Spring Thoughts: Defensive Line

Our series of spring analysis continues with a look at the defensive line.

One unit that should be awfully fun to watch this fall is the defensive line. While Defensive Line Coach John Palermo had to go with an abundance of inexperienced youth last season, that should pay major dividends this year, with a wealth of players returning with considerable game experience.

Here are some thoughts on some of the defensive linemen that will contribute next fall:

- It's a real shame that this season will likely be Erasmus James' last. He has been on the brink of becoming a special player for two years now, and while he might have a breakout season, he has the potential to be a superstar on a national level. James' main issue right now is consistency. There are times when James plays like an All-World defensive end, yet there are others when he disappears. The Badgers need James to take the next step and become the dominant player he has the potential to be.

- Another player that needs to take the next step is Jonathan Welsh. Welsh is more than 30 pounds lighter than James, and that difference shows up on the field. But Welsh is pretty equivalent to James in terms of athletic ability. He has increased his repertoire of moves to get to the quarterback. Whether he can use those moves effectively next fall remains to be seen, but Welsh should be a fun player to watch next season, as suddenly, he has become an upperclassmen.

- Darius Jones is another guy that's hard to believe he has entered his upperclassmen years. It seems like just yesterday we were talking about Jones arriving in Madison as a high school senior for spring football. Jones is another guy with serious potential that hasn't been completely tapped yet. At times he looks like an absolute beast on the field. But again, in what is a theme with several guys on this unit, it's a matter of consistency.

- Perhaps the best player on the line right now is Anttaj Hawthorne, who also enters his junior season. Hawthorne was a rock inside last year, and he looked bigger and better during the spring. He is on the brink of becoming an absolutely unstoppable force inside. One draft service has already pegged Hawthorne as a first round draft pick next year, assuming he would leave school early. That could be a stretch at this point, but I certainly won't be one to argue. I expect a monster season out of Hawthorne next year.

- Jason Jefferson is another guy that was nothing but impressive during the spring, continuing where he left off last season, his first as a starter. Jefferson isn't quite the playmaker that Hawthorne is, but he is awfully difficult to run against, and he rarely makes mental errors that throw the defense out of whack. He has become a very good football player, and he's only getting better.

- When Hawthorne or Jefferson come out of the game, the first man to plug the hole inside is Nick Cochart, who had a great spring and has been one of the most unheralded players on the defense over the last couple of seasons. Cochart brings a ton of experience to the table, and like Jefferson, he is an outstanding run stopper.

- Andre Williams is another guy that was a regular part of the No. 2 defensive line, and will almost certainly be a part of the rotation in the fall. Williams was very highly-touted coming out of high school, and this spring, he demonstrated why. As he climbs towards the 300-pound mark, Williams could be awfully difficult to contend with next season. It looks like he could be groomed as the next Hawthorne (hopefully he will take over in two years and not next season, as that draft service predicted).

- Three more guys that are the most likely contributors on the defensive line rotation are Traison Lewis, Matt Gajda and Jason Clemens. Everyone knows the story of Lewis, who was considered one of the top recruits in the state of California when the Badgers landed his commitment. He made significant improvements this spring, and keep in mind, he has two more seasons left. Gajda was one of the surprises of the spring, making a big splash with the No. 2 defense and becoming a regular part of the rotation. And Clemens came on very strong towards the end of the spring, particularly in scrimmage situations with the No. 2 defense.

- Mike Kleber, who missed spring practice following surgery, is expected to be a huge part of the defensive line rotation upon his return, and Joe Monty and Mark Gorman are two more guys that are being considered for roles in the rotation that will need strong fall camps to factor into the equation.

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