No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers putting 2020 behind them, 'all in' for bouncing back
MADISON, Wisc. — Isaac Guerendo felt it most in the weight room.
The nagging issue that plagued the junior running back and the rest of the Wisconsin football team during the truncated 2020 season wasn't something they could overcome by getting stronger or studying more film. No amount of reps in the weight room or number of sprints could fix what was missing.
The Badgers weren't able to build the team bonds that have been a pillar of the program for years and players felt the effects.
"It's crazy because there's some small stuff that you wouldn't think has as much of an impact, but you know, having to lift one person per rack in the weight room all winter conditioning ... it spreads out that bonding," Guerendo said at the end of spring football practices.
Senior safety Scott Nelson was in the last stages of recovery from a knee injury during training camp last fall, so he wasn't physically with the team to begin the year. When he rejoined the group, it was a shock.
"You can't really blame anybody, but it was very tough for freshmen to kind of meet the older guys and older guys to meet the freshmen and really become a team," Nelson said. "I came back and there was a bunch of freshmen I'd never seen before."
Every college football team was affected by COVID-19 and the restrictions it caused last year, and even after taking precautions, the Badgers were hit with a coronavirus outbreak that left more than 30 players and staffers afflicted. It canceled two games from their shortened season and things were never on track after it.
Senior and team captain Garrett Groshek said the Badgers had a lack of energy last season, which can be partially attributed to the effort it took each day to be eligible to play or practice, let alone the preparation for a game.
It's difficult to fire up a teammate when you don't know him. And after the virus wiped out spring practices, modified summer workouts and yo-yoed the season in the fall, the Badgers had little connectivity.
It's in this area that this year's spring practices were the most crucial. Beyond what techniques or skills the players learned in those 15 on-field sessions, or the information shared in the meetings in between, being on the field together without the pressure of a game looming has helped form bonds not present a year ago.
"The first thing when we got back that we talked about was just being a team again," sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz said. "Really having that time to go through winter workouts, go through spring ball, go through summer together. And then how can we get that sense of that togetherness back that we didn't have during the COVID year when you're at home for three months and you can't see a guy face to face? So the first thing was how can we get to that point where we're just together in working out and then building those bonds?"
A few changes off the field aided in this effort as well.
Wisconsin's operation still isn't back to normal, with masking rules in the facility and all provided meals this spring being to-go. But the full team moved back into the normal locker room after being spread throughout a number of spaces last season, and the size of groups allowed in the weight room at the same time increased from the limit of 10 last fall.
"Being able to get back to lifting like with a partner and stuff like that, those small connections make a huge difference," Guerendo said.
With more time together, veteran players' influence was being heard.
"I really like this year's ... everybody is so close, everybody's willing to talk to each other about things going on on the field, things going off the field," senior safety Collin Wilder said. "Leaders are not necessarily leading out of fear, you know? They don't want guys to respect them out of fear. We want leaders to be able to lead out of love and we want guys to be able to follow out of love. And I think that's really the biggest difference that I've seen this year is guys are just so much closer."
The Badgers see last season as a lesson — presented with impossible-to-imagine obstacles, the Badgers didn't clear all of them. They're pulling together to ensure the 2021 season feels, looks and ends differently.
"You're all in or you're all out," Nelson said. "We really don't want ... if you're not all in, you're welcome to leave. This isn't something where we're just going to carry dead weight around and have people act like they don't want to be here.
"So if you're here, you better be all in and willing to do whatever it takes to reach our goals as a team. ... So just having everybody all in and becoming a better team, I think is something that will actually be able to be executed in this offseason and then show very clearly in the fall. Kind of reminds me of a couple of years ago, 2019, where it's just kind of draw a line in the sand, you're either with us or you can leave. It's pretty simple."
Our preseason Top 25
For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.
Our previous Top 25 team stories:
No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels are hoping, banking on good returns from Lane Kiffin 3.0
No. 24 Washington: Huskies' Morris looks like the quarterback to run with — for now
No. 23 Louisiana: Billy Napier could be college football's next big thing (if he wants it)
No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions' safeties honed their craft at Lackawanna
No. 21 Oklahoma State: The next Gundy (Gunnar) begins his Cowboys career
No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticlers have arrived, ready or not