Pads were popping often Tuesday morning as the University of Wisconsin football team nears the end of its spring practices.
Inside-run periods saw linemen battling through the whistle, and defenders and ball carriers weren’t shy about laying a solid hit on a teammate during 11-on-11 portions. The lively scene was a departure from Saturday’s sans-shoulder-pads work and produced a handful of standout moments.
UW has two more practices this week — Thursday morning and Friday afternoon — with the final on-field work of the spring being open to reporters.
A small skirmish
The physicality of the practice was already at a higher rate than most of the others open to reporters, but things got chippy in the third full-team portion.
After catching a pass and running toward the west sideline, senior receiver Jack Dunn was pulled back around the shoulder pads by sophomore linebacker Maema Njongmeta. Had Njongmeta done it with full force, it could’ve been a potentially dangerous tackle, which clearly frustrated Dunn, who threw the ball at Njongmeta.
A small shoving match ensued and other Badgers quickly got into the fray. The pile-up came apart without any real incident, but it demonstrated the heightened ruggedness of the day, especially for Dunn, who took a couple of hits as a backfield fill-in for the depleted running back group.
Junior tight end Jaylan Franklin, who was involved in the first dust-up, almost caused a second when he lowered his shoulder into a defender who had pulled up in order not to hit him then threw the ball at cornerback Amaun Williams. The players separated before any more contact occurred.
Leonhard experimenting with blitzes
The Badgers defense throughout spring practices has sent linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks at different times and from different angles. It’s been effective, especially Tuesday, with rushers finding lanes for would-be sacks in each team session.
“To me, I like to set the plan up around (my players) and play to their strengths,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “It's finding ways to create vision on the quarterback to hopefully make those turnovers become reality week in and week out, at times or in crucial situations. When we need a big sack, when we need a big TFL, what's the top ways to get there? That's what I'm trying to identify in the spring. A lot of that comes off of who you think's going to be on field in those moments.”
Inside linebacker Leo Chenal has had a number of would-be sacks this spring, as has Njongmeta, who’s shown a knack for knifing through traffic at the line. Outside linebacker Spencer Lytle also has shown good speed around the edge and can penetrate quickly to create different rush lanes for defenders coming on delayed blitzes.
Lytle stepping up
Speaking of Lytle, he’s been one of the rising stars of UW’s spring sessions. He played five games and tallied two tackles last season after redshirting in 2019. He recovered a fumble against Northwestern for his first highlight play of his collegiate career.
He’s looked like one of the Badgers’ best options as a pass rusher at outside linebacker, blending his speed with good upper-body strength to shed blockers. Staying healthy has been a battle for him his first two seasons, but if he can this year, the former four-star recruit is in line for a big fall.
“He's put on a great weight, he's put on great numbers in the weight room. His speed has increased,” outside linebackers coach Bobby April said. “I can't compare him to anybody right now because I don't want to put them in that stage or that in that kind of a folder, but he's a Spencer Lytle and it's impressive right now.”
From the infirmary
Here’s a look at who didn’t participate or was limited in Tuesday’s practice. If an injury is not listed, it has not been confirmed by the player or UW.
- RB Jalen Berger (leg)
- S Travian Blaylock (ankle)
- WR Stephan Bracey
- OL Logan Brown (right arm)
- TE Cole Dakovich
- RB Julius Davis (leg)
- WR Jordan DiBenedetto
- TE Jake Ferguson (right arm)
- OLB Izayah Green-May
- CB Deron Harrell
- TE Cam Large
- CB Max Lofy
- DE Isaiah Mullens (left leg)
- WR Cooper Nelson
- OLB Riley Nowakowski (right leg)
- OL Cormac Sampson
- RB Brady Schipper (left leg)
- DE James Thompson Jr. (right leg)
- OL Joe Tippmann
- S Titus Toler
- NT Bryson Williams (right leg)
- OLB Aaron Witt (right leg)
- WR A.J. Abbott (right leg)
- NT Keeanu Benton (left leg)
- WR Chimere Dike (right leg)
- RB Isaac Guerendo (leg)
- CB Semar Melvin (right arm)
- WR Isaac Smith
A game-by-game look at the Badgers' 2021 football schedule
WEEK 1: vs. Penn StateUpdated
Date: Sept. 4
All-time series: UW trails 9-10
Last meeting: UW lost 22-10 in 2018
Key returner: WR Jahan Dotson posted five games of over 100 yards receiving and was a catalyst of the team’s four-game winning streak to end last season.
Note: The Nittany Lions’ losing season last year was their first under coach James Franklin and the program’s second since 2004.
