For the first time during University of Wisconsin football training camp, the offense was able to deliver consistent counterpunches to the defense.
After some difficult stretches of practice over the first half of camp, the offense — particularly wide receiver Chimere Dike and quarterback Graham Mertz — was able to get the better of the defense on Wednesday. The 2½-hour practice on the grass field north of Camp Randall Stadium saw Mertz and Dike hooking up for a number of big plays, including a 40-plus-yard throw down the right sideline that Dike adjusted to, bringing in the catch over his shoulder.
“For us, it’s having that trust built up to where we know where each other is going all the time,” Mertz said. “I know where he’s going, he knows how I’m throwing it. I mean, I could say that with Danny (Davis), Kendric (Pryor), all the guys. We just built up that trust throughout the offseason. So now we see the looks we know we’re going to get, they know the ball they’re going to get. And it’s just a matter of making the play.”
Dike, a sophomore, was the standout offensive player of training camp last year and pushed his way into the top group of three receivers. He’s solidly in that group again this year, flanked by seniors Davis and Pryor. Dike has shown improvement in his ability to separate from defenders, especially at the line of scrimmage.
Mertz and Dike are close off the field and are often seen speaking with one another on the practice field, something Mertz says helps keep both players accountable.
“He’s going to call me out when I’m doing something wrong, I’ll call him out when he’s doing something wrong — we know why we’re doing it,” Mertz said. “And I think that’s a cool thing with ‘Chim’ is our approach is very similar in the way we go about things.”
Mertz on the move
A number of Mertz’s best plays at practice came off play-action, specifically when rolling to his right. The Badgers utilize the rollout regularly off play-action and Mertz has shown better coordination between his lower body and upper body on these throws, leading to better accuracy.
Mertz threw a touchdown to Davis off a rollout to cap off an eight-play drive against the defensive starters, and completed strikes along the sideline to Davis and Dike while on the move.
Before camp began, Mertz told a reporter he was confident he’d make more plays with his feet this year, and said he felt like he was moving with the ball better than he has in his career.
Freshmen get wild haircuts
Continuing an annual training camp tradition, a number of freshmen were sporting some, let’s say, unique haircuts.
Veteran players in each position group decide the freshmen’s follicles’ fate. Offensive lineman Riley Mahlman was left with just a patch of his bangs while the rest of his head was shaved, and linebackers Jake Chaney and Bryan Sanborn had haphazard lines and spots shaved into their hair.
The most outlandish of the group may have been offensive lineman Nolan Rucci, who came to UW sporting a mullet and is now rocking what players called a “skullet” — long locks on the sides and back with nothing up top or in front.
Mahlman got nearly every snap with the starters at left tackle. Seniors Logan Bruss and Tyler Beach are getting closer to returning — both suited up and did individual work but no team reps — but Mahlman had some bright moments.
He showed good patience with his hands during one-on-one pass rush drills, not reaching early and giving up his chance to deliver a blow. He also shows impressive lateral quickness to keep his body in front of defenders.
Even at 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, Mahlman still appears thin and able to add more weight to his frame, which could help him add more power to his run blocking.
“He really knows his stuff, he’s confident in it,” offensive line coach Joe Rudolph said. “I told him in a meeting the other day, ‘I have a lot of trust in you, man. You know what to do, you know how to do it.’ Obviously in this program he’s going to continue to develop to get stronger and bigger and more explosive.”
From the infirmary
Here’s a look at who didn’t practice Wednesday. If a reason isn’t listed for a player, it wasn’t provided by UW’s status report.
- CB Al Ashford (left arm)
- RB Jalen Berger (right leg)
- OL Tanor Bortolini (right leg)
- WR Stephan Bracey (right leg)
- OL Logan Brown (head)
- CB Deron Harrell (right leg)
- OLB Aaron Witt (right leg)
- OL Tyler Beach (left leg)
- OL Logan Bruss (left leg)
- ILB Tatum Grass (head)
- OL Joe Tippmann
- K Jack Van Dyke (right leg)