If you had to describe the 2018 Wisconsin Badgers defense in one phrase? Growing pains.
A unit ravaged by injuries and getting contributions at multiple spots by true freshman led to a down season in Jim Leonhard’s second season as defensive coordinator. A lack of pass rush paired with incredibly thin depth at the defensive line. Then that partnered with a secondary full of inexperienced players to become the perfect recipe for the Badgers, whom had begun to be known for their stingy defenses in recent years.
Now, if I told you that a defense that “struggled” by UW standards, would be losing seniors Olive Sagapolu, T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly, Andrew Van Ginkel and D’Cota Dixon, that would probably be reason for concern, right?
Well, yeah, but I think optimism has to be the move here.
While UW loses some of its workhorses, they return a ton of experience by default. Let’s take a look at how the defense could end up in spring.
5-tech Defensive end: Isaiahh Loudermilk, RS JR; Aaron Vopal RS SO
Nose tackle: Bryson Williams, SO; Gunnar Roberge, RS SR
3/4i-tech Defensive tackle: Garrett Rand, RS JR; Matt Henningsen, RS SO/David Pfaff, RS SR
This is a unit that felt the hurt the most of defense last season. They started a former walk-on and a converted offensive lineman at defensive end all season. It’s incredible. Loudermilk played nine games, but injuries hampered him during the season as well. Rand was lost for the season during the summer. Henningsen and Lyles—the latter who was confirmed as heading back to the offense—performed admirably last season, but both players are best suited as depth rotational pieces and not players who should be getting a ton of snaps. Henningsen was the least productive defensive lineman in pass rush per Pro Football Focus last season, with only five total pressures on 268 pass rush snaps.
Nose tackle is the still the thinnest position on the roster. Incoming true freshmen Keeanu Benton and Gio Paez could be headed to the position, but for spring ball, only two players are listed at the position.
Also something I feel the need to elaborate on. The Badgers list two defensive linemen as “defensive ends” , but really both of them are defensive tackles. They are rarely if ever “on the edge” like defensive ends in a 4 man defensive front would be. Loudermilk and Rand will bump inside on third-down nickel situations. Let’s carry on.
Outside linebacker (field): Tyler Johnson, RS SR; Christian Bell, RS JR
Inside linebacker: Jack Sanborn, SO; Mike Maskalunas, RS JR
Inside linebacker: Chris Orr, RS SR; Griffin Grady, RS JR; Leo Chenal, FR
Outside linebacker (boundary): Zack Baun, RS SR; Noah Burks, RS JR; Spencer Lytle, FR
Can we talk about how Chris Orr has been the third inside linebacker at Wisconsin and he will likely join his three former teammates at the position in the NFL (Edwards, Connelly, and former walk-on turned current Tampa Bay ‘backer Jack Cichy)?
Orr has been the consummate teammate and now will enter this season as one of the two starters. Jack Sanborn entered the two deep last season as a true freshman, and in my opinion will end up as a starter. He is a dynamic player at the position, a requirement in this scheme. Maskalunas and Grady are both core special teamers and are solid depth, but look for Leo Chenal, the early enrollee, to get looks in camp. He is more physically impressive than most players UW has at the position right now.
Listen to Leo from one of our three Early Signing Period podcasts!
The Badgers will continue to rebuild at the outside linebacker position, as they look to replace Van Ginkel. Baun is the most athletic and best pass rusher at the position, therefore will likely play in the boundary. Johnson and Bell will likely split time at the other outside linebacker spot, but that’s really where the drop off is at the spot at the moment. Spencer Lytle, another early enrollee, could find his way into the two-deep rather quickly given the current situation at outside linebacker for UW.
Listen to Spencer Lytle from the first of our three 2019 Early Signing Period podcasts!
Cornerback: Rachad Wildgoose, SO; Caesar Williams, RS JR
Free safety: Scott Nelson, RS SO; Collin Wilder, RS JR
Strong safety: Eric Burrell, RS JR; Reggie Pearson, RS FR
Cornerback: Faion Hicks, RS SO; Deron Harrell RS SO
Nickel back: Madison Cone, JR; Donte Burton, RS FR
There is not one senior in the entire secondary.
Let me say it again. There is not one senior in the entire secondary.
Not to go even farther into the future, but for the second straight season after 2019, not one cornerback will leave due to graduation. Unreal.
The depth and talent in this secondary is starting to get nasty. For all of the growing pains this group went through at times this season—whew buddy, they’re going to pay dividends over the next few seasons.
Wildgoose is a future lockdown cornerback. He really played well this season considering what he was asked to do. Hicks, Herrell and Williams are all starting-caliber corners. Cone and Burton will also be improved. Playing time is going to be hard to come by at times this season, which is a good problem.
Safety should also be improved this season despite losing Dixon. Scott Nelson was electric early in the season last year before injuries slowed him to only nine games played. His ability to play center field is crucial for the Badgers’ scheme that wants to play single-high and blitz. Burrell and Pearson were both very good last year when called upon, especially the former. Wilder, a transfer from Houston, should also figure into the rotation here—along with potentially Travian Blaylock, who will be a redshirt freshman.
Place kicker: Collin Larsh, RS SO; Zach Hintze, RS SR
Kickoff specialist: Zach Hintze, RS SR
Punter: Anthony Lotti, SR; Connor Allen, RS SR
Long snapper: Adam Bay, JR
Kickoff returner: Aron Cruickshank, SO
Punt returner: Jack Dunn, RS JR
This, right here, is the analysis y’all come to B5Q for. I know it.
Collin Larsh came to Madison as a walk-on a couple of years ago, but could be pegged as the replacement for the departing Rafael Gaglianone. Zach Hintze made a 60-plus yard field goal in high school, but he will likely continue to be the kickoff specialist. Anthony Lotti lost his job for a few games this year, but was back as the punter during the 2018 Pinstripe Bowl. Heading into his senior season, he will look to finish his career on a high note. Bay enters his junior year as a two-year starter already at long snapper.
In the return game, Cruickshank flashed at times as a true freshman. Look for him to continue to be a weapon as a returner as his speed is a threat to opposing coverage teams. Dunn was pretty rock solid as a punt returner last season, and he’s the type of guy that Wisconsin likes to use in that role. He’s not a speed demon, but he saves a lot of yards in the return game by getting to punts and not letting them bounce, which doesn’t show up on the stat sheet but is very valuable to the team. Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis are both guys who folks could keep their eyes on as returners as well.