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August 18, 2011

Report: Scrimmage thoughts

MADISON - Three things came out of Thursday's scrimmage, the second of its kind so far this fall camp.

One, even if he's not completely healthy, junior linebacker Mike Taylor is an absolute force to be reckoned with.

Two, Melvin Gordon has playmaker written all over him, although he's still not a complete player by any means.

And three, the defensive pursuit to the ball and its collective tackling was much better than it was a week ago.

Overall, Thursday's scrimmage inside of Camp Randall Stadium was something that can give this team momentum entering the game prep phase of fall camp.

Taylor impresses:

Mike Taylor, who missed three consecutive practices earlier this week due to a nagging shin injury, was all over the field during Thursday's scrimmage. He was in on five or six tackles-for-loss, didn't get exposed in coverage and seemed to make a tackle any time there was a tackle to be made.

But spoken like a true competitor, Taylor wasn't entirely pleased with his performance even though he was probably the most visible player on the defensive side of the ball throughout the entire scrimmage.

"There were a few mistakes," Taylor said following the scrimmage. "I had a missed tackle which is what we were trying to work on this past week, especially since that last scrimmage. Overall, though, I think it went well. It just feels like we're more aggressive up front, as far as just knowing our assignments.

"Instead of sitting back and figuring things out we're going to go try to attack and try to make plays. Hopefully the sign of this scrimmage for this defense is what we can do this season."

The No. 1 offense only scored two touchdowns - - a beautiful play to Jacob Pedersen during the red zone portion and an easy touchdown pass to Jake Byrne in the flat - - during the 87-play scrimmage. It never seemed as though Russell Wilson was able to fully find a rhythm and that had a lot to do with the way the defense played.

"The defense made plays and the offense made plays," Taylor said. "The defense can make five, six or 10 plays, however many in a series, but if the offense scores on a one-yard run the defense didn't do anything to stop them. Like we say, defense can make 10 good plays and screw up one.

"The offense can make one good play and screw up 10 and they can still win."

Gordon also impresses:

It was evident that Bret Bielema and his coaching staff were trying to get as good a look at the potential freshmen contributors as possible since they won't be getting as many reps (outside of the scout team) once game preparation begins next week.

Freshman tailback Melvin Gordon ran almost exclusively with the No. 1 offense after both Montee Ball and James White got some time off after a series or two of action during the scrimmage.

Gordon definitely ran hard, but there were several plays where he was dropped behind the line of scrimmage. He had one touchdown run of 66 yards get called back because freshman wide receiver Connor Cummins was lined up wrong.

During that play Gordon broke through a hole just off left tackle, sprinted toward the sideline, skirted past a diving Devin Smith and coasted into the end zone.

It was definitely an impressive run and one that proves how athletic and versatile he can be as a playmaker.

Quick practice hits:

-Jacob Pedersen collected one of the two touchdown passes Wilson threw during the scrimmage. It was second and goal from the eight and Wilson fired a pass pretty high towards the back of the end zone. Pedersen skied for the ball, caught it and managed to sneak a foot in at the back of the end zone.

-Joel Stave received plenty of reps with the No. 2 offense yet again. He hasn't passed Joe Brennan on the depth chart. It's more a matter of seeing what Stave can do with the two's since he won't get as many reps once game prep starts.

-Patrick Butrym recorded a big sack and a monster tackle-for-loss during the No. 1 defense's first series.

-The freshmen wide receiver trio of Jordan Fredrick, Fred Willis and Connor Cummins was awfully quiet during Thursday's scrimmage. The most active freshman pass catcher was Sam Arneson. He proved capable of being both Stave and Brennan's security blanket.

-Junior defensive end Brendan Kelly participated in 30 snaps of Thursday's scrimmage. He said he felt great following practice.

-The practice was relatively clean from a penalty standpoint. Josh Oglesby was whistled for a false start, Louis Nzegwu was hit with encroachment, Aaron Henry had a pass interference and Cummins had a touchdown negating illegal procedure penalty. That was it, though.

-There were some big hits throughout the scrimmage, but it seemed as though everybody made it out without any major injuries.

-Nick Toon participated in the first half or practice and caught a 66-yard touchdown pass from Wilson during 11-on-11 team drills. He looked fast and confident out there.

