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Wisconsin football: How the Badgers’ defense was built

After looking at Wisconsin’s recent recruiting history and the making of its offense, today’s piece continues a four-part series on how the Wisconsin football program’s roster has come to be over the past couple of seasons and where it could be headed. Check back later in the week for the final piece in the series.


The Wisconsin Badgers’ defense over the past few seasons has finally captured the national respect they’ve demanded with their performance.

However, previous years’ teams undoubtedly featured more talent than the 2018 version, at least in the front seven. Gone are Joe Schobert, Vince Biegel, T.J. Watt, Jack Cichy, Garrett Dooley, Leon Jacobs, Conor Sheehy, and Alec James.

This year’s group, led by two future NFL players at inside linebacker, has performed admirably considering the circumstances that have surrounded the Badgers this season. To the untrained eye, the defense is suffering from injuries, but how much? Let’s take a look.

Defensive End

  1. Isaiahh Loudermilk, RS SO (Has missed six games through Week 10)
  2. Garrett Rand, JR (Out for season – achilles)
  3. Matt Henningsen, RS FR
  4. Kayden Lyles, RS FR
  5. David Pfaff, RS JR
  6. Aaron Vopal, RS FR
  7. Kraig Howe, RS JR
  8. Isaiah Mullens, FR
  9. Boyd Dietzen, FR
  10. Michael Balistreri, RS FR
  11. C.J. Goetz, FR

This position group nearly singlehandedly inspired me to write this series. Anyone who has watched the Badgers play this season has either said or heard the same things about the defensive line. “Where is the pass rush?!” “The d-line is so slow!” Something to that effect.

Well, there are a few reasons why. Wisconsin has started a redshirt freshman walk-on and a guy who was an offensive lineman three months ago at the defensive end spots. Yes, you read that right. This is a team that won 13 games last season, and all of a sudden some of these things are becoming incredulous. Loudermilk suffered an injury in camp and has played in a couple of games, but for the most part hasn’t contributed to the level that was expected. Rand tore his achilles during the summer, another huge blow.

Another reason there is so much youth and inexperience at the position is that James, Sheehy, and Chikwe Obasih are all gone. Those three combined for over 150 games played in their careers, with each contributing for at least three years on the defensive line.

However, the biggest real reason these guys (Henningsen and Lyles, pronouns pal) are playing is because the defensive linemen recruited early in Paul Chryst’s tenure haven’t developed much. Outside of Olive Sagapolu, Pfaff and Howe are the oldest defensive linemen on the roster and neither of them has ever really gotten meaningful playing time. Pfaff has finally started to crack the rotation this season since Wisconsin is starting its third and fourth players at the position.

That’s how we got here.


NCAA Football: Iowa at Wisconsin

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Nose Tackle

  1. Olive Sagapolu, SR
  2. Bryson Williams, FR
  3. Gunnar Roberge, RS JR

While Lyles is technically listed by Wisconsin as a nose tackle, he’s an end (4i technique defensive tackle) on the depth chart. Sagapolu is the anchor of the defensive line and is playing his best football as a senior. Williams has gotten a bunch of time as a true freshman but looks physically overmatched, like an 18-year-old should against 21–22-year-olds.

This position is another indictment of the defensive line recruiting Wisconsin has/hasn’t done under the Chryst regime. The staff moved Lyles to DL in camp and he started, over other scholarship defensive linemen…

Outside Linebacker

  1. Andrew Van Ginkel, SR
  2. Zack Baun, RS JR
  3. Tyler Johnson, RS JR
  4. Christian Bell, RS SO
  5. Izayah Green-May, RS FR
  6. Noah Burks, RS SO
  7. Paul Jackson, RS JR
  8. Hegeman Tiedt, RS SO
  9. Jaylan Franklin, FR
  10. Mason Platter, FR
  11. Marty Strey, FR

The outside linebacker position is finally feeling the effects of having five players drafted in the past three years. Van Ginkel, who has also suffered from injuries this season, looks like a player who has struggled to take over as the main pass rusher after his tertiary role a year ago. Baun, who missed the entire season in 2017, has been pretty solid considering he was an all-star quarterback in high school. The same can be said for Johnson, a former walk-on.

