MADISON - Bret Bielema knows a little bit about recruiting. As a head coach of a major division one college football program, you would hope that was the case. You would hope the head coach, any head coach for that matter, with such a large amount on his plate would be able to single out talent and successfully recruit them into his specific program.
Recruiting, after all, is what makes a program tick.
"I remember early on in my coaching career," Bielema said. "Somebody put a bunch of articles in my box, and it was Bielema as a recruiter when I was a young coach at Iowa. I actually got mad because I wanted to be known as a football coach.
"I didn't want to be known as a recruiter."
But recruiting is the equivalent of paying your dues in the world of college football coaching. It's a way to prove your worth within a program and help the team by bringing in quality players off the field that will eventually translate into wins on it.
As a young coach your primary duties probably aren't as much as you would want or hope for on the surface. You probably have a task and duty to make sure a specific position or unit is ready to go. It's one little piece to the overriding puzzle. Though sometimes it seems small and innocuous, but when you are missing that piece it's obvious.
"My coach at the time basically said all young coaches, when they recruit, are recognized as that until you become a coordinator and get your chance to move on and have success," Bielema said.
Eventually, after coming to UW as a defensive coordinator, former head coach Barry Alvarez handpicked Bielema to succeed him as the leader of the program following the 2005 season. According to Bielema, and as something that is commonly seen around the country with a new coach, that year of recruiting didn't quite work out in a manner Bielema liked.
With a new man at the helm, and without a staff he felt completely comfortable with, it wasn't necessarily a problem on the field in 2006 (UW went 12-1), but it translated to problems in the years that followed (UW went 7-6 in 2008).
"My first year, because of the way that season laid out, and because in my discussions with Coach (Barry Alvarez), we didn't want to make any transitions with the staff until after Hawaii," Bielema said. "It really hamstrung that first class. And at the time, I didn't want to believe it or see it."
The downturn of that 2006 signing class is evident when you look at the commitment list. Of the 23 players that signed letters of intent that February, only 12 are still on the roster. Of the 11 not in the program, two suffered career-ending injuries while the other nine moved on in regards to their football career.
And, of the 12 still in the program, eight are starters that are having major impacts on the team this season. So besides the fact that 48 percent of that class decided to move on, the other 52 percent is making the most of what can otherwise be labeled as a down recruiting year, respectively as upperclassmen.
"When I see the bottom line results of guys that we brought in in that class, and how much of a factor they are in our program right now, it's pretty easy to see," Bielema said. "The next year was better, and then obviously the last two have been dramatically different."
Bielema, whether he likes it or not, has always been lauded for his recruiting prowess. And over the past two cycles, like the fourth-year head coach pointed out, that realm of responsibility has totally been heading in the right direction.
If you take a look at the current starters on UW's roster, you would notice that two offensive lineman (Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler), two linebackers (Mike Taylor, who started every game before his injury, and Chris Borland) and two cornerbacks (Devin Smith and Antonio Fenelus) are either true or redshirt freshman or true sophomores.
That isn't including several other players like Curt Phillips, David Gilbert, Montee Ball and Kraig Appleton that are getting decent playing time early in their career.
Then you factor in several sophomores such as John Clay, Aaron Henry, Josh Oglesby, Nick Toon and J.J. Watt and you realize what kind of impact the young players have had on the team and 2009 season to this point.
Needless to say, with a 6-2 football team that is comprised primarily of underclassmen, the foundation has been laid for the future.
"I've got some coaches that I need to put together game plans, Paul Chryst and Dave Doeren," Bielema said. "And then the other seven guys have got to contribute in their own way. It's (the) Kentucky Derby through your coaching. You can't win the race if you don't have the right horse. If we don't have the right horses in this program, that are going to fit our program for what they are, we wouldn't have success over time, and definitely wouldn't be able to put together a consistent approach to the game."
Now into his fourth year, the majority of Bielema's current roster are recruits brought in under him and his staff. Only the fifth-year seniors on the team are leftovers from Alvarez's final class.
So, what Badger fans are starting to see is a team that is being stockpiled with depth and pretty solid, pretty talented players. Currently, the team is 6-2 in a season many expected to be a struggle. With a favorable schedule down the stretch, it isn't too far fetched for this team to get to nine, or even 10 wins.
And considering how young it is, the future looks like it may be one with great promise and great strength for the Badger program. And you have to give the head coach and his staff credit for that because they are simply getting good work done on the recruiting front.
"The youth of this team is encouraging," Bielema said following his team's loss to Iowa two weeks ago. "But I need them to grow up fast. We all want John Clay to be (equivalent to) a fourth-year senior. When they're seniors, you can't believe that they're not here anymore. All those guys need to take big steps. Part of growing up is being down along the way.
"Because we've recruited great kids with great character and because we have a good group of people around us, I think the results will be good."
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