news world

Wisconsin takeaways: What we learned about RBs, O-line and more as camp begins

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s football team hit the field Wednesday morning at Camp Randall Stadium for its first preseason practice, one month out from the opener against Illinois State. Reporters were granted a viewing window of the first 30 minutes, which revealed little other than an opportunity to see some individual drills and special-teams work.

However, the team held its local media day on Tuesday, which provided more clarity on several storylines as practices begin. Media members will be able to see four practices in their entirety over the next three weeks, including an open practice for fans on Aug. 21. Here are some key takeaways from the start of the Badgers’ preseason camp.

Running backs aim high

Sophomore running back Braelon Allen set some lofty expectations for Wisconsin’s running back room when he posted a tweet last month proclaiming that the Badgers had “the best backfield in America.” He juxtaposed a photo of himself, Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo with one of Melvin Gordon, Montee Ball and James White. All three of those tailbacks, who were teammates at Wisconsin a decade ago, rank among the top six in school history in career rushing yards, and Ball and Gordon were Heisman Trophy finalists.

“I think our goals are kind of endless with this group especially,” Mellusi said. “We complement each other so well and we all lean on each other. So I feel like the goals are endless for this group.”

Mellusi and Guerendo, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries last fall, were full participants during practice Wednesday. Mellusi, a Clemson transfer, began last season as Wisconsin’s starter before he tore the ACL in his left knee against Rutgers in November. He did not have a brace on at practice.

“I feel like I can be better,” Mellusi said. “I feel like last year I was almost limiting myself. I needed to play and I was pretty banged up. I just feel like this year I understand the offense a lot more and I just feel like I’m in a better place mentally. It doesn’t necessarily matter if I’m the starter or not. I just know that whatever this team needs for me to do, I’ll do it. That’s kind of where I’m at.”

Guerendo tore the Lisfranc ligament in his left foot during warmups before the Illinois game in October. He said he was fully cleared during the summer. Guerendo, a three-time Indiana high school state track champion, is one of the fastest players on the team when healthy and gives Wisconsin an intriguing dynamic to complement Allen and Mellusi.

“I think we have a lot of versatility,” Guerendo said. “I think we’re going to be able to bring stuff that a lot of people can’t with depth. We have a lot of people that could definitely have an impact on the field, whether at special teams or at running back.”

Where will Bortolini play?

One of the more intriguing questions when Wisconsin exited spring practice was where Tanor Bortolini would wind up playing on the offensive line when preseason camp began. Bortolini took snaps last season at left guard, right guard and right tackle and spent the spring working exclusively at center while starter Joe Tippmann was sidelined with an injury. With Tippmann healthy, there was thought that Bortolini might challenge Michael Furtney for the starting right guard role, given that O-line coach Bob Bostad said he preferred Bortolini to be on the interior.

Instead, Bostad said Bortolini would open the preseason as the No. 2 center behind Tippmann, citing the immense value of having multiple centers ready. During his previous stint as Wisconsin’s offensive line coach, Bostad once was forced to use his third-string center in a 2009 game against Fresno State, which has shaped his view on preparing players at the position.

“That’s a scary thought,” Bostad said. “You don’t ever want to get into that situation where you don’t feel like you have a good solid foundation, not just Tanor, but there’s other guys that we’re in a race to get ready. So that’s a huge concern for me.”

Bostad indicated Bortolini “kind of got stuck in a tough spot” to begin preseason camp because Cormac Sampson left the program during the offseason. Sampson played 91 snaps at center last season. When Bortolini was asked whether it was frustrating to open practices as a backup, he said, “yes and no.”

“It’s really important to have two guys that know the system, know the IDs,” Bortolini said. “So making sure that I get those reps right away I think is important for him, making sure that he has someone he’s very confident in is important. And then going from there, he said he’ll figure it out. He says he has a plan, not the most open with it, which is fine. I trust that he’s going to make the best decision for the team and our unit. But I’m excited to see where fall camp takes us.”

Bortolini played two games at center as a true freshman in 2020, including a start against Iowa, for a total of 116 snaps. He has appeared in 12 career games with six starts.

Inside the right tackle battle

All eyes will be on Logan Brown during preseason camp as he attempts to lock down the starting right tackle spot. Brown, a member of the 2019 recruiting class and the first five-star Badgers signee in 12 years, has yet to break through into the rotation but handled the first-team reps in the spring. However, Brown didn’t display the consistency he needed, which means he has much more work to do to earn the job for the season opener.

