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The new game plan: Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen shakes up Badger football
Anderson is capable of raising a ruckus.
Credit:Nick Berard

Among the flocks of athletes, coaches, student managers, assistants, trainers and onlookers hustling to and fro at Camp Randall Stadium, it's not as easy as it once was to pick out the head coach of the University of Wisconsin's football team.

Taller and more slender than his two predecessors, Gary Andersen blends in a bit more. But before you can even find the man, it's clear a new master is pulling the strings. The loudspeakers blare a mix of music ranging from Bob Marley to Mumford & Sons; the practice uniforms have been jazzed up. And there he is, roaming in between the practice drills, wearing his usual visor and long-sleeved shirt, watching, clapping and handing out advice and high fives as needed.

You wouldn't think it just from watching a few blocking drills, but the change that is afoot is possibly the largest one Wisconsin's program has undergone since Barry Alvarez arrived to reanimate it in 1990. Bret Bielema (now departed for Arkansas), who succeeded Alvarez, was handpicked by his predecessor and adopted many of his schemes and recruiting strategies during his seven years as Badger in Chief.

Andersen was not groomed in advance of becoming UW's head coach. He, like much of the staff he's assembled, comes out of the western U.S. He has no experience coaching in the Big Ten and little to none recruiting this region.

But Andersen is unlikely to suffer from that lack of experience. Under his leadership, there's a new fusion of resources and philosophies. The program stands a good chance of profiting from an enlarged recruiting campaign and a more innovative style of play that puts the UW near football's cutting edge -- a place the Badgers have seldom been.

Far from home

Born in Salt Lake City, Andersen, 49, rarely strayed far from Utah until he donned the cardinal and red last winter. In 1984, while at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho, he turned first-team junior college All-American honors into a two-year career at center for the Utah Utes. Soon after he began his coaching career, bouncing around Utah, Arizona, Idaho and Louisiana until he rejoined his alma mater in 2004 as the defensive line coach under the command of Urban Meyer, currently the head man at Ohio State.

In their year together at Utah, Andersen and Meyer forged a close bond as they ran the table with a 12-0 record and a Fiesta Bowl title. Meyer, a two-time national title winner, calls Andersen one of the best hires he ever made.

Under Kyle Wittingham, Andersen advanced to defensive coordinator at Utah, and his sturdy-as-a-boulder defense helped upend mighty Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. That earned him the top job at Utah State, a program that for years had been plagued by ineptitude.

"When we got there, they were a bad football team," says Bill Busch, who coached safeties for Andersen at Utah State and now at Wisconsin. "Facts are facts."

Utah State had suffered 11 consecutive losing seasons. It had just two bowl appearances since 1961 and had never held a spot in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) standings. In four years, Andersen engineered two winning seasons, a conference title and two bowl appearances (with one win). The Aggies finally cracked the BCS ranks last year, finishing at No. 22.

Not long after delivering that bowl game victory -- and about three months after his Aggies came within a missed field goal of downing the Badgers in Madison -- Andersen found himself in Alvarez's company with a book to show him, the contents of which are now written all over the UW's practices and recruiting operation. It was a collection of ideas, some his own and some borrowed from coaches Andersen had worked under and alongside.

"About 15 years' worth of ideas," he says. "It was very program-oriented, [showing] how ideally I'd like to see [this program] run."

An offense and defense evolving

Wisconsin's brand of football is well established. There's probably not another team out there more associated with a traditional, run-first, easy-on-the-gimmicks offense. The defense is not known for getting too fancy or being especially aggressive. Both of those images will change somewhat this season -- and perhaps even more in coming years.

It may be a while before the offense reflects Andersen's preferred model. But while he says he is committed to keeping UW's famous power running game as the fulcrum of the offense, he's made it clear he wants strong-armed, mobile quarterbacks to be a standard component of a system that also features the option and the zone-read (the latter being all the rage in the football universe now).

There have been exceptions to this rule, but even sixth-year senior quarterback Curt Phillips will tell you a Wisconsin field general is "traditionally more of a game manager," a drop-back passer expected to complete throws when asked and not turn the ball over.

Even with an athletic virtuoso like Russell Wilson, the Badgers usually didn't have him run unless he had nowhere to throw. Having a history of game-managing quarterbacks may not be something to boast about, but it is almost as much a part of the Badgers' identity as their burly linemen and warhorse running backs.

Andersen wants more out of his signal-callers, but it's doubtful there is a quarterback on the team who could give him everything he'd like in the position at the moment. Three quarterbacks -- Joel Stave (the big arm), Phillips (the astute veteran) and junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy (the fleet-footed) -- entered fall camp with a chance to start, but none seems to fit Andersen's ideal. The latter two have practiced the zone-read and the option, which Andersen ran at Utah State, but have shown subpar throwing ability. An offense with Stave under center would call for a more traditional approach.

But if it can't happen today, it may tomorrow. The mobile McEvoy, a redshirt sophomore, is here because Andersen brought him. Andersen also scored 2014 and 2015 verbal commitments from two well-regarded dual-threat quarterbacks in D.J. Gillins and Austin Kafentzis.

"It goes back to me being a defensive coordinator," Andersen says. What do opposing teams hate to deal with? "A quarterback who can run and is a smart kid who can throw the ball well."

