Welcome to the debut of a mailbag feature that doesn’t have a name yet.
The leading contenders: Open Jim and Jim Session. My family and friends will be the first to tell you I’m a big fan of puns, so I hope that isn’t a deal-breaker in the relationship between columnist and you, the reader.
The point of this mailbag is to inform you while also having a little fun. Send me your questions about the Badgers, Packers, Brewers, Bucks and I’ll do my best to answer them. But, as you’ll see at the end of this column, the questions don’t have to be about sports. I’m here to entertain.
Let’s get started this week with a question from Keith:
The Packers front office and Aaron Rodgers both say they are all-in — what move(s) would signal they truly are all-in? Any trade targets at key positions to keep an eye on?
— Keith in Stoughton
Honestly, Keith, I’m not expecting any more major moves. Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst admitted earlier this week the team is up against the salary cap this season after re-signing running back Aaron Jones and some other returning starters while reworking other contracts to push money into future years.
“Depending on how the salary cap goes, there’s going to be some future pain as we move forward to try to do what we did for this season, there’s no doubt about it,” Gutekunst said. “We’re always all-in, but this year there’s certainly some decisions we made that maybe we wouldn’t have in the past just because we see what’s out there for us.”
Point is, I’m not sure the Packers have any more cap room to make significant moves. Adding wide receiver Randall Cobb in a trade this week isn’t a wow move by any means, but it keeps Rodgers happy and adds a mentor to draft pick Amari Rodgers and another leader in the locker room. Meanwhile, picking up veteran offensive lineman Dennis Kelly adds some depth at tackle and again, provides another experienced voice on the team.
The pieces are in place for a title run. The core from teams that have gone to the NFC Championship Game in back-to-back seasons is still in place, now it’s time for the Packers to get over the hump.
A lot of that comes down to how well Rodgers plays. As I wrote in a column Wednesday, I’m a lot less convinced that he’s going to have another great season after hearing him talk for 32-plus minutes. I just didn’t like the vibe he was giving off and I think he realizes this will truly be his final season in Green Bay. Can Rodgers, his teammates and the coaching staff play well through all those distractions? Maybe, but I don’t think it’ll be easy.
Predict the Badgers RB depth chart in order.— Chris Davis (@cdavis20000) July 26, 2021
Good question, but a tough one.
As beat writer Colten Bartholomew and I discussed on the podcast this week, figuring out the tailback rotation might be the most important issue on the team heading into the 2021 season.
Let’s start with my prediction: 1, Jalen Berger; 2, Chez Mellusi; 3, Isaac Guerendo. Considering how often there are “ties” on the depth chart that gets released to us, I wouldn’t be shocked if the one leading into the opener against Penn State has Berger OR Mellusi as the starter.
The challenge here is that we didn’t see enough of Berger last season to get a great read on how productive he can be. And we haven’t seen Mellusi even practice in a UW uniform at all.
I thought Berger was solid as a true freshman last season. He led the team with 301 rushing yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry. It didn’t help that he was sidelined for a bit after a positive COVID-19 test and he was held to 34 yards on 15 carries in the bowl win over Wake Forest, his first game back.
Berger played four games and registered exactly 15 carries each time, so we have yet to see whether he can be a workhorse.
Mellusi is intriguing and UW coach Paul Chryst had a lot of positive things to say about the transfer from Clemson last week at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis. Mellusi appeared in 21 games over two seasons at Clemson, producing 427 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 71 carries as Travis Etienne’s backup. He was highly regarded out of high school and just never got the chance to be THE GUY at Clemson; he’ll get that chance with the Badgers and the challenge for him is getting up to speed with the playbook.
Again, it’s tough to pull the trigger on predicting Mellusi as the starter as we sit here less than a week before camp opens. But I wouldn’t be shocked if he makes that jump over the next month.
The story at tailback doesn’t there. Guerendo is so athletic and could be a threat in the running and passing game if he stays healthy. That’s been the problem for Guerendo so far. Ditto for Julius Davis, who arrived as a highly touted prospect out of Menomonee Falls but hasn’t been able to build any momentum toward playing time due to injuries.
A talented crop of four freshmen arrives and the wild card in that group is Braelon Allen, a blue-chipper out of Fond du Lac who originally was projected to be a linebacker but will begin his UW career on the offensive side of the ball. If I was to name the top five guys I can’t wait to see on the field in camp, Allen easily makes that list.
Can Allen challenge Guerendo for the third spot — or even make a run as the primary tailback? It’ll be fascinating to watch that story play out in camp.
Who do you expect to breakout and shine for the inexperienced Badgers defensive line?— Gavin Derkatch (@GDerkatch) July 26, 2021
I’m going to cheat on this one a little bit and answer it two different ways.
Gavin, I’m guessing you meant “breakout” in terms of a player who hasn’t played much but could have a bigger role in 2021. UW has some experienced guys returning in Keaanu Benton, Matt Henningsen and Bryson Williams, but it needs some of its younger players to step up as the group tries to replace ends Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand.
