Bielema aims to make teams special
-- Net punting—54th nationally at 35.3 yards per punt.
-- Punt returns—55th nationally at 9.2 yards per return.
-- Kickoff coverage—56th nationally at 20.8 yards per return.
-- Kickoff returns—119th nationally—dead last—at 17.1 yards per return.
Welcome to the sorry state of the University of Wisconsin special teams in 2008.
Bret Bielema, who has overseen those units since he took over as UW’s head coach in 2006, insists those rankings can improve on his watch. That is why rather than giving the responsibility to someone else, Bielema in the offseason decided instead to tinker with schemes.
The most significant change involves the punt-coverage unit. UW in the spring worked on a new formation, which features three blockers on each side of the long snapper and three blockers in front of sophomore punter Brad Nortman.
The hope is the new scheme will allow more tacklers to get down the field more quickly.
Assistant Charlie Partridge, who works with the punters and kickers, was set to implement the scheme at Pittsburgh before he joined UW in 2008.
“The college rules allow you to release on the snap, as opposed to the pro rules that you have to release on the kick,” he said, “really plays into that style of punt.”
Nortman, who struggled with distance and hang time after a strong start, finished sixth in the Big Ten Conference in punting with a 41.8-yard average. He acknowledged having some misgivings when the change was first made.
“I thought there was going to be an issue a little bit of a barrier in front of me,” he said, referring to the trio of personal protectors. “But honestly I was surprised how they weren’t in my field of vision. I was out there thinking: ‘This isn’t too bad.’
“Having three big guys in front of me, that can only be a good thing.”
The three blockers generally line up 7 1/2 yards behind the long snapper; Nortman is 14 1/2 yards deep.
“I thought they were going to be closer than they were,” said Nortman. “That is plenty of distance.
“My drop and approach takes about 3 or 3 1/2 yards so they still have plenty of room. I was actually very pleased with the comfort I had there.”
Another change, though much more subtle, could come on kickoff returns.
David Gilreath was UW’s No. 1 return man last season but his 19.6-yard average on kickoff returns wasn’t even close to cracking the top 10 in the league. When UW paired a player deep with Gilreath it was usually for blocking only.
This season, Bielema hopes to uses a second return threat, so teams can’t focus on one player.
“Other than David,” Bielema said, “no one gave us consistent ball security.”
However, Bielema also acknowledged the blocking was below average.
“We weren’t able to stay on our blocks,” Bielema said.
The No. 1 change the staff hopes to see on kickoffs involves sophomore kicker Philip Welch.
Welch’s work on field goals and conversions was outstanding. He made 20 of 24 field-goal attempts and 39 of 40 conversions. The depth of his kickoffs, an average of 62.6 yards, wasn’t as good.
The issue wasn’t a lack of leg strength. Rather, like many young kickers Welch too often tried to pulverize the ball instead of relying on his natural power and motion.
“He felt that he needed to kill the ball,” said Bielema, who discussed the issue with Partridge. “When he tries to do that, then the balls will fly all over.”
Welch’s hope is to reach the goal line consistently with a hang time of 4.0 seconds.
“I’m trying to relax more,” he said. “Almost just think like tapping it and then it goes farther.”