Reloaded Wisconsin embraces expectations

The Sports Xchange

July 28, 2014 at 12:42 pm.


Melvin Gordon (25) will be the focal point of Wisconsin's offense in 2014. (David Manning-USA TODAY Sports)

CHICAGO — Wisconsin might have some rebuilding ahead as it replaces 13 starters from a team that went 9-4 last fall — including 10 that went to the NFL.

But media are convinced the Badgers are merely reloading and tabbed Wisconsin as favorites to win the new Big Ten West in a preseason poll conducted by the Columbus Dispatch.

Second-year head coach Gary Andersen is unconcerned about outside expectations.

“First I heard of that was when we got here last night,” said Andersen at Monday’s Big Ten Football media days. “The fact that somebody says you may be first, second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth really has no bearing on where we sit as a football team. We’ll worry about what we can worry about.”

Still, it’s Wisconsin, winner of consecutive Big Ten titles between 2010-12 and a postseason regular with 12 straight bowl appearances. Entering preseason practice Wisconsin ranks as high as 14th in preseason national polls.

“The expectations are always high,” Andersen said. “You’re expected to do things well off the field; you’re expected to do things well on the field.”

In his first season, Andersen also finished 6-2 in the Big Ten Leaders Division and was a semifinalist for the Maxwell Coach of the Year Award. He guided Wisconsin to the Capital One Bowl, a 34-24 loss to South Carolina.

The Badgers lost five starters on offense and eight on defense, many on the line.

Among the returnees is running back Melvin Gordon who opted out of the NFL draft to come back for his junior season.

“Regrets? No, but I did think about it,” said Gordon, who rushed for a team-leading 1,609 yards and scored 12 touchdowns, one behind the departed James White. “But camp’s coming up and I don’t have time to think about it.”

Melvin and right tackle Rob Havenstein were selected as two of five West Division preseason players to watch.

Replacing departed defensive starters, particularly on the front line and at linebacker, will be a top priority when fall practice begins next week.

“We’re not as experienced obviously, which is a concern,” Andersen said. “I believe we’re athletic. We’re tough-minded. We need to make substantial gains in camp with our ability to consistently play with pad level, hands, technique, pre-snap awareness.”

There’s also competition at quarterback between junior returnee Joel Stave and junior Tanner McEvoy. Stave played all 13 games and threw for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns.

“Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy will come in and split the reps,” Andersen said. “It’s going to be interesting to watch. … As far as a timeline, I really have no timeline. I’ve been through this a few times in my career and it will all settle out just like every position battle does.”

The Big Ten revamped and renamed its conference divisions with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, assigning both to the East. Division champs play in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 6 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Wisconsin kicks off Aug. 30 against LSU in Houston. The Badgers open their home season on Sept. 6 against Western Illinois and begin Big Ten play Oct. 4 at Northwestern.

NOTES: Half the Wisconsin roster is home-grown with 54 players hailing from the Badger State. … Six returning players earned All-Big Ten honors last year, including second teasers Gordon and Havenstein. … Andersen plans to add additional duties this fall directly coaching the Badgers boundary or “B” linebackers.