Over the years, Wisconsin’s spring game has resembled less of a game and more of a glorified practice with fan attendance. So relying on spring game statistics to evaluate potential breakout players is hardly a foolproof method.
What often happens is the reserves handle the bulk of the snaps because there is little reason to risk injury to starters. That’s how Evan Bondoc led the Badgers with 12 tackles in the 2015 spring game or Griffin Grady tallied a team-high 9 tackles in the 2017 spring game.
At the same time, to completely ignore what transpires on the field would be equally foolish. Several of Wisconsin’s young players have thrived during the spring game, which sowed the seeds for success in the fall and for the rest of their Badgers careers.
Back in 2012, for example, running back Melvin Gordon earned the call while stars Montee Ball and James White watched from the sideline. Gordon carried 30 times for 159 yards with 1 touchdown, showcasing the speed and power that would ultimately make him a Heisman Trophy finalist. While Gordon rushed for 621 yards as a third-string redshirt freshman tailback during the 2012 season, he became one of the great players in Badgers history. In 2014, he ran for 2,587 yards, the second-most in a single season in FBS history.
In 2013, linebackers Joe Schobert and Marcus Trotter each tallied a team-best 7 tackles. To that point, Trotter had recorded 10 career tackles, while Schobert had none. Trotter ranked second on the team with 93 tackles in 2014, while Schobert went on to earn Big Ten Linebacker of the Year honors in 2015 and become a first-team All-American.
Dare Ogunbowale switched from cornerback to running back during the 2014 season but played the position sparingly. In the 2015 spring game, he carried 11 times for 89 yards with 2 touchdowns and broke off a 55-yard run. Ogunbowale started 10 games the following season and was Wisconsin’s leading rusher with 819 yards and 7 touchdowns. Linebacker T.J. Edwards recorded 9 tackles and a sack in his first significant time during the same spring game. Edwards earned a starting job that fall and became an All-American in 2017, as Schobert had two years earlier.
The past two spring games have highlighted strong development from a pair of young quarterbacks. In 2016, Alex Hornibrook completed 4 of 8 passes for 138 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions and established himself as a viable option during his redshirt freshman season. Hornibrook started 9 games that fall and split time with veteran signal caller Bart Houston.
Last spring, quarterback Jack Coan completed 10 of 17 passes for 121 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception and positioned himself ahead of Kare Lyles on the depth chart. Coan carried that momentum forward into fall camp to earn the backup quarterback job behind Hornibrook.
For every outing that turns out to mean very little in the grand scheme of things, there are others that can be viewed as a springboard to a stellar career. Which strong performance leads to playing time next?
We’ll find out during Wisconsin’s spring game on April 13.