One of those players — my choice for breakout — is Rodas Johnson, an end from Columbus, Ohio. Johnson redshirted in 2019 and didn’t make an impact last season, but the time is now. I didn’t get to see spring practice because of UW men’s basketball responsibilities and taking some time off once that season was over, but I reached out to our beat guy, Colten Bartholomew, and he was impressed with how Johnson was able to use his upper body strength to get blockers off him.
Now, my other “breakout” player is Benton. The step from good to great is often a challenging one for players, but I think Benton is ready to take that leap. He’s been a solid performer for two seasons, but I think he’s a potential star on this defense and the time is now for Benton to show it. UW spends so much time in its nickel package, which usually means Benton heads to the sidelines in those situations where only two defensive linemen are on the field. This season, I expect Benton to be such a disruptive force that it’ll be hard for UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and new defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej to take him out of the game.
So there are two breakout possibilities for you, Gavin.
Hey Jim,— Pete Marr (@PeteMarr1) July 26, 2021
Give me the Badger men's basketball starting lineup for 2021-2022.
It’s a fair question, Pete, and I’m going to start out my answer by admitting that I have no idea.
In my defense, it’s late July and, as usual, we haven’t been allowed to see any summer practices. So I’m flying blind here and trying to make projections for a team with a lot of new faces.
That said, I’ll try. Let’s start with three obvious answers: I’m confident 15th-year senior Brad Davison, Jonathan Davis and Tyler Wahl will be in the starting lineup, barring injury.
So we have the middle of the lineup covered and need a point guard and center. Let’s go with the latter first: Steven Crowl and transfer Chris Vogt are the two main candidates and this is a tough one without seeing either one of them in practice or game settings.
Crowl has a ton of talent and the UW coaching staff loves him. This was a big offseason for him because he needed to put on weight and muscle in order to compete physically in the Big Ten. I think Crowl will be a really good player in time, but when?
As for Vogt, who arrived from Cincinnati with a lot of college experience, he filled a big hole. UW needed an experienced big man to provide cover for Crowl and another 2020 recruit, Ben Carlson. Vogt will play a lot this season, but I’m going to go with Crowl as the projected starter.
As for point guard, this is tricky. UW fans are going to love Chucky Hepburn, a highly regarded recruit from Nebraska. But would Greg Gard start a true freshman right off the bat? Another option is Lorne Bowman, who spent most of last season at home in Detroit while dealing with a personal issue. But Bowman is essentially a true freshman as well.
My pick to round out the starting lineup — at least to start the season — is Jahcobi Neath. The transfer from Wake Forest is more of a combo guard than a true point guard, but he has two years of experience in the ACC and seems like a logical starter early in the season while Hepburn and Bowman get up to speed.
Plus, Davison has experience at point guard and I expect Davis to take on more of a lead guard role this season as well.
So there you go: Neath, Davison and Davis in the backcourt, with Wahl and Crowl in the frontcourt.
21/22 UW Men's hoop team make another visit to the big dance come March?— Todd Bethe (@todd_bethe) July 27, 2021
Yes, but I’m not overly confident with that prediction.
There are just so many unknowns after a major roster overhaul and, while I’m intrigued by the talent Gard and his staff have accumulated over two recruiting cycles, there are bound to be some growing pains.
I think UW can finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and, unless the Badgers are completely unproductive during nonconference play, that should be enough to sneak in the NCAA tournament.
Even with all the uncertainty, I’m a little bummed I don’t get to cover this team on a full-time basis. That job will belong to our new beat writer Abby Schnable. But I look forward to watching this team grow from afar until football season is over.
I’m wondering about the journalistic ethics of printing an article from a source that was clearly violating the confidence of so many other people. You are a great writer — but do you really feel good about this? Was this the right thing to do?
— Mary Lu in Madison
Mary Lu and I traded emails a few weeks back after our story in June about the UW men’s basketball meeting that was secretly recorded and shared with me.
I got a ton of emails after that story broke questioning the ethics of writing that story. I responded to all of those readers — some of them multiple times — and tried to give insight to my process of reporting that story.
Mary Lu thought it would be helpful if I did an entire story about that process and I thought that’d be overkill. But I told her this mailbag feature was starting in a few weeks and asked if I could include her question in it. She gave me the OK, so here’s an edited version of my response to her.
First off, many, many news outlets ran with this story after I broke it. If any of them had concerns about ethics of using a story in which a secret recording was made and shared anonymously with a reporter, it didn’t stop them from following up on my initial story.
Now, some background: A little after 4 p.m. on Monday (June 23), I received an email from an anonymous person with a link to this audio and a brief description. My initial reaction was to not click on it, thinking it wouldn’t be safe and might infect my computer with a virus. I traded some emails with the sender, trying to get more information, and what convinced me to finally click on the link was the person telling me he/she had sent it to “10-plus media outlets.”
