MADISON — When some of the new University of Wisconsin football coaches attended the practices in California prior to the Rose Bowl, they gathered in the hotel suite of head coach Gary Andersen to watch videos of the recruits who had committed to the school.
The more defensive coordinator Dave Aranda watched, the more excited he got. He saw big, rangy, versatile athletes, who would be ideal for the new attacking defense.
“It was exciting,” Aranda said. “I have so much respect for the previous staff. They did a great job recruiting. They did the majority of the work, to be honest with you.
“Our job was just to kind of be ourselves and try to get a relationship as quickly as possible with these incoming recruits.“
Andersen, who had only six weeks to recruit and put his coaching staff together, rolled out his first class on Wednesday, as the Badgers signed 17 scholarship players and two walk-ons.
“It was a team effort,” Andersen said. “The areas are scattered. It’s very unconventional recruiting when you take over a job in the time frame we did, to solidify a class.“
That team effort included the two holdover coaches from the previous staff, running backs coach Thomas Hammock and secondary coach Ben Strickland, whom Andersen credited with “calming the waters,” after the departure of previous UW coach Bret Bielema and seven of his assistants.
“When we came in, Thomas Hammock and Ben Strickland, they fought their butts off to keep these guys,” Aranda said.
The defensive players Aranda saw on video included speedy in-state defensive ends Alec James (Brookfield East) and Chikwe Obasih (Brookfield Central), who can play with a hand on the ground, or in upright stances.
Aranda saw a lanky safety in 6-foot-2 Matt Hubley (Waukesha Catholic Memorial), and a hard-nosed middle linebacker in Garrett Dooley (Rochester, Ill.).
“They were all the type of guys we would look for,” Aranda said. “They can be up, they can be down, they can rush, they can drop in coverage. They were hyper players.“
The offensive players included another potential standout running back in Corey Clement (Glassboro, N.J.) and a possible impact wide receiver in Robert Wheelwright (Columbus, Ohio).
Still, there were holes that needed filling at the last minute, which is where the new coaches came in. “What we needed was skill with speed,” Aranda said.
The Badgers were able to add four recruits in the final two weeks, providing perhaps the best glimpse of how the new staff will recruit in the future.
Two are junior college transfers, quarterback Tanner McEvoy and safety Donnell Vercher. Some coaches view jucos as risks and potential headaches. Also, it’s supposed to be folly to try and get them into strong academic schools like UW.
But Andersen, a former junior-college offensive lineman, doesn’t view it that way.
“It’s a privilege to be at this school,” Andersen said. “For junior college kids, if they take care of business, they have high academic standards as far as the way they’re carrying themselves to get through the junior colleges, they’ll be able to come in without any problem.“
McEvoy, 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, brings a strong running element missing in some of the other five scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. He also has a hard-scrabble attitude from having to fight his way back after leaving South Carolina and spending a year at Arizona Western College. He has three years of eligibility remaining.
“A little bit of a chip on his shoulder,” Andersen said. “He’s got a lot of ’want to’ in him. He has high expectations of himself.“
At the Rose Bowl practices, Aranda talked to the former UW assistants, who recommended he look for a juco safety. While at Utah State, Aranda had recruited Donnell Vercher, who had eight interceptions his second year at Fresno City College.
“He is a ballhawk, everywhere he’s been,” said Aranda, who places a premium on takeaways. “He always got hands on balls, always got picks, always made big plays. There’s a wow factor about him.“
The other two late additions were under-the-radar high school players who filled needs, cornerback Jakkarie Washington (Everett, Mass.) and outside linebacker Leon Jacobs (Santa Clarita, Calif.).
Jacobs is a standout basketball player who has played football for two years. He had committed to Fresno State, but was looking for a better academic school.
“He is a crazy athletic player,” Aranda said. “I’ve seen him play basketball a couple times. He’s dunking over guys and giving me thumbs-up. ... Athletically, he’s everything you look for. Football, he’s raw.“
Andersen said there were no surprises on signing day. Two players who committed and did not show up on the list, fullback Austin Ramesh (Eagle River) and defensive tackle Sam Raridon (West Des Moines, Iowa) are grayshirts who are expected to join the team next January.
Safety Marcus Ball, the younger brother of offensive lineman Ray Ball, became the third player to decommit from the class when he signed with Arizona State.
The four late additions provided a boost to a class Rivals ranks No. 36 nationally and fourth in the Big Ten Conference, although Andersen said it can’t be judged for three years.
“Stars are not everything to us,” Andersen said. “It’s a fit. We want a toughness factor, someone who wants to succeed academically, socially, and athletically, and that’s the way we go with it.”