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Roster Softens Transition For New Badgers Coach

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Photo by Tom Lynn/Getty Images
Photo by Tom Lynn/Getty Images

Gary Andersen brought seven coaches with him to the University of Wisconsin clubhouse. Just as spring practices began in early March, one of them, Jay Boulware (special teams/tight ends), decided he wanted to work elsewhere (Oklahoma).

With possible thoughts of instability and lack of pride looming near his new fanbase, Andersen took to the microphone and proved his Big Ten mettle.

Anderson first accepted responsibility for the man under whom his players had begun to learn and fight. Then he showed his rugged, no-nonsense side.

“I brought the wrong guy in here,” Andersen told reporters. “We’ll be better off as we move forward.”

No messing around. No excuses. That’s Big Ten. And from all reports, that’s why Barry Alvarez and company hired the man with no league experience, or any experience outside the state of Utah.

But attitude is a small part of the battle. In today’s football world, it’s about results, and Andersen will need to prove he can win … consistently … and outside of Utah, where he played college ball and coached his entire career.

The numbers say Andersen, 49, isn’t a winner. He claims a 30-31 record as head coach, most recently spending four years at Utah State (26-24) and a year at Southern Utah (4-7, 2003). But don’t stop at the numbers.

The defensive-minded Andersen took over Utah State after it had 11 straight losing seasons, which included an average of 10 losses during the most recent three seasons. He brought grit, energy and a hands-on flavor that worked its way around the state. Media members started saying he was out-recruiting BYU and Utah, where Andersen was an assistant from 2004-08. Two of those years (’04, ’08) the Utes were undefeated, won a BCS bowl game and finished in the nation’s top 10.

It wasn’t easy. Andersen labored through two 4-8 campaigns before the work – and recruiting – started to pay off. In 2011, the Aggies went 7-5 with five wins in the WAC; in 2012, they were 11-2, winning the WAC and a bowl game (17-16 over Toledo in Famous Idaho Potato Bowl).

Andersen was a commodity, courted by programs across the country. Wisconsin as a final destination surprised people, and for good reason. Andersen and company ran a spread offense and a 3-4 defense. Not Wisconsin’s typical flavor, as the Badgers are known for a pro-style, smashmouth offense and 4-3, get-the-quarterback defense. The roster is also built in that mold.

But Andersen is no fool. He’s shown he’ll take responsibility, which tells me he’s flexible. With a powerful offensive line and a talented backfield, look for Wisconsin to keep running a pro-style offense with a feature back. After all, Jason White has more than 2,500 career rushing yards to go with 32 TDs.

But also expect to see some variety both in playcalling on both sides of the ball. Wisconsin doesn’t have an incumbent quarterback. It has three, and add two talented newcomers for good measure. Joel Stave, Curt Phillips and Danny O’Brien will compete with Bart Houston, a redshirt freshman, and Tanner McEvoy, out of an Arizona junior college.

Any one of the five could land the gig, but there seem to be three top choices: Stave, who took the most snaps in 2012; Houston, the young gun with the great tools; and McEvoy, who has experience and versatility, a virtue Andersen is used to. McEvoy could be the guy for Andersen and Andy Ludwig, the offensive coordinator, as they search for an improvement in the passing game (Wisconsin QBs combined threw for the lowest yardage total in the league in 2012), while utilizing the running skills of White and redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon, who ran for 200-plus yards in the Big Ten title game.

There will be change on defense. Just like former coach Bret Bielema, Andersen is a defensive guru. The Aggies held opponents to 15 points a game in 2012. But Andersen uses a 3-4, relying on a busy secondary that collected 14 interceptions a year ago (Wisconsin nabbed eight).

The Aggies still got pressure, tallying 42 sacks to Wisconsin’s 31. Andersen has already confirmed he’ll at least force other teams to prepare for the 3-4 alignment. While he’ll play a bit of trial and error to start, the 3-4 is what he’s comfortable with and what Wisconsin could move to exclusively in the latter half of the season.

But coaches just coach. The players play. And this isn’t Utah State. This time, Anderson inherits a program averaging 10 wins the last four seasons, and one that’s been to three straight Rose Bowls thanks to three straight Big Ten titles.

Andersen could have troubles acclimating to the pressures and weekly physicality of the Big Ten, but he's shown he will recognize them and face them. And he's not alone. 

Those who think Andersen will be lost outside Utah may be making a mistake. Even if he is, there are 25 seniors on the Badgers’ roster to help him find his way.