4 spring practice observations: Young Badgers making most of valuable reps

UW redshirt freshman Jack Nelson, center, blocks during Saturday’s spring practice. The Stoughton product appears to have the physical tools needed to start at guard for the Badgers, but he’s still learning the mental side of the position. 

COLTEN BARTHOLOMEW [email protected]

Paul Chryst has made clear his desire for University of Wisconsin football players to maximize their opportunities during spring practices.

With a number of veteran players either not practicing or participating in a limited fashion, young Badgers have had more chances to get first- and second-team reps during group and team portions of practice.

At UW’s second open practice of the spring on Tuesday, a handful of those young players showed promise and might be carving out paths to playing time.

Here are four observations from Tuesday’s practice:

Nelson almost ready

Playing with physicality and a quick first step off the line, redshirt freshman Jack Nelson has been getting the first-team snaps at right guard for UW this spring.

The four-star recruit from Stoughton had a good day, winning one-on-one pass-rush reps against defensive end Isaiah Mullens, a likely starter on the D-line next season. Nelson also helped create a big hole on a run for running back Brady Schipper during a team session.

“He’s somebody that has a lot of passion for the game,” senior center Kayden Lyles said of Nelson. “He goes out and he gives it his all every play, whether he’s right or wrong on the assignment. So we definitely need somebody like that on the O-line, not somebody that’s timid or playing to make sure that their assignment is right, but actually just going out there and just fully committed to it and playing.

“I’ve been trying to work with them to be able to calm down and get his assignment right, obviously, because that’s most important. But I think he’s in a really good spot in where he’s at right now and contributing. Once he gets that down, he’s going to be one good player.”

One can see there are times when Nelson gets off-balance as he’s climbing to the second level, but those technique errors can be cleaned up through the spring and summer.

Bollers has the tools

Freshman outside linebacker T.J. Bollers flashes speed and aggressiveness when he’s rushing the passer. Especially when coming out of a three-point stance — something UW’s outside ‘backers are practicing more of this spring — there’s an explosiveness in his first two steps that will be an asset to him at the college level.

But there’s also a bit of hesitation when Bollers is in a two-point stance that the four-star early-enrollee has to work out this spring. What’s encouraging is Bollers knows he’s got a learning curve to adjust to at the college level and he’s looking for ways to accelerate his acclimation.

“He’s come to me multiple times asking me about different techniques and stuff like that,” junior C.J. Goetz said of Bollers. “I feel like everything right now is just new to him and he’s just getting used to it. I know in high school he had his hand in the ground all the time. So I feel like the biggest thing is for him is just getting comfortable now standing up, learning every technique, mastering our techniques. But he has a really good attitude and I think that he has a very good upside to him.”

Learning to play in space will be an adjustment, but perhaps more on the mental side than physical, because he’s fairly fluid when he turns and runs with a tight end or a back out of the backfield. Once he puts it together, he’s got flexibility to get under blockers and the power to run through them.

Big spring for Njongmeta

Maema Njongmeta was in line to compete for a backup spot at inside linebacker for the Badgers last season, but a preseason injury hampered his development and he was limited to playing in one game, the Duke’s Mayo Bowl against Wake Forest.

Now a redshirt sophomore, Njongmeta is still in position to compete for a spot at inside linebacker, and he’s getting a good number of chances this spring to earn a role. Senior Mike Maskalunas and redshirt freshmen Malik Reed and Jordan Turner didn’t practice Tuesday, so Njongmeta got a heavy dose of second-team reps behind senior Jack Sanborn and junior Leo Chenal.

The 6-foot, 234-pounder would’ve had a sack in live action after coming through untouched on a blitz and maintained proper pursuit angles on a pair of runs away from him.

Adding more depth at inside linebacker is important for UW this spring and Njongmeta would be a good option for the group if he can stay healthy.

High-energy practice

Tuesday’s on-field work, especially the team sessions, featured a good deal of cheering and excitement from both the offense and defense. It was a heightened atmosphere over Saturday’s open practice.

A would-be sack by sophomore outside linebacker Nick Herbig got the defense going and a 40-plus yard catch by junior A.J. Abbott after he got behind safety John Torchio elicited praise on from the offense.

From the infirmary

Here’s a look at who didn’t participate or was limited Tuesday. This list is unofficial and injury designations reflect Saturday’s status report. UW did not provide a status report Tuesday.


  • DL Keeanu Benton (left leg)
  • RB Jalen Berger (leg)
  • OL Logan Brown (Non-COVID illness)
  • RB Julius Davis (leg)
  • TE Jaylan Franklin
  • ILB Mike Masklanas (core)
  • DE Cade McDonald
  • CB Semar Melvin (right arm)
  • OLB Riley Nowakowski (right leg)
  • DL James Thompson Jr. (right leg)
  • DL Bryson Williams (right leg)
  • OLB Aaron Witt


  • WR Danny Davis
  • CB Faion Hicks (both legs)
  • WR Kendric Pryor (left leg)