|Running back Monteé Ball :: Getty Images|
Turnover on coaching staffs is a staple of college football. Even so, what transpired in Madison this offseason was dramatic -- particularly for a winning program. The Badgers' "reward" for a second straight trip to the Rose Bowl was the departure of six assistants, three of whom went to Pitt, where Wisconsin's former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was named coach. Bret Bielema has dealt with this in the past. "We had four coaches leave the year before and two in 2009," said the Badgers' coach. "You can't hold a guy back." Besides, he said, "It's good to switch things up. We don't see it as a problem but an opportunity."Bielema can afford to be magnanimous because his roster remains well stocked. Star runner Monteé Ball (a Heisman candidate) is joined in the backfield by James White and Melvin Gordon; the latter dominated the spring game with 159 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. The main imponderable is at quarterback, where for the second straight year a transfer from the ACC will take the helm. While Danny O'Brien (formerly of Maryland) lacks the explosiveness of predecessor Russell Wilson, he compares favorably with former Badger Scott Tolzien and will keep Wisconsin's play-action attack humming. White thinks the unit won't lose a beat. "Our offense is about being efficient and everyone being on the same page," he said. "I think our younger guys can step up."The defense is anchored by linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, whom Bielema calls "two of the best I've ever coached." Bielema is similarly excited about a front four that was affected by injuries last year but now has more depth than he's ever seen in Madison. The unit was mostly solid in Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge's first season as co-coordinators, but it did give up backbreaking plays in Wisconsin's three losses. Borland feels that a growing familiarity with the schemes can keep those plays to a minimum in 2012. "There's a temptation to relax with our offense scoring as many points as it does," he said. "We're working hard in practice to become the type of defense that wins games instead of one that performs well enough to win."In other words, while faces on the Camp Randall sideline may come and go, on the field the Wisconsin brand of football -- a successful brand -- remains happily unchanged.
Will former Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien pick up the play action well enough for the offense to make a smooth transition?
20 -- Consecutive games that Monteé Ball has scored. Ball has 61 career touchdowns, 17 from the all-time FBS record.
Travis Frederick, C, Jr. -- In 2011, Frederick started 11 games at left guard and two at center. Now the 6-foot-4, 328-pounder will play a big role in easing the transition under a new offensive line coach, Mike Markuson. Mike Taylor, LB, Sr. -- Taylor led the Big Ten and was third in the nation with 150 tackles in 2011. Along with junior Chris Borland (143 tackles), he forms one of the most active linebacker duos in the country. James White, RB, Jr. -- The speedster from Fort Lauderdale was often an afterthought during Monteé Ball's record-breaking season but still ran for 713 yards (5.1 average) and six touchdowns. With defenses keying on Ball, White is the type of change-of-pace back who can make them pay. David Gilbert, DE, Jr. -- The 6-foot-4, 250-pounder started 2011 with three sacks in the Badgers' first four games but then suffered a season-ending foot injury. Blessing in disguise? Co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge says the unplanned redshirt year could set up a huge 2012.
Jacob Pedersen, TE, Jr. -- The Badgers have a history of developing pro-caliber tight ends -- Travis Beckum, Owen Daniels and Lance Kendricks among them -- and Pedersen could be next. Eight of his 30 catches in 2011 went for touchdowns (tied for second most among the nation's tight ends). The 6-foot-4, 242-pounder will give quarterback Danny O'Brien a big target over the middle and in the red zone.
Bart Houston, QB, Fr. -- As a starter, the coveted 6-foot-4, 215-pounder guided Concord, Calif., powerhouse De La Salle High to a 38-1 record and three state championships. He'll likely spend 2012 in Madison redshirting after undergoing shoulder surgery.
There's a single-mindedness to Monteé Ball. You hear it in the way that he speaks -- measured, straight-ahead, efficiently and confidently summing up his thoughts -- and see it in the way that he runs. The focused approach can be traced back to when he was eight years old. That was when Ball told his second-grade teacher in Wentzville, Mo., that he wanted to be a professional football player when he grew up. His teacher tried persuading him to envision something more attainable, but he would not change his mind."Monteé's mother [Melissa, a customer-service representative for an electric company] and I have helped him along the way to make sure he's going after that dream," said his father, Monteé Sr., a graphics designer. "If you truly know who you are in your heart, you know the decisions you have to make."More than a decade after brushing aside that grade-school teacher, the younger Ball had a junior season at Wisconsin that was one for the ages. He led the country with 1,923 rushing yards and tied the record set by Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders in 1988 for the most touchdowns scored (39) in an FBS season. No one would have blamed Ball for promptly interrupting his studies as a sociology major and entering the 2012 NFL draft.Yet there he was, three days after Wisconsin's 45-38 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl, telling a national audience on ESPN that he would be returning to Madison. "Monteé is a guy who goes by a plan," said Badgers coach Bret Bielema. "He decided that if he was a projected third-round pick or lower he'd come back, and that's what he was."Ironically, the factor that scared off NFL front offices was the one that allowed Ball to enjoy a record season. In an effort to break more shoestring tackles and be lighter on his feet, Ball dropped a dozen pounds during the summer of 2011. He ate lean meats, ran the 3.1 miles each way between his off-campus apartment and the football facilities, and traveled everywhere else on his scooter. That dedication helped make his 2011 season possible while simultaneously raising red flags among scouts."They thought I lost a lot of power when I slimmed down," Ball said. "Being 203 or 204 pounds and not being a speed back hurt me. I want to get back to 215 this season and bring more power." Ball's NFL dream is not his only motivation. Several school and NCAA records are within his reach. He'd also like to return to New York City as a 2012 Heisman finalist after finishing fourth in the voting last year.Two years ago, Ball's goal was not college football's most prestigious award; it was a starting job. Early in that season the frustrated runner briefly pondered leaving Wisconsin in search of a lead-back berth. That was after Ball didn't play a snap during the Badgers' 31-18 upset of No. 1 Ohio State in Week 7. "It was the first time since age eight that he didn't step on the field," Monteé Sr. said. "It's been great to see him grow and mature as a football player since then. He got in the Iowa game [the following Saturday]" -- catching five passes, scoring a touchdown and being named the team's co-offensive player of the week -- "and has carried it through to today."It won't be long before Ball will be carrying it through to Sundays. For now he has one more year in Madison, where he'll be charging ahead and burnishing his legacy as one of the best running backs in Wisconsin history. After that, he can go back and tell his second-grade teacher, "I told you so."
SI: With a large number of your players being from Wisconsin, what's your out-of-state recruiting strategy? BB: Even out of state we try to find Wisconsin-type kids: Kids who do right academically, handle themselves socially and love football. Our best recruiters are our current athletes and their parents. SI: You married your longtime girlfriend, Jen, in March. How's married life? BB: It's provided a balance in my life. Sometimes I have to take phone calls at less than ideal moments, but we're enjoying it. The key is to find the right person. SI: How was your experience participating in the inaugural Big Ten championship game? BB: That might have been the most exciting environment of all the games I've ever played or coached in. Winning the game made it that much better. SI: Describe the community service you and the rest of the football program perform. BB: My mom is a two-time breast-cancer survivor, and she has been a big inspiration for me. Two years ago we wore special memorabilia to celebrate breast-cancer awareness in our win against No. 1 Ohio State. That was a karma win if there ever was one. SI: How often do you talk with your predecessor, and current AD, Barry Alvarez? BB: Very seldom a day goes by without our talking. He's a great sounding board. Also, everyone loves to meet him -- especially the players' parents. This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big Ten Preview.