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New Faces, New Places: Gary Andersen brings Wisconsin into 21st Century

The Badgers go 3-4 and look at the option, but do they have the personnel to make it work?

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

Over the past 20 seasons, there are few programs that have been more Cro-Magnon than the Wisconsin Badgers. In a Big Ten conference where Northwestern and Purdue innovated the pass-first spread offense, Rich Rodriguez had Michigan running the zone read, and Urban Meyer's single wing-based attack is now taking root, the Badgers have remained decidedly old school: No-nonsense power running between the tackles. Play action passes. Pulling guards. Isos. On defense, a 4-3 scheme built to stop the run at all costs, get the opposition into passing downs, and bring pressure however possible.

Wisconsin's scheme, which originated with Barry Alvarez and evolved under Bret Bielema, was as much a part of the Badgers' DNA as cheese and bratwurst, and it was successful. In seven seasons as Wisconsin's head coach, Bielema earned three Big Ten championships, won 10 or more games four times, and took his team to a bowl game in every season. It may have been so old that it could be called retro, but Wisconsin's system worked.

When Bielema left this December for Arkansas, few would have expected Alvarez -- the originator of Wisconsin's system, and now the school's athletic director -- to turn to Utah State's Gary Andersen.

Andersen took the Aggies to their first two bowl games since 1997, is known for his spread offense heavy on option concepts and, even more significant to the former defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, a 3-4 defense that relies on gap discipline and assignments. Wisconsin hadn't recruited or developed for either in years, however, and both Alvarez and Andersen came in trumpeting the virtues of the Badgers' old system. Alvarez even went so far as to dismiss his new coach's former offensive system on the day he announced the hire:

"I don't have any problem with our scheme. I don't perceive us as a spread them out, fast pace, no huddle, one back, five wides (offense). I don't see us doing that because that's not the type of kid we can consistently recruit and we have to remember that.

"You know what the plan is. It starts with those big palookas up front."

Andersen gave proper deference to Wisconsin's power running game, as expected. But Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda also said they would defer to the Badgers' 4-3 defense, and for good reason: The Badgers return four starting senior defensive linemen, well-versed in the intricacies of the 4-3 but whose exposure to the 3-down line came in the 3-3-5 "Badger" formation used infrequently by Bielema in 2012.

By February, though, the talk had shifted. The 3-4 is in at Wisconsin, though it will be slightly modified to fit better with their current personnel as one of the aforementioned experienced linemen -- likely 6'6, 250-pound sixth-year senior Brendan Kelly -- will instead play as an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid. This change allows the Badgers to use both 4-3 and 3-4 formations with the same personnel (Andersen said during spring practice that 3-4 would be the base formation, but would be utilized in a 60/40 split with 4-3). In both the 3-4 and 4-3, Wisconsin's dealing with a fairly radical shift in philosophy:

"It may be in a different spot, it may be at a different pace, but everything we're doing now we've done before," Borland said. "We've had a lot of change, at least defensively, within the same scheme, which I think can be almost harder. This is kind of an overhaul. It's entirely new, fresh for everyone. You can't mistake it for anything you've done in the past."

It's obvious, then, that the biggest shift comes on defense where Aranda wants to use the 3-4 for added versatility in the pass rush. It doesn't hurt, either, that the coach has 333-pound senior defensive tackle Beau Allen at his disposal. Allen, who sat out spring practice with an ankle injury but should be ready to return by August, gives Aranda's defense precisely what it needs: A block-swallowing black hole in the interior. Shifting to zero technique is not as simple as moving a couple of inches, as some of the Badgers have claimed, but a lineman as experienced as Allen should have little trouble with the transition.

Wisconsin's other behemoth defensive tackle, 315-pound senior Ethan Hemer, is a ready-made left end/defensive tackle hybrid required to run both a 3-4 and 4-3 at the college level. Pat Muldoon, slightly undersized at 258 pounds but with a knack for knocking down passes and getting to the quarterback, will also be crucial. How well he holds up in two-gap responsibilities could make or break the Badgers' run defense.

The most important player will be Kelly, though, who will have to adjust to life as both a 4-3 end and 3-4 outside linebacker. If Aranda is going to get the versatility in pass rush that he desires, Kelly will have to be more than just a defensive end playing out of a two-point stance. That means pass coverage responsibilities he rarely had before or situational use that could tip the Badgers' hand in passing downs. Ethan Armstrong, who was the team's strongside linebacker last season, will likely line up at the other outside position.

Responsibilities for the Badgers' standout inside linebackers, senior Chris Borland, become more complicated as well. Not only is Borland adapting to a new defensive system for the second consecutive season, but he is doing it with redshirt freshman Vince Biegel lined up alongside him. A young secondary faces increased man coverage and physical play at the line, not unlike Alabama. Aranda can say it's a 60/40 split between new and old, but the fact is that Wisconsin's defense is getting a dramatic overhaul.

Meanwhile on offense, Andersen started looking for someone who can run the option -- not exactly a skill set that Wisconsin has looked for while recruiting their quarterbacks in the last 20 years. Senior Curt Phillips is the better runner of the two vying for the position -- sophomore Joel Stave, who started six games before losing the job to Phillips last season, ran for a disappointing negative-54 yards -- but neither is going to be confused for Tommie Frazier. There was little sign of the option game in Wisconsin's spring scrimmage, which shouldn't be surprising considering the skillsets of Phillips and Stave, but it has been promised for the fall.

Aside from those major changes, though, the Badgers are likely to remain the Badgers: A heavy dose of running between the tackles with play-action mixed in for the big, rangy pass-catchers.

Andersen's biggest challenge could be on the recruiting trail, where Bielema's connections to Florida and the East Coast produced some of the program's best backs. To wit, just one Wisconsin native (John Clay in 2008 and 2009) has managed to lead the Badgers in rushing over the course of the last 12 seasons.

The Andersen choice surprised many fans, as he had never coached east of the Rockies. But it's his scheme, not his location, that could turn Wisconsin football on its ear and make or break his tenure in Madison.

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