As he spoke about his young cornerbacks, University of Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst shared a philosophy he applies to all of his players during spring practices.
When he and his wife, Robin, were first-time parents, Chryst’s aunt imparted a lesson she’d learned as a kindergarten teacher.
“If I tell my kindergarten class … go to the other side of the playground, some would sprint, some would skipped, some would walk, but they’d all get to the other side of the playground,” Chryst said.
“And I think that's the same with players. If they want to be the best they can be and if they're coming from a good spot, everyone's timing and growth is different. But if they keep working and keep taking the coaching and reapplying that and trust in the coaching, they'll get there.”
Saturday’s practice, the third open to reporters and the Badgers’ ninth of 15 this spring, was an example of some players’ and groups’ development making an impact on the field.
Dike’s dramatic day
Sophomore receiver Chimere Dike continues to impress Chryst, and Saturday’s performance is an indication why.
Dike won a number of one-on-one battles against UW’s top corners in a red-zone drill, then made three catches during team sessions that showed what the Waukesha product can do. The first, on a crossing route, displayed his ability to fire off the line and beat a defender with speed. The second saw Dike jump over a defender and bring in a 50-50 ball in the back corner of the south end zone. The third was a perfect pass from sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz that thread the needle through two defensive backs. Dike, sprinting toward the far sideline in the south end zone, snared it and got two feet in bounds.
“Chim got a ton of reps and a lot of experience (last season),” Chryst said. “And I think he's done a nice job of taking that experience and building off of it. And I've been impressed really from the first time we got to be with Chim, and I think he's done a nice job this spring of taking advantage of spring and continuing to improve.”
Two TEs could be common
By a reporter’s count, UW used multiple tight ends on 33 of the 58 plays (56.9%) run in full-team portions of practice Saturday.
Tight ends getting more reps is partially due to the number of tailbacks who have missed time, with tight ends taking snaps that would normally go to fullbacks. UW has a known commodity in senior Jake Ferguson and appears to be developing another pass-catching threat in junior Jack Eschenbach, but there are plenty of chances this spring for young tight ends to impress coaches.
“We have a group that we want to find out more about,” Chryst said.
“Spring ball I don't think necessarily declares who the starters are necessarily going to be. But I think in the spring you've got to put yourself out there and you've got to prove that you can do something, that you can give something to the team that makes you valuable, worthwhile of the playing time. And then you’ve got to be able to do that consistently. And I think we've had guys at the tight end spot that have done some really good things, and you're starting to see consistency.”
Sophomore Hayden Rucci, who’s primarily been a blocking option, made a nice catch on a ball behind him in a third-down situation, and the group got the better of the safeties in a one-on-one drill in the end zone.
Multiple tight end packages could be something carried over into the fall, UW tight ends coach Mickey Turner said.
“It's a lot of times just knowing what to do and doing it right where in the past, that was kind of the battle, just getting to know what to do,” Turner said. “I think they all know what now, and so now I feel confident putting them in the game because it'll be in the right spot.”
Finding the ‘fine line’ with Leo Chenal
After cementing himself as a starter and one of the best players on UW’s defense last season, junior inside linebacker Leo Chenal is working on mastering technique this spring.
Chenal blew through a gap in the offensive line for what would’ve been a tackle for loss during the first 11-on-11 session of Saturday’s practice, showing quickness in his play recognition and reaction to it.
However, senior inside linebacker Jack Sanborn said that for his running mate to become even better, Leo Chenal needs to wait just a split-second more before going after the ball.
“He's a great downhill player. I mean, great physical, downhill player,” Sanborn said. “I think there are instances, and we've talked about it, instances that he can be more patient, sit back, let the D-line do their thing, let the D-line eat up a couple blocks and just be patient for that hole to open. It will open at some point and then you can attack it.”
Chryst smiled as he was asked about Sanborn’s advice to Chenal. The seventh-year UW coach agreed in part, but he doesn’t want Chenal to sacrifice the special traits he has for the sake of patience.
“A lot of those are the qualities that I think that we love and appreciate about Leo,” Chryst said. “There's a fine line. I think those qualities of how quick he is and explosive and the fact that he does trust himself and will trigger, those can be a strength. Then I think it’s balancing it.”
Fullbacks continue expanding roles
One result of the Badgers’ running back position being low on numbers is the increased usage of fullbacks John Chenal and Quan Easterling. Both have taken reps at running back in one-back formations and shown a knack finding holes as they develop.
They may not have the speed of a traditional tailback, but both run behind their pads and make it difficult for defenders to tackle them.