"I felt good," Toon said after practice. "It felt good to get back out there. It felt great. I'm excited to get into game prep here and to finish up camp and get ready for UNLV."

The senior wide receiver also said he has no concerns regarding his previously injured left foot.

-Chris Borland, Kevin Zeitler, Rob Havenstein, A.J. Fenton, Marcus Trotter and Michael Trotter did not participate in the scrimmage portion of practice.

My impressions:

-I'm starting to get concerned about the amount of drops some of the veteran pass catchers have had issues with throughout the entirety of fall camp. It's unacceptable for players like Byrne, Pedersen, Abbrederis and Jeff Duckworth to drop balls that are right on the money. It's also evident that Bielema is not too thrilled with that development when he completely and routinely chews out the receiving core following a really bad drop.

"I have voiced my opinion about that during the last couple of days," Bielema said. "It's kind of wide spread. It's wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. Then some guys turn around and make some nice catches. The case with Russell, a lot of times the ball is on or a catchable ball. We've just got to make sure we come away with it especially on third down."

-I kept a close eye on Gordon throughout the entirety of practice and the one thing I noticed about his style of play is that he prefers not running between the tackles. Every time he had an option between lowering his head and bullying through some traffic or bouncing outside he'd bounce it outside. I worry that the style of play his offense ran in high school is going to be tough for him to break out of. He's going to have to learn how to run between the tackles in UW's offense, but I think it's going to take some time.

-Though I have my concerns with Gordon, I still think he has already, or is extremely close, to passing Jeff Lewis on the depth chart. He's just so explosive. Lewis will be a fine player, but he just doesn't quite have the playmaking ability out of the backfield that Gordon does.

-It was good to chat with Brendan Kelly (look for a story tomorrow) following practice. It's obvious he's happy being back out there and that he's enjoying an opportunity to make an impression without worrying about being injured.

-Mike Taylor missed three practices earlier this week with a shin problem. The knee soreness that was reported had more to do with the fact that his shin hurt than it did with anything regarding his surgically repaired knee.

"My shin just feels a little pressure and a little stress, I guess," Taylor said after the scrimmage. "It was a little bit of the knee, but I think that was maybe from what I was feeling with my shin. My shin basically just feels a little sore. X-Rays were negative so it's not a stress fracture.

-Jake Keefer, one of the more highly touted recruits from this past cycle, was getting some time with the No. 2 defense. He's probably a good candidate for a redshirt this season simply because there is plenty of depth at linebacker, but it's still encouraging to see him make plays during the scrimmage. He's a pretty sure tackler.

-Of all the freshmen, except for maybe Gordon, I thought Arneson had the best day in the scrimmage. He was sure handed, got himself open and didn't drop any passes that were clearly catchable. Bielema made it clear that he thought the big tight end could find playing time this season. I tend to agree.

-Stave led a very solid drive during the final series of the scrimmage. He started from his own 32 yard line before finding Arneson and Willis on back-to-back plays for 24 and 23 yards respectively. He then connected with freshman tight end Austin Traylor for 19 yards, setting up a first and goal from the three-yard line. Unfortunately a fumbled snap on the next play ended what was a really emphatic drive up to that point.

-Even after going through a grueling 85-plus play scrimmage, and even though it was very warm inside Camp Randall, Bielema made his team do 100-yard of up-downs following practice.

"He just wanted us to realize that in order to win games we can't kill ourselves," Kelly said. "We can't shoot ourselves in the foot, both offensively and defensively. If you've got an interception opportunity you've got to take it and if you have a penalty on offense you can't take it. We were the least penalized team in division one football last year. That was part of our success and we're trying to recreate that discipline factor.

"If that's what needs to be done, that's what needs to be done."

-I'm a little upset that practice won't be open to the media anymore. It's been a lot of fun getting a chance to watch some of these players improve over the past two weeks.

My top five players from the scrimmage:

5.) Patrick Butrym

-He'll probably be voted a captain Monday evening. If he does he'll definitely deserve it.

4.) Sam Arneson

-He caught everything thrown his way. He's a big target that has security blanket written all over him.

3.) Joel Stave

-His calmness, poise decision-making and arm strength really impresses me.

2.) Melvin Gordon

-Though I have some reservations regarding his ability to run between the tackles, it's obvious he's going to find a way to get playing time.

1.) Mike Taylor

-If he's healthy he's going to be in line for a monster season.



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