambling quarterbacks and keeping up with three- or four-wide looks.
Safety valve: Six-foot-1 junior Michael Caputo might be the perfect example of the more versatile Badger. He's listed at safety, and should play a key role in stopping the run. All the Badgers say they can't replace Borland's big-play prowess, though Caputo has the potential.
"It's hard to say to replace somebody because we're all different athletes," Caputo said. "But we're all looking to be playmakers."