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April 29, 2012

Defense solid in spring game



MADISON - Spring camp is all but wrapped up now that the Badgers have finished their spring game, but there's still a few bits of news and other notes to go over. The Badgers will move into their summer workouts after getting a bit of time off for finals, and will probably start fall camp in early August.

-- The Badgers' first team defense looked pretty impressive during the intra-squad scrimmage, holding the second-string offense to just 42 total yards over four quarters. Defensive tackle Beau Allen had a sack and two other tackles for loss on the day, while linebacker A.J. Fenton had three tackles for loss of his own.

It was definitely an encouraging sign, even against the second string, because the defense is looking to be an improved unit in the fall. The Badgers were still missing three projected starters on Saturday, with defensive end David Gilbert and linebacker Mike Taylor missing all of spring camp, and cornerback Devin Smith sat out after tweaking his ankle earlier in the week. Keep an eye out for them when the Badgers get back into action later this summer.

-- In a related vein, redshirt freshman linebacker Jake Keefer had six tackles during the game with the second-team defense. He was only credited with one tackle for loss, but it seemed like he was involved in several good plays. It's honestly unlikely that Keefer will see much time in the two-deep this fall, since the Badgers have plenty of options at linebacker, but Bret Bielema seemed impressed with the young linebacker's performance.

Bielema also mentioned that Keefer still has room to grow, and said that the Badgers would prefer to move him from the weakside to the middle linebacker spot.

-- It was the same old story for the wide receivers during the spring game, with the position group experiencing ups and downs through most of the game. Marquis Mason in particular had a rough game, as the redshirt sophomore struggled to reel in several balls that were thrown his way. We'll see if the 6-foot-4 receiver can establish himself as a more consistent receiver in the fall.

On the other hand, fellow receiver Chase Hammond looked pretty good during the spring game. Hammond showed flashes of his athletic ability periodically during spring camp, and had four catches for 48 yards and one touchdown. Hammond's touchdown was hard earned, too. The 6-foot-5 Hammond caught Joel Stave's pass a few yards short of the goal line, but Hammond fought forward through two defenders and stretched out the ball to break the plane for the score.

-- Players like Russell Wilson, Kevin Zeitler, and Peter Konz get most of the press for leaving the Badgers after last season, but the Badgers also need to replace two solid special teams players in Philip Welch and Brad Nortman. We got our first extended look at their potential replacements on Saturday: Kyle French and Drew Meyer were on the roster last year, but the Badgers also tried out a few other players as well during the spring.

French was 8-of-10 during the rapid-fire field goal competitions, with his longest make coming on a 52-yard attempt. French said after the game that he thinks he's added a few yards to his range since last season, and the Badgers did have him attempt a 57-yard field goal at the end of the rapid-fire competition.

On the punting side of things, Meyer got the most reps during the game, and averaged 35.9 yards per punt on 8 attempts. That's not ideal, but he was better than the other options the Badgers brought in, and Nortman did set the bar pretty high after averaging 42.1 yards per punt during four years as the Badgers' starting punter.

-- It was also an eventful weekend for several former Badgers, with the NFL Draft kicking off on Thursday night. The Cincinnati Bengals selected guard Kevin Zeitler in the first round on Thursday, and center Peter Konz went in the second round to the Atlanta Falcons. Russell Wilson rose up many draft boards and went in the third round to the Seattle Seahawks, and the New Orleans Saints selected wide receiver Nick Toon in the fourth round.

In all, the Badgers had six players selected in the first six rounds of the draft, with Atlanta also selecting fullback Bradie Ewing in the fifth round and the Carolina Panthers selecting Nortman in the sixth round.

"It's definitely a great pat on the back for our program," Bielema said Saturday.

The Badgers also had several players sign free agent contracts with NFL teams after the draft ended. Safety Aaron Henry agreed to terms with the Oakland Raiders, defensive tackle Patrick Butrym signed with the San Francisco 49ers, tight end Jake Byrne will join Toon in New Orleans, Antonio Fenelus signed with the Indianapolis Colts, defensive end Louis Nzegwu will join Konz and Ewing in Atlanta, and long snapper Kyle Wojta signed a contract with the Chicago Bears.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.


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