Wisconsin spends spring practice adapting to new offense


MADISON, Wis. — Perhaps no scheme change across the country carries more intrigue than the one taking place at Wisconsin.

A program that traditionally has prided itself on smashmouth football will have a different look with the arrival of Phil Longo, an Air Raid disciple who joined new coach Luke Fickell’s staff as offensive coordinator after spending the last four seasons in the same position at North Carolina.

That’s led to questions regarding how long it will take Wisconsin to adapt and just how much this offense will depart from the Badgers’ usual formula.

As the Badgers exit spring practice this week, the answers to both remain unclear.

Longo, who had great success running this offense at Division II Sam Houston State, Ole Miss and North Carolina, sees reasons for optimism.

“Looking back at where we were in Texas (at Sam Houston State), where we were at Ole Miss and where we were at North Carolina, we are ahead of the curve right now,” Longo said midway through spring practice.

The change in offense forced the Badgers to find more guys who could throw or catch the football.

Tanner Mordecai, who threw a school-record 72 career touchdown passes at SMU, heads a list of three quarterback transfers on Wisconsin’s roster. Wide receivers Quincy Burroughs and Will Pauling followed Fickell from Cincinnati to Wisconsin, and the Badgers added a couple of other pass catchers in C.J. Williams (formerly at Southern California) and Bryson Green (Oklahoma State).

Mordecai says he’s impressed with the way Wisconsin’s holdovers have adjusted to the new offense and its faster tempo.

“Under Coach Longo’s lead, I don’t think there is a ceiling for this offense,” Mordecai said.

Yet the open practice suggested this could be a work in progress. Mordecai threw four interceptions as the defense dominated.

Wisconsin traditionally has leaned heavily on its defense and running game, a formula that made the Badgers consistent winners but had diminishing returns lately. Wisconsin went 20-13 over the last three seasons and finished one game above .500 two of the last three years.

Longo has emphasized that his Air Raid background doesn’t mean the Badgers will stop focusing on the run. Wisconsin still features Braelon Allen, who has rushed for over 1,200 yards each of the last two seasons. The Badgers also have Chez Mellusi, who ran for 815 yards in 2021 and 473 in 2022.

Although Longo is perhaps best known for his development of quarterbacks Sam Howell and Drake Maye at North Carolina, his offenses also featured productive running backs.

Mellusi was at Clemson in 2019 when the Tigers faced a North Carolina team that had Michael Carter rush for 1,003 yards and Javonte Williams run for 933 yards while playing in Longo’s offense.

“I kind of got to see that first-hand, what it was like, that up-tempo, two backs being very dominant, the offensive as a whole being pretty dominant quarterback-wise, receiver-wise,” Mellusi said. “I’m super excited to kind of compare that to ourselves because I think we have the personnel for all of that.”

Even Wisconsin’s receivers understand the Badgers will continue to rely heavily on their running backs.

“I think we’re still going to run the football,” Williams said. “We’ve got two very good running backs in Braelon and Chez. If you’re not giving the ball to them 15 times a game each, what are you doing?”

Of course, the Badgers figure to throw the ball to their backs more than they have in the past. Wisconsin’s faster tempo should create more overall plays from scrimmage, meaning the Badgers could pass on a higher percentage of snaps than before while still running the ball often.

Now it’s just a matter of adjusting.

While this offense is new to Wisconsin’s returning offensive players, they’re accustomed to adapting. Longo is Wisconsin’s fourth offensive coordinator in as many years. Joe Rudolph held the title in 2020, former head coach Paul Chryst served as his own coordinator in 2021 and Bobby Engram had the role last season.

While this shift is a bit more drastic than the others, the Badgers welcome the opportunity and can’t wait to see the results.

“That’s kind of one of the beautiful things about coach Longo’s offense,” offensive lineman Michael Furtney said. “On the outside looking in, you look at it and there’s a lot of moving parts and it truly is a complicated offense, but when you break it down to each individual person or group, once you kind of get that like quick memory, it’s almost like a flash card. You flip it, you see it and instantly think of what your answer is. Once you have that, it’s something that allows you to really cut loose and play.”

Georgia extends contract for AD Josh Brooks, plans two new football practice fields

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ATHENS, Ga. – On the heels of a second straight national football championship, Georgia has rewarded athletic director Josh Brooks a contract extension that ties him to the Bulldogs through at least 2029.