This is in no way to discount the contributions of those latter two, but the Badgers’ edge rushers this season have looked like guys who aren’t naturally outside linebackers. Bell, an Alabama transfer, has also gotten time, but it’s clear that the Badgers don’t have the caliber of athlete that they have become accustomed to over the past couple of seasons.

This group is young and will continue to improve, but it’s clear that with how Wisconsin recruits the outside linebacker position, it can’t count on being an NFL breeding ground without an improvement in recruiting.


NCAA Football: Nebraska at Wisconsin

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Inside Linebacker

  1. T.J. Edwards, RS SR
  2. Ryan Connelly, RS SR
  3. Chris Orr, RS JR
  4. Griffin Grady, RS SO
  5. Jack Sanborn, FR
  6. Mike Maskalunas, RS SO
  7. Ethan Cesarz, RS FR
  8. Jacob Heyroth, FR

The inside linebacker position continues to be the most talented on the roster. Wisconsin enjoys an embarrassment of riches at the position, with three players who would start on most, if not all, of the teams in the country. Wisconsin has recruited this position successfully, with Sanborn already finding his way onto the field and Grady and Maskalunas getting reps inside and on special teams as well.

Cornerback

  1. Faion Hicks, RS FR
  2. Deron Harrell, RS FR
  3. Caesar Williams, RS SO
  4. Madison Cone, SO
  5. Rachad Wildgoose, FR
  6. Donte Burton, FR
  7. Travian Blaylock, FR
  8. Alexander Smith, FR
  9. Cristian Volpentesta, RS SO
  10. Kobe Knaak, RS FR

Wisconsin lost Derrick Tindal, Nick Nelson, and Lubern Figaro from the cornerback room last season. Pair that with Dontye Carriere-Williams leaving the program during camp, and Williams and Harrell fighting injuries has led to Wisconsin starting Wildgoose and Hicks, two freshman-eligibility players. A pretty far cry from what Wisconsin has had the past few years with NFLers Nelson, Sojourn Shelton, and Darius Hillary.

I want to point out, however, that Wisconsin is a beacon of light and hope and potential at cornerback. Despite the youth and attrition, there is no shortage of talent at the position. Hicks and Wildgoose both have shut-down potential, and Williams and Harrell feature the length and athleticism at the position that Jim Leonhard covets. Cone is a nice slot corner, and Burton and Blaylock have both seen time this season. Keep in mind, the Badgers aren’t losing anyone at the position, barring an early entrant to the NFL, FOR THE NEXT TWO YEARS.

Safety

  1. Scott Nelson, RS FR (Has missed three games)
  2. D’Cota Dixon, RS SR (Has missed three games)
  3. Eric Burrell, RS SO
  4. Reggie Pearson, FR
  5. Evan Bondoc, RS SR
  6. Seth Currens, RS SO
  7. Tyler Mais, RS FR
  8. John Torchio, FR
  9. Collin Wilder, RS JR (Ineligible after transferring from Houston)

Safety is another spot that has been hit with seemingly an insane amount of attrition. Nelson and Dixon started the year at safety. Then against Nebraska, Nelson was ejected for targeting. Then Dixon got hurt. Burrell and Currens filled in at the time, and Burrell and Pearson started vs. Michigan. Sure could have used Patrick Johnson, who left the team early in the season.

Against Michigan, Nelson returned in the second half but was injured almost immediately. Then, to make matters worse, Pearson also got hurt against the Wolverines. The Badgers’ safeties have been a walking wounded this season, but the opportunities provided have shown the talent that Wisconsin has waiting in the wings in Burrell and Pearson.

Overall, the defense has been ravaged by player departures to the NFL, players leaving the program, a lack of development of some older players, and injuries this season. While Leonhard’s statistical rankings won’t be what they were last season, maybe that’s a blessing in disguise, taking the spotlight off of one of America’s most promising and talented young defensive coordinators.

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