For the time being, the most drastic change will occur with the defense, as it reconfigures into a base 3-4 formation (three down linemen, four linebackers) from a 4-3. Along with defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Andersen means to turn the defense into a monster of unpredictability and pugnacity. Cornerbacks are going from a mainly zone coverage to a man-to-man, bump-and-run style. The rest of the defense is an attacking shapeshifter; through fall camp, the Badgers have deployed anywhere from zero to four down linemen and two to four safeties to disguise blitzes and coverages.

Although the Badgers used similar tactics in the Big Ten title game against Nebraska last December, such a strategy -- currently booming in college and professional football -- is a departure from UW's straightforward 4-3 defenses of years past.

"The best is when you get the look from the offense," says Brendan Kelly, who converted from defensive end to outside linebacker as part of the 3-4 switch. "You come out with [just] one down lineman, they're just like, 'This is not real life.' They don't really know what to do."

A sense of stability

Players who've been on the Wisconsin roster for the past three years no longer have any of the same coaches from when they arrived. Their position coach has changed. Their offensive or defensive coordinator has changed. Their head coach has changed. T.J. Woods is the Badgers' fourth offensive line coach in three seasons. Linebackers are answering to their fourth coach in as many years, quarterbacks to their third.

In short, it's been a while since UW's coaching ranks have achieved consistency. To make up for it, Andersen launched an initiative to foster trust with the players and ease them into yet another transition.

When it comes to trust, perhaps you could not fault a fan or player who grumbles about Andersen and broken promises at Utah State. He signed a contract extension last October, and after California and Colorado expressed interest in him, he reaffirmed his allegiance to USU in a November press release. But before three weeks passed, Bielema was out and Andersen was in at Wisconsin.

However, not everyone at Utah State harbors hard feelings. A July story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel suggested that USU players and athletic director Scott Barnes hold no grudges. Many players also voiced support through Twitter after Andersen announced his decision.

And according to fifth-year senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, the way Andersen handled his USU exit won over many at UW. After the news broke, Andersen says he called every single Aggie on the roster -- over 100 -- to tell them directly.

"Just knowing that his players meant that much to him, that he would call each and every one of them, I thought that was pretty special," Abbrederis says. "Just from that, I think we all knew he would care about us."

Andersen has repeatedly been described as player-oriented. He reached out to seniors and other leaders upon taking over the team and worked to open lines of communication. "He'll call you out of the blue to see how things are going," linebacker Chris Borland says. "A lot of coaches get deemed a 'player's coach,' but he really looks out for the best interests of his guys."

"He'll do anything for you," Abbrederis says.

Andersen is also keen on keeping communication flowing from player to player. Between spring and fall camp, Borland says Andersen assembled the entire team for weight lifting and other workouts four times a week, something that hadn't happened in the past.

He also instituted a "big brother" program, where a veteran is assigned to look after a freshman or transfer player and decide when they've earned their stripes. All newcomers to the team enter practice with just a thin black band on their white helmets and graduate to the "motion W" decals when their big brother says so.

Andersen also revels in provoking competition in unexpected ways. He will give kickers one shot each at converting a 30-plus-yard field goal while encircled by the rest of the roster, who scream and bark at arm's length. He will select about a dozen pairs of players for a one-on-one hitting drill, as everyone else watches. He will put the ball on the two-yard line and give the offense one chance to score before moving on to something else. Once, he invented a drill in his head and ran it less than an hour later.

"It helps fuel the fire in everybody," safety Dezmen Southward says of the added competition. "The offense wants to kill us -- or, beat us, I'm sorry -- and we want to stop them."

Meanwhile, the X's and O's transition has been as streamlined as possible. For instance, Woods, the offensive line coach, avoided changing the line call terminology as best he could. Coaches also laced game film with voiceovers, so when players studied over the summer, they could almost simulate a team meeting. And in August, each player received an iPad, allowing them to study game film any time, anywhere.

"It's hilarious; everyone's watching film," nose tackle Beau Allen says with a laugh. "If you have five minutes, like [while] getting taped, you can watch film. If you're icing something down or getting rehab, you can watch film."

'Ready to roll'

Andersen doesn't seem like much of a firecracker in practice. He's active and talks a lot, certainly, but Abbrederis and Borland both describe him as somewhere between a yeller and a quiet type.

He's always at ease in front of the media. During the second day of the Big Ten media parade, he sat at a table for two hours with reporters. He leans back, rests one leg on the other, indulges in stories, gesticulates, cracks jokes, doesn't say anything controversial.

But he is also capable of raising a ruckus. There is footage of Andersen fresh off Utah State's first win over rival Utah since 1997. In 110 meetings between the two schools, it was the first that went into overtime.

The ESPN cameras in the locker room captured two players hoisting Andersen onto their shoulders. As he sat there, aloft, he raised his arms and let out a howl as fists pumped all around him.

A week after the Big Ten media days, just prior to the beginning of fall camp, a reporter mentioned Andersen's even keel. The coach smiled and lightly scratched his forehead.

"Anxiety kind of builds up as you go through," he says. "I'm an emotional guy, and the more we're together, the more you're going to see that. I always carry my emotions on my sleeve, kind of, maybe in a good way and maybe in a bad way.

"It's an exciting time for myself and the staff. And I think the kids are ready to roll also."

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