So now, there was some urgency and I felt I had to listen to it. When I listened to it, I could tell it was important. I could identify everyone who was speaking based on my conversations with them throughout the years.
My next step was to verify the legitimacy of the recording, so I began contacting people on the team. Once I learned who was all in the room, I made sure to reach out to each and every one of them for comment and, more importantly, context.
During this reporting stage, I’d periodically check in with my editors. We discussed the ethics of reporting on something like this and decided it was fair to go forward.
From our perspective — and I told Greg Gard this that night — it was clear this audio was going to get out somehow. Either I was going to write a story or someone else was. By 10:30 p.m. on Monday, I had learned at least one other reporter had a copy of the audio. And let’s say this person couldn’t get a reporter to bite on the story — the audio was on YouTube and somebody would have caught wind of it, maybe through an internet message board or some other means.
So what I asked Greg — and I’ll ask you — is this: Do you want that 37-minute audio released in a story by someone who can add context and try to present a fair and balanced piece? Or, do you it want it released without any context, which would have put UW doing even more damage control in my opinion.
Do I feel good about this story? Not really. I’m proud of my work, and so are my bosses. But it’s not like I’m running around giving high fives and celebrating. I know this incident — and me reporting on it — caused a lot of hurt feelings and damage to the program. And that doesn’t make me feel good.
But you asked if I thought I did the right thing, and I’m 100% confident I did. My job is to be an objective reporter and I just don’t see any way I could have ignored this information I received, even if I don’t agree with what this person did by secretly recording a private conversation and sharing it with others.
Let’s end on a lighter note.
I’m going to completely ignore the question because I have no idea who’s the better fighter and dancer between two guys I like a lot. I replaced Schultz on the UW men’s basketball beat in 2011 and have moved into a columnist role held by Oates for so many years; let me just say that both of them left massive shoes to fill.
I will say this about the two: If I had to get from Point A to Point B in a vehicle in the fastest way possible, I’d choose Schultz, the human speeding ticket, as the driver; and Oates, the human GPS, to ride shotgun. Meanwhile, I’d just sit in the backseat and listen to two of the most entertaining story-tellers I know.
Best of the beat: Take a look back at 5 of Jim Polzin's favorite stories from his sports reporting career
I was helping out on the UW football beat late in the summer of 2010 when our Packers writer left for another job. Most of training camp was done, the season opener was a couple weeks away, and I had a 4-year-old and 7-month-old at home.
But who turns down the chance to cover the Packers? I had no idea at the time that the season would stretch into February, but a wild ride ended with Aaron Rodgers and Co. beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV. That night, including writing this game story, is a blur.
BO RYAN'S TOUGH LOVEUpdated
It was hard to choose a story from a magical stretch that included back-to-back trips to the Final Four for the UW men’s basketball program. I did plenty of stories on Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and others during that stretch, but this one on that group’s leader stood out because it gave some insight into Bo Ryan’s coaching style.
This story ruffled some feathers inside the program, though that wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to give readers a look at how Ryan went about getting the best out of his players.
I wrote a lot about Nigel Hayes over his four seasons with the Badgers because he was such a fascinating guy on and off the court. For one story his junior season, I spent a morning with him, talking over breakfast and sitting through one of his business classes.
This one was about his relationship with his stepfather, Albert Davis Sr. I don’t even remember what made me think of doing this story or how I pitched it to him, but I do remember sitting in folding chairs in a hallway at the Kohl Center and being amazed at how much he was willing to share. It turned out to be a fun story to tell.
HAPP'S HARD WORKUpdated
Ethan Happ’s name is all over the UW men’s basketball record book. He scored a lot of points, grabbed a lot of rebounds, dished out a lot of assists, made a lot of steals and blocked a lot of shots. He also missed a lot of free throws.
I got a ton of messages, either via email or social media, asking why Happ didn’t spend more time working on his shot. I knew his work ethic wasn’t the issue because I spent a lot of time waiting to interview him after practices as he worked on shooting with coaches or teammates or student-managers. Still, I had no idea just how much time he spent working on his shot away from practice until I began the process of reporting this story.
GARD ERA BEGINSUpdated
One moment I’ll never forget is when Bo Ryan walked into the Kohl Center media room late on the night of Dec. 15, 2015, and the person moderating his postgame news conference said Ryan would open with a statement.
Ryan never opened with a statement, always choosing to go straight to questions. In that split-second before Ryan started talking, I knew: He was retiring. And so began a crazy night and crazy week that included wrapping up Ryan’s time at UW and moving on to the Greg Gard era.
Fans certainly knew who Gard was at that point because he’d been Ryan’s longtime assistant. But I wanted to talk to as many people as I could for a thorough story on the guy taking over the program after his legendary mentor’s departure.