WEEK 2: vs. Eastern MichiganUpdated
Date: Sept. 11
All-time series: UW leads 3-0
Last meeting: UW won 24-3 in 1996
Key returner: QB Preston Hutchinson averaged 277 yards per game last season.
Note: The Eagles have had two winning seasons since 2010.
WEEK 3: vs. Notre Dame (Soldier Field, Chicago)Updated
Date: Sept. 26
All-time series: UW trails 6-8-2
Last meeting: UW lost 31-7 in 1964
Key returner: Safety Kyle Hamilton, who led the Irish in tackles, had six pass breakups last season.
Note: Former Badgers QB Jack Coan will be in the running to be the starting QB for the Irish after transferring this winter.
WEEK 4: vs. MichiganUpdated
Date: Oct. 2
All-time series: UW trails 17-51-1
Last meeting: UW won 49-11 on Nov. 14, 2020
Key returner: WR Ronnie Bell was a bright spot on an offense that struggled with inconsistent quarterback play.
Note: Despite the Wolverines’ 2-4 season, the program extended the contract of coach Jim Harbaugh and posted the second-best recruiting class in the conference.
WEEK 5: at IllinoisUpdated
Date: Oct. 9
All-time series: UW leads 43-37-7
Last meeting: UW won 45-7 on Oct. 23, 2020
Key returner: QB Brandon Peters, who gives the Illini some stability under center while they adjust to a new coaching staff. The Illini are looking to bounce back from a tough 2020 that included a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Note: First-year coach Bret Bielema, the former UW coach, has said he envisions a three-man front for the defense, a major shift that already has prompted the transfer of DE Owen Carney Jr.
WEEK 6: vs. ArmyUpdated
Date: Oct. 16
All-time series: First meeting
Last meeting: N/A
Key returner: QB Tyhier Tyler (above) led the Black Knights in rushing (578 yards) despite only playing in seven of their 12 games.
Note: This could be a difficult test for the Badgers, preparing for a triple-option attack in the middle of the conference season.
WEEK 7: at PurdueUpdated
Date: Oct. 23
All-time series: UW leads 50-29-8
Last meeting: UW won 45-24 in 2019
Key returner: DE George Karlaftis (above), who was sidelined by injuries last season, is a potential game-wrecker off the edge. He helped land his younger brother Yanni Karlaftis, a four-star OLB who is the highest-ranked player in Purdue’s class and was considering UW.
Note: Last season’s game was canceled due to UW’s COVID-19 outbreak, but the Badgers haven’t lost to Purdue since 2003.
WEEK 8: vs. IowaUpdated
Date: Oct. 30
All-time series: UW leads 48-44-2
Last meeting: UW lost 28-7 on Dec. 12, 2020
Key returner: QB Spencer Petras, made strides in first year as a starter, but with defense losing studs up front and the offense losing playmaker Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Petras will be asked to do more
Note: Iowa’s win over the Badgers at Kinnick Stadium was just their second in the rivalry since 2010
Week 9: at RutgersUpdated
Date: Nov. 6
All-time series: UW leads 3-0
Last meeting: UW won 31-17 in 2018
Key returner: WR/KR Aron Cruickshank (above) — who transferred from UW last season — provided a number of big plays in the return game en route to winning the league’s returner of the year award and was the team’s second-leading receiver.
Note: UW has only surrendered 27 points in three matchups against the Scarlet Knights
WEEK 10: vs. NorthwesternUpdated
Date: Nov. 13
All-time series: UW leads 60-37-5
Last meeting: UW lost 17-7 on Nov. 21, 2020
Key returner: Safety Brandon Joseph (above), earned All-American honors as a freshman after tallying six interceptions, eight pass breakups and 56 total tackles
Note: Longtime defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz — a former assistant coach at UW — retired after last season
WEEK 11: vs. NebraskaUpdated
Date: Nov. 20
All-time series: UW leads 10-4
Last meeting: UW won 37-21 in 2019
Key returner: QB Adrian Martinez (above), who battled for his position with Luke McCaffrey last season, comes into the season as the presumed starter after McCaffrey announced he was transferring
Note: UW has an 18-point average margin of victory over Nebraska in its seven-game win streak over the Huskers
WEEK 12: at MinnesotaUpdated
Date: Nov. 27
All-time series: UW leads 62-60-8
Last meeting: UW won 20-17 in OT on Dec. 19, 2020
Key returner: RB Mo Ibrahim (above), winner of the Big Ten’s running back of the year award last season, scored 15 touchdowns and set multiple program records last season
Note: The Gophers have attacked the transfer market hard, landing seven transfer players this winter