Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema wouldn't mind his new quarterback following in the footsteps of his previous signal-caller. In March, the Badgers found a suitable replacement for quarterback Russell Wilson in Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien.
Wilson made national headlines -- and broke several school records -- last year after transferring to Wisconsin from North Carolina State. Whether O'Brien can reach a level of success close to Wilson is doubtful, but Bielema said his new quarterback is making good progress.
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O'Brien, a 6-foot-2 junior, threw for 29 touchdown passes in 17 starts at Maryland.
"Fortunate for us, Danny [O'Brien] was able to join us in early June," Bielema said. "He graduated in three years from Maryland, so he was actually there all the way through the spring semester, and was able to join us in June. Because of NCAA rules, I really can't be involved in summer workouts, but I know just bumping into Danny and bumping into players that have been around this summer that everybody's been excited about him coming through. I think Danny is, first and foremost, a great kid. He fit into our program great. Just the way he kind of bonded during the recruiting visit was special to see."
O'Brien does have the luxury of handing the ball off to one of the best running backs in the country in Montee Ball. The senior elected to return to Wisconsin, thus vaulting himself to the front of the pack of early Heisman Trophy candidates. Ball took it easy in spring practices to avoid injury, helping the younger players get reps. Ball is on target to break several school and NCAA records. Ball rushed for 1,954 yards and scored 39 touchdowns last year in leading the Badgers to their second straight Big Ten title.
Bielema said the entire team is excited, including himself, on helping Ball win the Heisman Trophy.
"Montee Ball has come back and been really one of our greatest leaders, not just on the field, but just the way he practices, the way he competes," he said. "The highest level that he has set for us in all facets has been truly incredible.
"And he's going to return as the highest leading vote getter from the Heisman a year ago. And our goal and our intention, obviously he's going to be up for the Heisman, but I'd love to be a head coach that coaches a Heisman Trophy winner. Our offensive line would love to be an offensive line that blocks for a Heisman Trophy winner, and everybody in our program is going to try to help him win that award."
Wisconsin's offensive line is another strong group, and holds the key to Ball's Heisman run and O'Brien's ability to develop. Although the line lost several key players, three players with starting experience return and the depth is good. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen form a solid combination and several players stepped up at wide receivers in the spring.
The Badgers have one of the softest schedules in the conference with no games against Michigan or Iowa and home games against Michigan State and Ohio State. The Badgers are the clear favorite to win the Leaders Division
On the defensive side, the Badgers' loss to Oregon showed the importance of shoring up the defense. The Badgers plan on rotating defensive linemen to keep players fresh, but the secondary is thin and numerous holes remain on special teams.
HEAD COACH: Bret Bielema, seventh year at Wisconsin, 60-19 at Wisconsin and as a head coach.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Danny O'Brien -- The Maryland transfer must fill big shoes after the record-smashing year by Wilson. O'Brien won't be expected to put up the same numbers as Wilson, not with running back Ball carrying the offensive load. But O'Brien has made a quick adjustment after arriving on the UW campus in June.
BREAKOUT STAR: LT Ricky Wagner -- After moving from right tackle to left tackle last year, Wagner established himself as a player to watch. Head coach Bret Bielema expects Wagner to follow in the footsteps of past left tackles and become an Outland Trophy candidate and a future NFL first-round draft pick.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: OL Dan Voltz -- The Badgers churn out offensive linemen with regularity. Voltz, a freshman, impressed the coaching staff with his adjustment to major-college football. Voltz could receive quality playing time in his first year.
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KEYS TO SUCCESS: The Badgers failed to win the Rose Bowl last year because the defense couldn't stop Oregon's offense. The Badgers tried to address several issues on the defensive side in the offseason. The secondary is an area that needs work. The Badgers won't be able to outscore teams at last year's pace, thus putting more emphasis on the defense and whether new quarterback O'Brien can follow in Wilson's footsteps and lead the offense. An easy schedule helps the Badgers.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Some challenging games on the early-season slate will test the Badgers, but all games should end with wins. A Sept. 8 contest at Oregon State represents a good test for the defense. The Badgers travel to Nebraska on September 29. The September slate is ideal for an offense looking to ease a new quarterback into the system, a special teams unit with several question marks and a defense looking to gain confidence.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The special teams unit, with the exception of punt and kickoff returner Abbrederis, is an entirely new cast. The defense lost key parts from last year's troubled defense. Quarterback O'Brien faces a tough challenge with high expectations after the record-breaking season by former quarterback Wilson last year. The Badgers scored a school-record 44.1 points per game last year, setting a new scoring record for the second straight season. Those numbers probably look out of reach this year.
-- RT Casey Dehn was ruled out for the season before the start of fall camp. Expected to be a key player on the developing offensive line, Dehn closed spring practice as UW's starting right tackle. Dehn has a history of academic problems in his time at Wisconsin.
-- DT Jordan Kohout had to quit football after suffering two minor strokes due to migraines.
-- RT Rob Hanvenstein missed all of spring practice due to shoulder surgery. Hanvenstein is slated to be the starter at the start of fall camp.
-- DT Jordan Kohout was forced to quit playing football due to suffering two minor strokes associated with migraines.
-- OL Kyle Costigan was moved from defensive tackle to offensive line to help shore up the depth.