Wisconsin Outlook: The Defense

GoBlueWolverine's Josh Turel takes a look at Michigan's first Big Ten opponent (Sept. 24, away), the Wisconsin Badgers, BEFORE the preseason magazines hit the shelves! The Badgers are back on the Wolverine schedule after a two year hiatus, so Turel gives them LOTS of attention in this detailed preview.

Defensive MVP: SLB- Mark Zalewski
Players who need to step up: MLB- Andy Crooks, kicker
Surprise players: DE- Jamal Cooper, LB-Casey Hogan
Strength's: Linebackers
Weaknesses: Defensive line experience, Secondary
Key losses: DE-Jonathan Welsh, DT-Anttaj Hawthorne, DT-Jason Jefferson, DE- Erasmus James, CB-Scott Starks, S-Jim Leonhard, S-Robert Brooks


Defensive line:

After losing four starters up front, deductive reasoning would tell you the Badgers are in big trouble this year. However, that may not be the case as talented youngsters line the trenches to replace one of the best lines in the country last season. Wisconsin is particularly solid at tackle where sophomores Nick Hayden (6-5, 302, So.) and Justin Ostrowski (6-5, 304, So.) take over after getting some minutes in as reserves last year. The dual 300 pounders aren't going to be very disruptive behind the line of scrimmage but they have the ability to play the run strong up the gut. Backing up Ostrowski and Hayden will be a host of players including Kurt Ware (6-4, 274, So.), Gino Cruse (6-5, 312 RS Fr.), and Mark Gorman (6-4, 275, Jr.). Ware is a versatile player as he can play both tackle and end, and offers a more penetrating option. Cruse is a player I really like and if he could ever maintain his level of play he could be a solid player. Cruse is simply a load to handle when his game is on.

Despite the loss of pass rushing terror Erasmus James, the Badgers are breeding another pass rushing type in Jamal Cooper. If you were to see Cooper on the football field you may think he was a safety or a wide receiver, but in fact even at 6-4, 218 pounds he will start at defensive end. Despite his small size, Cooper plays well against the run. He's one of those players who uses the fundamentals to hold his hold and he could develop into a star quickly. On the opposite end will most likely be Jason Chapman (6-4, 280, RS Fr.). Chapman is interchangeable at tackle and can rotate there if needed. Chapman is pretty active for a guy his size and he combines quickness and power to rush the passer. He's no Erasmus James (the spot he's replacing) but he is a solid player nonetheless. His backup will be Joe Monty (6-2, 252, Jr.), as well as Kurt Ware rotating over from tackle and Mike Newkirk (6-3, 250, Jr.) coming in as a pass rushing specialist when down and distance dictate. True freshman Travis Beckum will start his career at linebacker but could see time at defensive end.

The defensive line in general lacks experience but they have slipped under the radar in the talent department because they have a lot of it. If this line plays smart and gels quickly, they could be a very solid bunch. The question for me is at the ends, Cooper and Chapman have to maintain the pass rush because the secondary needs all the help they can get. Ostrowski and Hayden can play well against the run but get pressure on a consistent basis so the spotlight is on Cooper and Chapman to really step up. Expect to see the situational rushers like Newkirk to add more flare to the pass rush.


Weakside linebacker Dontez Sanders (6-1, 208, Sr.) missed the spring due to injury and a healthy return of the hybrid playmaker could complete a solid linebacker corp. Sanders doesn't have ideal bulk but he can fly to the ball and he will fit very well in the new blitzing, aggressive scheme. Sanders is also great in coverage, and playmaker across the board who should have a very good senior year. His backup is LaMarr Watkins (6-1, 223, Sr.) who up to this point has done his best work on special teams but looked solid filling in for Sanders in spring practice. Watkins is more of an athletic blend linebacker who is better dropping against the pass than playing the run.

Middle linebacker Andy Crooks (6-3, 242, So.) is looking to recover after a shaky spring. Crooks took over Reggie Cribbs' job late last year in the middle, but now is fighting to retain it even with the loss of Cribbs due to academic reasons. Crooks will have the benefit of defensive lineman Hayden and Ostrowski keeping bodies off him in the middle, but Crooks hasn't shown the ability he used to earn the job last season. If he continues to falter, the job could fall to Paul Joran (6-3 244, Jr.) who took reps as a starter in the spring and will push Crooks hard for his job.

On the strongside returns Mark Zalewski (6-2, 228, Jr.), arguably the best defensive player and best performer in the spring. Zalewski is undersized but very tough and athletic enough to pretty much do it all. Zalewski on most occasions has the task of covering the tight end in man coverage something he does very well, as well as dropping in the curl area in zone coverage. Expect Zalewski to flourish in the new attack style defense that will see him blitz more frequently. Zalewski will also see most of the reps in reduced front and nickel situations.

Backing up Zalewski is Casey Hogan (6-5, 205, So.), a converted safety who shot up the depth charts after his move to linebacker. Hogan has some work to do against the run, but he is solid cover type linebacker who has a wide range and can blitz. Expect freshman Elijah Hodge and Travis Beckum to see some time as well. Expect him to see some playing time this year.

