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Home-field advantage: It's a season of promise for Wisconsin Badgers football
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Credit:Nick Berard

The contrast between Middleton High School's two contributions to the 2011 Wisconsin Badger football team is apparent on the team's media day, held on a hot, bright August afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium.

The athletic communications staff arranges a couple dozen folding chairs in the middle of the field for veteran starters, the players most likely to be sought after by reporters. Out of this select crew - the biggest men on the UW-Madison campus - a reclining senior, wide receiver Nick Toon, appears to be thoroughly unimpressed by the microphones, cameras and hubbub.

"I just go out and play football, continue to do what I do," Toon says, squinting as he surveys the hustling reporters. "I've had success in the past, and obviously you try to improve every year, work on the little things."

Meanwhile, sophomore offensive lineman Ryan Groy is nowhere to be found. Unaccustomed to interview requests, Groy has to be summoned from the McClain Center. Where Toon is rehearsed and guarded, Groy is cheerful and almost confessional when talking about his hopes for the season.

"I need to be a little more physical with my game, which is something I've struggled with," Groy says. "I also need to be a lot more confident out there."

But on a team that's ranked as high as 10th in the country and expected to compete for the Big Ten conference championship, Toon and Groy both illustrate what their coach, Bret Bielema, says he'd like his program to be known for.

"Three years ago, we sat around as a staff and broke down what has made Wisconsin what it is, what has made us have success," says Bielema. "From that point forward, we've used the phrase 'Look for a Wisconsin kid wherever you're at.'"

Toon knows immediately what Bielema means when he talks about Wisconsin kids.

"Hard workers, smart, high football IQ," he says. "Guys who love to play the game. Guys who are well put together and aren't going to have a lot of issues outside of football, and guys who genuinely want to go out and work every day."

At a time when college football's reputation has been damaged by scandals at Ohio State, where players traded jerseys and other items for tattoos, and Miami, where a convicted booster has admitted to giving players cash and hosting parties with prostitutes, Bielema and his staff eagerly discuss character when asked to assess the 2011 Badgers.

"We're talking about a kid who likes to play football, who doesn't care about the sexiness of a program, who cares about hard work and dedication, all the things that we embody here," Bielema says. "If a kid doesn't like that, I don't want him. Every year we've gotten better about the type of kid we've had and the type of character and the ability to coach those kids when they get here."

Number 79

Ryan Groy got his first taste of organized football 10 years ago in the Dane County Youth Football League, doing battle with tackling dummies on the bucolic gridiron just down the hill from St. Francis Xavier Catholic church and school in Cross Plains.

"I played there since fourth grade," he says, brightening at the mention of the youth football program. "I've actually been wearing number 79 since fourth grade. It was an absolute great time. I'm still best friends with some of the guys I grew up playing with out there."

Groy went on to become an all-state lineman at Middleton High School and was one of the first recruits signed for Wisconsin's 2009 recruiting class by coach Bielema.

"I always wanted to be a Badger," Groy told reporters on the day he signed his letter of intent. "I knew right away it was the place I wanted to be."

After redshirting his first year, Groy showed up on the field in an unlikely spot last season: fullback. Employed as a lead blocker to open a big hole and plow over linebackers for the Badger tailbacks, Groy started twice in the backfield and ended up playing in 13 games, a nice number for a redshirt freshman.

"He was in the line of fire, he was out there on the field," says assistant coach Joe Rudolph, who played guard at Wisconsin in the early 1990s. "That keeps you pretty in focus for what happens in practice and at meetings, when you realize you're actually going to be out there." As for this year, "He's going to be a heck of an offensive lineman, and he's getting there fast," Rudolph says. "He's one of those guys who's pretty athletic for a big man."

Groy, who added 15 pounds to his already gigantic frame since the Rose Bowl, is listed at 6'5" and 320 pounds. "I probably look pretty silly on my scooter," he says. He's on the depth chart at number-two center, but can play at either guard spot. He also calls the signals on the field as the personal protector on the punt unit.

"I make different calls depending on what kind of punt return team they have out there, and we take all of our blocking assignments from there," he says. "It's something I've really embraced. It's almost a privilege to be on it. It's fun."

So while Groy is not often mentioned among the players expected to make a difference on the 2011 Badgers, his flexibility and willingness to take on new challenges personifies Bielema's notion of a "Wisconsin kid."

"I don't know if there's a player on the roster who improved as much in the last two weeks of spring ball as Ryan did," Bielema says. "Ryan's a great example of what we're all about here, and he's just waiting for his opportunity."

Fortunate son

Growing up in Madison with the last name Toon means facing lofty expectations and comparisons every day. Nick's dad is Al Toon, a star receiver for the Badgers from 1982-84 who ranks third on Wisconsin's all-time receiving list with 2,103 yards. With 1,512, Nick isn't far behind.

Going into 2011, Toon is one of just two receivers, along with sophomore Jared Abbrederis, with any substantial game experience. And with highly touted transfer quarterback Russell Wilson bringing an arm that has thrown for over 8,500 yards to the Badgers, Nick is expected to be the primary target.

"I've tried to step up more as a vocal leader," says Toon. "But mostly I just try to lead by example."

Toon missed three games last year with turf toe on his right foot and all of spring drills with a stress fracture on his left foot. Since recovering from surgery to repair the fracture, Toon has attacked the weight room.

