4 observations from Wisconsin football's fourth training camp practice

Aug 6, 2023
PLATTEVILLE — Luke Fickell’s edict of keeping emotions in check at University of Wisconsin football training camp got its biggest test Saturday.
Safety Kamo’i Latu walloped running back Chez Mellusi about 10 yards down field on a run up the middle. The hit was much harder than any other in the session that had players wearing just helmets and shoulder pads, and no full tackling. Latu’s helmet flew off on the hit and Mellusi took a few seconds to get to his feet and head to the sideline.
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A hit like Latu’s — one so far above the established intensity of practice — would have likely started a scrum in years past. Mellusi didn’t react in the moment, but had words for Latu a few plays later when the Mellusi got the ball again. Running backs coach Devon Spaulding got between the two players and got Mellusi back to the offense’s sideline.
The Badgers had a few other notable moments at their fourth training camp practice — here are four observations from Ralph E. Davis Pioneer Stadium.
1. Two-back looks emerge
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo is known for leaning on the strengths of his roster. It sounds simplistic, but it’s what makes his version of the Air Raid offense different than other practitioners and why he’s had success running the ball in an system that was built to throw, throw and throw some more.
Longo has two talented, experienced tailbacks to work with, and he had both of them on the field more often than usual on Saturday. There were seven plays on which Mellusi and Braelon Allen flanked senior quarterback Tanner Mordecai in the backfield, either taking handoffs or running routes.
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That formation can do a couple of things. First, it could potentially dictate a defense’s personnel by having another back on the field as opposed to a receiver or tight end. An extra linebacker over a defensive back can create some favorable matchups for the Badgers. The two-back personnel package can also cover up for a thin tight end position by putting a proven playmaker into the play over some of the younger options UW has at tight end.
2. Peterson’s a bit better in space
Outside linebackers in the Badgers' new defense may be asked to line up in different spots than in previous years, but Darryl Peterson appears up to the task. He was asked to learn both the field and boundary outside linebacker positions in Jim Leonhard’s defense, but Peterson’s been almost exclusively on the field side this fall.
That field role requires more varied pass-coverage responsibilities and the zones he’ll cover are a bit bigger. He nearly had an interception against the second-team offense Saturday, dropping into zone coverage and feeling slot receiver Skyler Bell behind him running toward the middle of the field. Peterson reached for a low pass from quarterback Braedyn Locke, but Bell somehow snaked his hands through and got the ball from Peterson. But Peterson being in position for the play is a good sign for how he’s developing into his role.
Peterson also had a spin move to get by right tackle Riley Mahlman and apply pressure in the backfield during an earlier 11-on-11 session.
3. Bortolini’s snaps slower, but better
Junior Tanor Bortolini has looked significantly more comfortable at center during preseason practices. He’s played the position at multiple points in his career, but this spring he was having trouble snapping accurately while adjusting to the new techniques on the offensive line.
One adjustment he’s made is snapping a bit slower. That’s not the ideal solution, but it’s helped him make his snaps more accurate and that’s ultimately the goal. The plays that Bortolini’s appeared to add zip to the ball have been the ones that feature an off-target snap. Mordecai has had one awry Bortolini snap per day, but that’s a big step up from the three or four per session he dealt with this spring.
Bortolini also seems to have synced up his first step and his snapping motion, which allows him to get the ball clear and his snapping hand back into blocking position faster. Junior Jake Renfro is getting closer to being 100% and likely taking over the top center spot, but Bortolini’s a better backup option now than he was in the spring, and still a strong contender to start at guard.
4. Punting competition looks open
When the Badgers closed spring practices with what Fickell called a kick scrimmage, the biggest takeaway was that UW wasn’t set on a punter. That was further proven by the coaching staff signing Australian Atticus Bertrams, who was set to join the Southern Cal program in 2022 but didn’t due to injury.
Saturday’s practice featured the most punting work of training camp thus far, with Bertrams and incumbents Jack Van Dyke and Gavin Meyers alternating reps. Bertrams, unsurprisingly, was the most effective with the rugby-style punts that feature the punter taking a running start before applying his boot. His two rugby-style attempts traveled 54 yards and 45 yards with good hang time. But Van Dyke, a Neenah native, held his own. His rugby tries were shorter, 36 and 40 yards, but both had good hang times.
Meyer, an Oshkosh product, sent rugby tries 47 and 46 yards, and a traditional punt 55 yards.
Perhaps the implied challenge from Fickell in the form of adding competition lit a fire under Van Dyke and Meyers, or the ability to consistently punt outside that training camp provides is giving a better representation of their skills. Either way, the Badgers will be monitoring this competition throughout the month.

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