The coaching staff has turned to the linebackers to help supply the pressure on the quarterback. Expect this undersized but very athletic and tough group to throw plenty of blitz packages at opponents this year.


The make or break area for the defense. The Badgers ranked 7th last season in pass defense but also had a very good pass rush to ease the burden. They do lose Jim Leonhard, the heart and soul of the defense as well as Scott Starks who was a solid cover man. The top returning defensive back, Brett Bell (6-0, 200, Sr.) sat out the spring with a injured knee and may take some time to return. Bell, in my opinion is a solid player who certainly has the ability to mirror the success Starks had and could be a surprise player if he returns healthy. Jack Ikegwuonu (6-1, 201, RS Fr.) will step in is Bell isn't healthy in time for the start of the season. Ikegwuonu has a nice frame with the athletic ability to boot, he probably is the quickest corner and should see time against slot formations.

The other corner position is up for grabs between to Levonne Rowan (6-1, 191, Sr.) and Allen Langford (5-11, 187 RS Fr.). Rowan has some real potential but he is inconsistent and doesn't look comfortable at times. Langford is coming off a strong spring and his great instincts and athleticism could really put the heat on the current starter Rowan. Either way, Langford will see time as a nickel back this year. Also watch for Ben Strickland (5-9, 180, So.), not the biggest guy you will find but he's feisty, quick and has very good ball skills. The cornerbacks in general will see plenty of man on man situations with the amount of blitzing Wisconsin plans on doing. They have potential to be a strong unit but time will tell.

Replacing Robert Brooks at safety is Johnny White (6-2, 217, Jr.), a run stuffing safety who can really hit. His coverage ability is still raw but he has the athletic ability on which to build from a knack at getting to the ball. He could be a breakout player if he continues to grow and limits his mistakes. Backing him up will be Joe Stellmacher (6-1, 216, Jr.) who excels on special teams as well. Another "jack of all trades, master of none" type player but he will see time rotating with White at strong safety.

The huge task of replacing Jim Leonhard is Roderick Rogers (6-2, 183, Jr.). Rogers doesn't have much experience but he's an excellent athlete who could reach his full potential if he limited his mental lapses. Rogers will be pushed on seemingly a Jim Leonhard clone in Zach Hampton (5-10, 178, Jr.). Hampton walked on and earned a scholarship the hard way, even though he doesn't have a great size, he is developing into a ball hawk type player. Gee, sound familiar? Hampton could wind up with the free safety starting job, but if he doesn't, the coaching staff will find someway to get this young man out on the field.

Special Teams

The place kicking job is still being decided between Taylor Melhaff and Adam Schober. Both have pretty good range and strong legs but very sporadic accuracy. This could be a major problem area if one of them doesn't improve in a hurry. Punter Ken DeBauche flew under the radar last season averaging 41.8 yards per punt, including 17 inside the 20 yard line. He should compete with Michigan State's Brandon Field and Purdue's Dave Brytus for the conferences top punter. Brandon Williams has been very marginal returning kickoffs, and will most likely be replaced by Jarvis Minton or Brian Calhoun, both of whom can do more with the ball in their hand. Calhoun in particular could be explosive returning punts, I expect him to pick up where Jim Leonhard left off.


The match up most were eager to see in 2004 will now take place a year later. Last year's mid season Big Ten front runners, Michigan and Wisconsin, were not scheduled to play and haven't locked up since the 2002 season. Michigan lost the Big Ten finale to Ohio State but two blowouts against Michigan State and Iowa lost Wisconsin the Big Ten Championship. The two loses allowed the title to fall into the hands of Michigan and Iowa who finished with only one conference loss. This years game will not have the implications it could have last season had the team's played mid season. Wisconsin lost a boat-load of talent to the NFL namely in the trenches and in the secondary. The reloading Badgers will start the season off with a very big challenge as they host Michigan in Madison, Wisconsin to kick off conference play for both teams. I'm a bit more optimistic about the Badgers than some. Wisconsin fans usually keep expectations at a reasonable level and this year a bowl game would mean a successful season. The Badgers have some talent on offense, but the question is can the quarterback play help build a balance offense? The team is very thin at running back and an injury to Calhoun (if Stanley doesn't return) would be devastating. The defense will be better than expected, there's some talent up front and though they may struggle to pressure the quarterback, the linebackers will help plug the holes and they are a very good blitzing group. The big question is the secondary, they have the potential but must eliminate the mistakes and become more consistent. The Badgers have eleven scheduled games, with a to be determined 12th game.

Bottom Line: I see wins over North Carolina, Indiana, Hawaii, Penn State, Illinois and Northwestern. I see the losses coming against Bowling Green, Michigan, Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota. 6-5 would be a good year for the Badgers who are in reload mode, and will play in many games that could go either way this year.


For Josh Turel's other Spring Previews so far (of the two conference teams off the U-M schedule this year), click below:
Josh's Illinois Preview
Josh's Purdue Preview

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