“I need to see him take some further steps to wipe away any issues that we had in the spring and just become more of a dominant player,” Bostad said. “I think there were times where he definitely showed that. He had a really good offseason in the weight room. I think a lot of our guys had a really good offseason. But you’ve got to put it on film at the end of the day. You have to put it on film.”

Who could potentially challenge Brown? Redshirt freshman Riley Mahlman, a four-star prospect and the No. 1 player from Minnesota in the 2021 class, said he would open camp as the second-string right tackle. Mahlman appeared in one game last season for 12 snaps at right tackle but spent the spring at left tackle. He also played some jumbo tight end in practice.

“I definitely think I can push him a little bit,” Mahlman said. “I think it will be good for everyone. It will make both of us better, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Another player to watch at right tackle is redshirt freshman Nolan Rucci, the former five-star prospect from Pennsylvania. Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said he thought Rucci began trusting his ability more toward the end of spring practice. With so much young talent, Brown may be given a shorter leash to prove himself this fall.

“The natural talent is there,” Mahlman said of Brown. “Sometimes I see him do these things, he has great, long arms. Some of his punches, straight out like in pass pro, just straight punch the outside linebacker and straight stone the dude. He has so many physical capabilities that are just crazy when he puts them together.”

A healthy tight end unit

The start of preseason practices brought a rare sight at Camp Randall Stadium: a full tight end group. Jack Eschenbach, Clay Cundiff and Cam Large, each of whom missed spring practices while recovering from injury, were in uniform. Eschenbach and Cundiff were full participants. Large wore a sleeve over his right leg, as well as a knee brace, and participated in individual drills.

Eschenbach and Cundiff have the potential to be Wisconsin’s top two pass-catching tight ends to help offset the loss of Jake Ferguson. Eschenbach has five career catches for 59 yards, while Cundiff has three catches for 86 yards and a touchdown.

Large tore the ACL in his right knee while on the kickoff return team against Purdue. He said Tuesday that he could be fully cleared to return by the end of preseason camp “if everything goes right.” Large was briefly used last season as a fullback before his injury and said physicality was one of his most important traits.

“I have a willingness to hit somebody,” Large said. “That’s why I ended up at fullback. I love to hit people. And I love football. I’ve been around the game my whole life. So awareness, IQ and since I’ve been hurt the ability to help my teammates because I love our room. I think our room is one of the smartest, toughest on the team. It’s been great to get that perspective and see everything and be a second coach and help with that. I think that’s made me a much better player.”

Toler details return

Perhaps no player endured the type of winding journey to return to the field that safety Titus Toler did. Toler, a signee in the 2019 class, announced last August that he was quitting football because of an unspecified injury. However, Toler returned to the team for summer conditioning and was in camp on Wednesday.

“I’m blessed to be back,” Toler said Tuesday. “It’s just been a long journey and I’m finally here. I had to hit a lot of milestones as far as recovery and prove to myself and the coaches and the training room that I was back and ready to go.”

Toler appeared in Wisconsin’s first two games of 2020 but did not play the rest of the season. He declined to address the specifics of his injury.

“I had excruciating pain every day, and it just felt miserable,” Toler said. “But once I started getting a little better, that’s when my hope and my faith really strengthened up more and I knew eventually it was going to happen when it was ready for me to receive this blessing.”

Toler said he spent four months during the summer of 2021 in Brazil with his girlfriend, whose family is from Rio de Janeiro. That time away helped him recharge and refocus his passion on football.

“We stayed at a little farmhouse, probably a few thousand people was the population,” Toler said. “I got to farm, feed animals and just get a lot of quiet. I think that’s what really got me back to the state I wanted to be able to pursue getting back.”

Toler helps to bolster a safety group that was thin when spring practice ended. Wisconsin also added Utah’s Kamo’i Latu from the transfer portal and placed true freshman Cade Yacamelli at the position to open preseason practices.

Practice tidbits

During the early portion of practice Wednesday, Dean Engram and Stephan Bracey were the two players returning punts. Engram served as Wisconsin’s primary punt returner a year ago. Bracey was the kick returner for the two games in which he was healthy.

Kicker Nate Van Zelst handled all the field goal attempts with the first and second unit. Arkansas transfer Vito Calvaruso, who is expected to challenge for the role, was in uniform but did not take any kicks. Tight end Cole Dakovich and defensive lineman Curt Neal, both of whom previously sustained ACL injuries, practiced fully without a knee brace.

(Top photo of Chez Mellusi: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button