UW has had a run of versatile tailbacks under Chryst, with Alec Ingold and Mason Stokke aiding the offense as blockers, runners and receivers. Chenal, a senior, was split out as a receiver for a handful of spread formations on Saturday. He said he’s ready to do whatever the Badgers need.
“Coach needs me to run the ball, I’ll be happy to do that, but there's a lot of opportunity (to impact the game),” Chenal said. “I just want to do everything I can to hold up the standard of fullbacks at UW.”
From the infirmary
Here’s a look at the Badgers who didn’t practice Saturday or were limited. This is an unofficial list, as UW did not provide a status report. Listed injuries were confirmed with UW.
- RB Jalen Berger (leg)
- TE Cole Dakovich
- WR Danny Davis (Non-COVID illness)
- RB Julius Davis (leg)
- TE Jaylan Franklin (hamstring)
- DL Rodas Johnson
- OLB Riley Nowakowski (right leg)
- ILB Mailk Reed
- ILB Jordan Turner
- DL James Thompson Jr. (right leg)
- DL Bryson Williams (right leg)
- OLB Aaron Witt (right leg)
- DL Keeanu Benton (left leg)
- RB Isaac Guerendo (leg)
- ILB Mike Maskalunas
- CB Semar Melvin (right arm)
Breaking down the Wisconsin Badgers 2021 recruiting class by position
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Deacon Hill (Santa Barbara, Calif.)
Quick analysis: Hill has a strong arm and shown enough in camps to rise to a four-star recruit on Rivals. Competition level is a question mark at the high school level, but he’s got the tools to be a good college quarterback.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Hill: Quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr “identified him really early. We thought he had great arm strength when you compared him to the best players in the country who were out there. We thought he was right there from the jump. … We really liked him, we felt personality-wise the people that surrounded him and supported him, how he worked, all those things were a great fit for us.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Jackson Acker (Madison), Loyal Crawford (Eau Claire), Antwan Roberts (Nashville, Tenn.)
Quick analysis: There’s been talk about Acker switching positions at the college level, but UW listed him as a running back Wednesday. Acker didn’t play in the fall due to COVID-19, but he has shown a good mix of speed and power as a ball carrier. … Crawford has a James White-level ceiling as a third-down back and the most shiftiness of the bunch. … Roberts has explosion and proven ability to run through tackles.
Rudolph’s thoughts on the group: “I think they’re all kind of unique. Jackson’s a guy that obviously would have position flexibility, but he kind of is explosive. … Then you see Loyal, and Loyal’s got great speed, great change of direction, a chance for a home run hitter. I think he’s got great quicks in and out and, again, I think all these guys, we’ll find out exactly where they’re at when they come in, but I think guys that are just really good football players as well. … Antwan, what he does to this point, complete back and had a great senior year.”
Number of players: 2
Who are they: Skyler Bell (Bronx, N.Y.), Markus Allen (Clayton, Ohio, expected to sign Wednesday evening)
Quick analysis: The Badgers landed two players who possess good speed and agility at arguably the biggest position of need in the class. … Bell has a suddenness to his cuts that makes him dangerous as a receiver and returner. … Allen shows good ball skills when making contested catches and great body control.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Bell, who wasn’t able to visit campus before committing: “I just think you take the time to reach out. Whether it was Zoom meetings with him and his family, or whether it was phone calls, you took the time to be able to answer questions that pop up in their minds. I think those things are always huge.”
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Jack Pugh (Columbus, Ohio)
Quick analysis: He has long strides that help him cover a lot of ground and he’s shown an array of route-running skills from both an on-line and split-out positions.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Pugh: “Jack played his first year of football last year. This was his second year. Really a guy that was a hoop player that jumped into it. Watching his film, I thought he was really physical for a guy that hadn’t played football. He was physical at D-end as well as tight end. I think he’s got the ability to separate. I think he’s got really a lot of speed and explosiveness.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: JP Benzschawel (Grafton), Riley Mahlman (Lakeville, Minn.), Nolan Rucci (Lititz, Pa.)
Quick analysis: The Badgers are set up to continue churning out great O-lines for years to come after an impressive haul of linemen in 2019. … Benzschawel is the third of his brothers to come to UW, and he’s shown great power and strength as a blocker. … Mahlman might be the most athletic of the bunch, having played tight end for a time in high school and as a basketball standout. … Rucci, the lone five-star recruit in the class, has all the tools to become an All-American tackle.
Rudolph’s thoughts on the group: “I think they’re big, athletic guys that you have to have as defenses are pretty darn athletic and being able to keep up with them. … I think those guys match in their work ethic and their mind-set, I think they’ll make a major impact here.”