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March 13, 2010

Badgers look to break through in Big Ten

There is lots of momentum and mojo in Madison, as Wisconsin is coming off a 10-win season and an impressive Champs Sports Bowl victory over Miami.

What's next? Perhaps a Big Ten championship.

Coach Bret Bielema stamped out any critics with last season's big effort. The Badgers' M.O. was the same as always: a strong ground game and physical defense. That helped Bielema forge the second 10-win season in his four years in Madison.

This spring, Bielema will be working with a veteran team, so it will be more about tweaking than overhauling.

Here's a look at the Badgers as they prepare to open spring practice.

WISCONSIN AT-A-GLANCE
Running back John Clay is back, but he will not participate in spring practice.
THE BASICS
Coach: Bret Bielema
Last season: 10-3 overall, 5-3 in the Big Ten. Beat Miami 20-14 in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Spring dates: March 13-April 17
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (8): T Gabe Carimi, RB John Clay, H-Back Lance Kendricks, C Peter Konz, G John Moffitt, QB Scott Tolzien, WR Nick Toon, G Kevin Zeitler.
Defense (6): CB Antonio Fenelus, MLB Culmer St. Jean, CB Devin Smith, OLB Mike Taylor, E/T J.J. Watt, SS Jay Valai.
Special teams (2): P Brad Nortman, K Philip Welch.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

It's all about a physical running attack. Junior RB John Clay, the 2009 Big Ten offensive player of the year, is back, along with four starting linemen. Clay paced the Big Ten with 1,517 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground, but he will miss spring practice recovering from ankle surgery. That means backup Montee Ball, a sophomore who is a future star, will get even more work. Some feel the offensive front could be the best in Madison in years. The Badgers also look good in the kicking game.

HELP IS NEEDED

The secondary is worrisome, especially the cornerback slots. The Badgers open spring drills with just five scholarship corners. The staff feels good about senior Devin Smith at one spot. But the other? Stay tuned. Another area to watch is defensive tackle, where four of last year's top five players are gone. The Badgers will miss playmaking DE O'Brien Schofield, but LB Chris Borland is back after earning Big Ten freshman of the year honors.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

FS Aaron Henry: He moved from cornerback halfway through last season and showed signs of promise. Henry has struggled to regain his form after missing 2008 with a knee injury following a breakout true freshman season in '07. Still, he is expected to take over for the departed Chris Maragos.

TE/H-back Lance Kendricks: With Garrett Graham gone, Kendricks needs to emerge at the high-profile H-back spot in this attack. Kendricks, a 6-foot-4, 236-pound senior, has soft hands and is a strong blocker who could become the top tight end in the Big Ten.

DL J.J. Watt: He enjoyed a breakout season last fall, racking up 15.5 tackles for loss, and is poised to be a star as a junior. Look for coaches to use the 6-6, 287-pound Watt, the lone returning starting on the d-line, at tackle and end.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

CB Niles Brinkley: Smith is set at one cornerback spot, and this will be the last chance for Brinkley, a senior, to prove he belongs as the starter on the other side. He is expected to battle junior Antonio Fenelus for the job. If the upperclassmen don't cut it, sophomore Marcus Cromartie and redshirt freshman Dezmen Southward could take over.

THE BUZZ

The Badgers may be a dark horse to win the Big Ten. It all will begin with what should be a prolific offense led by underappreciated QB Scott Tolzien, a senior who seemingly emerged out of nowhere last season. The big key this spring will be the development of the defense. The line and secondary lost key personnel, and leading tackler Jaevery McFadden is gone at linebacker, too.

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.


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