"Nick Toon comes in here in the spring and he's frustrated because he had surgery and wasn't able to train for a while," says Ben Herbert, the Badgers' strength and conditioning coach, producing two photos of a shirtless Toon from his desk drawer. "This is Nick the first day he came in. We didn't do anything that day, we just took his picture. The last day of the summer program, before training camp, I take another picture. He's 209 pounds in the first one, he's 221 pounds right here. He reduced his body fat and gained 11 pounds of lean muscle, feels as good as he ever has."

The two photos aren't unlike the before/after shots in a P90X commercial. Toon isn't out of shape in the first one, but there's no definition. In the second shot, he's downright chiseled.

"I feel great, as explosive and as fast as I've ever been," says Toon. "I'm excited to see what happens when the season starts."

The walk-on

If Nick Toon occupies the top of Wisconsin's depth chart at wide receiver, Drew McAdams is significantly farther down. While the starters greet reporters at midfield on media day, McAdams' unmistakable head of red hair is spotted among a more anonymous bunch of players under a tent on the sideline.

McAdams was a three-year starter at quarterback for Madison East. He passed for 5,698 yards, 2,560 in his senior year, when he also connected for 27 passing touchdowns and ran for eight more. In East's no-huddle spread offense, McAdams would evade a few pass rushers before chucking the ball deep with a funky, almost sidearm throwing motion.

He decided to walk on the team at Wisconsin a year ago, which means he's not on scholarship, and soon switched from quarterback to wide receiver, where he's trying to get some attention as a redshirt freshman.

"They talked me into using my athletic ability to play receiver," he says of the move. "I got some inspiration from Jared [Abbrederis, a starting receiver]. He was a walk-on and played quarterback, and now he's doing big things."

McAdams is fortunate to have former Badger receiver Luke Swan, another former walk-on who went on to captain the team in 2007, tutoring him as a graduate assistant.

"Coach Swan has been teaching me different tricks to get open," says McAdams, who admits he sometimes misses playing quarterback and still tests his arm by throwing to teammates in practice. "But it's really about working hard to get reps. I'm trying to prove myself this year."

Marquis Mason, McAdams' friend and teammate on the East football and basketball teams, was expected to compete for a spot this year but tore ligaments in his knee during spring camp and will miss all of this season.

As a walk-on, McAdams doesn't get many opportunities in practice and doesn't travel with the team to road games. But as one of only a handful of Madison kids on the squad, it's worth watching to see if he can overcome some heavy odds to break into the rotation.

Expecting greatness

"Excitement" isn't a strong enough term to describe how most fans are feeling as the Badgers take the field for the first game of the 2011 college football season on national television Thursday, Sept. 1, against UNLV. With Wilson installed as the starting quarterback, an imposing offensive line and the running back tandem of Montee Ball and James White, the Badgers are expected to win the Big Ten's "Leaders" division and play in the conference's first ever championship game on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.

No, the fans aren't just excited. They're expecting greatness from this group, a step up from last year's Rose Bowl run.

That's heady stuff, and the hype only makes it more challenging for Bielema and his staff to keep a group of college kids focused on the myriad details they need to attend to on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis to be prepared and win games. The coach can be heard referring to this as "going about your business" in his statements to the media, and that's an area where Wisconsin kids excel as much as they do on the field.

"When you've gotta work out, you do that to the best of your ability," says Groy. "You do your school work. You're not going out and being an idiot or making a fool of yourself."

That sentiment seems like a given, but anyone watching the recent troubles at Ohio State and Miami would testify to its importance. If Bielema's approach of recruiting humble players who take a workmanlike approach to the game keeps the Badgers consistently in competition for conference titles and the Bowl Championship Series, other schools might want to start looking into this concept of the Wisconsin kid.

Three potential pitfalls

The Big Ten football world has its eyes on Wisconsin's game against Nebraska (at Camp Randall, Oct. 1) to get a read on how the Cornhuskers will fit in with their new conference. Cocky Badger fans believe it will be the biggest test of the season. But Wisconsin's path to the first-ever Big Ten championship game has a few other obstacles.

At Michigan State, Oct. 22: Wisconsin's only loss of the 2010 regular season came in East Lansing, where, through a quirk of the new Big Ten schedule, they'll play again this year. The Spartans are ranked 17th in the country. They're led by senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who completed 67% of his passes last year, second in the conference to Wisconsin's Scott Tolzien. More important: MSU feels disrespected after being passed over for a BCS bowl bid in favor of Wisconsin and Ohio State last year.

At Ohio State, Oct. 29: Yes, the Buckeyes are going to miss the leadership of disgraced coach Jim Tressel and the playmaking athleticism of quarterback Terrelle Pryor, both of whom left as a result of the tattoo scandal last year. But Ohio State still gets many of the best recruits each season and packs Columbus' formidable Horseshoe for every home game.

At Minnesota, Nov. 12: The Badgers have been in possession of Paul Bunyan's Axe since 2004, and long-suffering Gophers fans who have watched Bret Bielema recruit star players out of the Twin Cities aren't happy about it. Minnesota's new coach, Jerry Kill, makes players who break team rules spend a weekend picking up trash and wearing a T-shirt that reads "I let my teammates down." By the time they play Wisconsin, those Gophers are gonna be ornery.

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