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Badgers a surprise playoff contender

5/15/2014
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

MADISON, Wis. -- College coaching fits are mostly straightforward. You know, a coach went to the school at which he now works, or he at least has ties to the area that will pay recruiting dividends or make the fan base feel as if he’s one of them.

Gary Andersen, who has been here in Wisconsin’s capital city for a little more than a year, is originally from Salt Lake City and arrived here via Utah State. And yet, after a conversation in his office and a general evaluation of his philosophies and priorities, you’d swear he had Badger blood.

In short, Andersen wants his program to be centered on running the ball, playing defense and graduating players. So it’s no wonder that athletic director Barry Alvarez, a longtime UW coach who has a statue outside Camp Randall, saw quickly that Andersen was his guy when Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas. Continuity, it turns out, came in the form of a coach thousands of miles away.

I asked Andersen what he knew about Madison before he got to town.

“Not a whole lot.”

Chicago?

“I don’t think I’d ever been [there] before.”

But the fit is seemingly a good one, even if it isn’t at all based on geography.

That was one big Takeaway from my first visit to the isthmus. But there's a lot more to discuss surrounding a team that has a legitimate Heisman contender at running back, a potential starting quarterback who played safety last year and a schedule that could lead the program to a Big Ten title game -- and potentially a playoff berth.

As Andersen and his staff enter their second year, one that begins with a big nonconference meeting with LSU in Houston, here are my biggest Takeaways.

A converted safety holds the key for Badgers at quarterback

The QB race between returning starter Joel Stave and South Carolina/juco transfer Tanner McEvoy will certainly continue into preseason camp, if not beyond it.

McEvoy is a pretty fascinating story. Besides the New Jersey native being something of a vagabond, McEvoy also spent December and the team’s bowl game playing safety for the Badgers.

“When we moved him to safety, we looked at him and said we needed an athlete,” Andersen said. “We didn’t know if he would want to tackle. He said, ‘Coach, I’ll tackle. I promise you.’ And if we needed him there now, he would absolutely be our starting safety.”

But there’s also a need at quarterback now that Stave, a returning starter, has a gimpy shoulder in addition to shaky career numbers (13 of his 16 interceptions came last season).

I asked Andersen what sort of quarterback he would want for the program, ideally.

“The quarterback that can run has changed college football,” he said. “We’ve recruited that way. ... I think it’s important. I think it matters.”

Wisconsin offensive coordinator has Andy Ludwig challenged McEvoy, like a lot of inexperienced quarterbacks, to work this summer on progressions and making sure he is getting to at least the second and third receivers.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Andersen said the ability to make run checks at the line is vital for the offense. That goes for both McEvoy and Stave.

"They have to be able to look out there and see mismatches," Andersen said.

When teams stacked the box last season against the Badgers, forcing Stave to throw, the offense often stalled. That was bound to happen, regardless of how good Melvin Gordon (or Montee Ball and James White) is. McEvoy might have the running element to provide a different dimension.

Anderson said, too, that he’s seen McEvoy mature.

“I think he has settled in. Really, it’s time for Tanner to settle in,” said Andersen, who admitted that McEvoy would have gone back to safety if he didn’t impress in the spring. “He’s had some choppy-weather days, but things have calmed.”

Gordon is poised for a huge year

Coming off a freshman season in which Gordon averaged 10 yards a carry despite Ball and White being ahead of him, I thought he made sense as a 2013 breakout player.

Gordon followed with a 1,600-yard, 12-TD season, even with White still there.

“He’s special. His first two or three steps are so quick,” Andersen told me. “He creates big plays when there [are] opportunities. I think he became more of a complete back [last season]. It was just different. The bowl game, he ran differently.

“But he has this flash and it’s like, ‘Holy cow.’”

Gordon has said he wants to continue that transition from being a home run threat into a total, consistent running back. That’s why Gordon returned to school even though he could have entered the draft as a third-year sophomore.

“He wanted to be the featured back at the University of Wisconsin,” Andersen said. “Now he’ll get that chance. You know the story. Montee was here, James was here. This is the Melvin Gordon Show now.”

New personnel on defense inspiring a new approach

Wisconsin's defense returns only one defensive lineman and one linebacker in what Andersen calls “a revamped front seven.”

Sure, the Badgers will miss an active force such as linebacker Chris Borland, but Andersen was hopeful that the turnover could lead to bigger-picture change. He said the veterans he inherited were widely programmed to play more on their heels and give up yards (but hopefully not points) in quarters coverage.

Andersen wants to see the next generation of the team to be part of “a more aggressive scheme by nature.” In his first year, he didn’t want to change too much too quickly -- and squander the good habits and techniques employed by successful players such as Borland.

The fate of the 2014 defense is about attitude as much as anything else, Andersen said. That’s the thought he left with the Badgers as they left for the May break.

“When a team has run 10 plays and is in our red zone, how will our guys respond?” he said. “Will they say, ‘Screw you, you’re not getting in’? Or will they say, ‘Oh well, we’ll get them next time.’

“The youth is going to be the key to this team. We’re young, but we’re going to show up this summer and see what that means. It’s exciting. You want to see what these guys are able to do.”

Andersen and his staff are adjusting to big-time recruiting

When coaches move up a level, as Andersen has, they typically say “football is still football.” Andersen did say that, predictably. But then he offered some thoughts on recruiting that I found enlightening.

“You have to recruit every single day, and you have to have the resources to recruit every single day,” he said. “It’s a completely different landscape. Every single day does not even feel like enough.”

He said that when he was at Utah State, he might go a month -- and sometimes longer -- without talking to a recruit on the phone. Now?

“I’ll talk to five sets of parents on a given day,” he said.

He also said a recruiting visit is something that’s entirely different in Logan, Utah, than it is Madison, Wisconsin.

“At Utah State, we would just leave them some tickets,” Andersen said. “Obviously we do quite a bit more here. It’s a show.”

And where will the Badgers look for those recruits? Just about anywhere, he said. It’s a national canvas. That includes the Southeast and, yes, even Texas. So maybe Wisconsin can get some mileage out of that LSU game in Houston.

“We hope so,” Andersen said.

The evolving -- or eroding, depending on your viewpoint -- Big Ten could very well benefit Wisconsin. For now, the strength is in the East, with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.

"That's the way it is now, but you know it won't always stay that way," another Big Ten coach told me recently.

For now, however, Wisconsin's path to the league title game is far easier than those in the other division. That means the trek to a playoff berth is also more manageable, especially if the Badgers can get by LSU.

If that youthful defense Andersen referenced comes together -- and McEvoy's run element pushes the offense to greater things -- they could be a surprise playoff contender.