The athletic association board, wrapping up its annual spring meeting Friday at a resort on Lake Oconee, also announced plans for a new track and field facility that will free up space for two more football practice fields.

Brooks’ new contract will increase his salary to $1.025 million a year, with annual raises of $100,000.

The 42-year-old Brooks, who took over the athletic department in 2021 after Greg McGarity retired, called the Georgia job “a dream for me” and said he hopes to spend the rest of his career in Athens.

“I am extremely grateful,” Brooks said. “I got into this business 20-plus years ago as a student equipment manager. My first job at Louisiana-Monroe was making $20,000 a year in football operations.”

The Georgia board approved a fiscal 2024 budget of $175.2 million, a nearly 8% increase from the most recent budget of $162.2 million and the sign of a prosperous program that is flush with money after its success on the gridiron.

The school received approval to move forward with its preliminary plans for a new track and field facility, which will be built across the street from the complex hosting the soccer and and softball teams.

The current track stadium is located adjacent to the Butts-Mehre athletic facility, which hosts the practice fields and training facilities for the football program.

Georgia lost a chunk of its outdoor fields when it built a new indoor practice facility. After the new track and field stadium is completed, the current space will be converted to two full-length, grass football practice fields at the request of coach Kirby Smart.

“He wants to find efficient ways to practice, and there is a lot of truth to the issues we’ve had with our current practice fields,” Brooks said. “There is a lot of strain on our turf facilities staff to keep that field in great shape when half the day it is getting shade, so that has been a challenge as well. For our football program, it is better to practice on grass fields than (artificial) turf, so to be able to have two side-by-side grass fields is huge. It makes for a much more efficient practice.”

The new track and field complex, which will continue to be named Spec Towns Track, will also include an indoor facility, the first of its kind in the state of Georgia.

Iowa AD Gary Barta announces retirement after 17 years at Big Ten school

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa athletic director Gary Barta will retire on August 1 after 17 years at the university, the school announced Friday.

Barta, 59, is one of the longest-tenured athletic directors in a Power Five conference. He was hired by Iowa in 2006 after being the AD at Wyoming.

An interim director will be announced next week, Iowa said.

In September, Iowa hired former Ball State athletic director Beth Goetz to be deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer, putting her in position to possibly succeed Barta.

“It has been an absolute privilege and honor to serve in this role the past 17 years,” Barta said in a statement. “This decision didn’t come suddenly, nor did it come without significant thought, discussion, and prayer.”

“That said, I’m confident this is the right time for me and for my family.”

Iowa won four NCAA national team titles and 27 Big Ten team titles during Barta’s tenure. The women’s basketball team is coming off an appearance in the national championship game and the wrestling team is coming off a second-place finish at the NCAA championships.

Barta served as the chairman of the College Football Playoff committee in 2020 and 2021.

He faced heavy criticism over more than $11 million in settlements for lawsuits in recent years alleging racial and sexual discrimination within the athletic department.

Lawsuits filed by former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum and associate athletics director Jane Meyer led to a $6.5 million payout.

Iowa had to pay $400,000 as part of a Title IX lawsuit brought by athletes after it cut four sports in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the agreement, Iowa reinstated the women’s swimming and diving program and add another women’s sport.

Iowa added women’s wrestling, the first among Power Five schools to compete this year.

A lawsuit brought by former football players alleging racial discrimination within the program was settled for $4.2 million last March, which prompted state auditor Rob Sand to call for Barta’s ouster.

“Gary Barta’s departure is a long time coming given the four different lawsuits for discrimination that cost Iowa more than $11 million,” Sand posted on Twitter.

The university did not allow taxpayer money to be used for the settlement with the former players.

Barta led Iowa through $380 million of facility upgrades, including renovation of Kinnick Stadium, the construction of a new football facility, a basketball practice facility and a training center for the wrestling teams.

Under Barta, Iowa has had just one head football coach (Kirk Ferentz), women’s basketball coach (Lisa Bluder) and wrestling coach (Tom Brands). All were in place when he arrived.

Barta has also come under scrutiny for allowing Ferentz to employee his son, Brian Ferentz, as offensive coordinator. To comply with the university’s nepotism policy, Brian Ferentz reports to Barta.