There is no replacing J.J. Watt.
The likely first round pick in the NFL Draft turned pro a year early for a reason. Not only were his stats other worldly — he led the team in tackles for a loss (21), sacks (7), blocked three kicks and forced three fumbles, all while finishing second overall in tackles as a defensive end — but the leadership he provided has an incalculable value.
His energy was infectious. His drive and motor forced his teammates to try and keep up.
That, above any pass rushing skill, will be why the Badgers defensive staff thinks wistfully of Watt during the season.
"J.J. is an unbelievable competitor," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "Because of what J.J. brings to the table, I really think he inspires other guys to play harder … He is an exception."
On the field, it wasn't only the fact that Watt got to the quarterback, but when he did. He hurried Terrelle Pryor into an incomplete when the Buckeyes were mounting a comeback, and brought him down later for a fourth quarter sack.
He swatted away a pass (one of nine pass deflections on the season) from Denard Robinson as 2008 nightmares were flashing back in the third quarter at Ann Arbor for fans and players alike. Then he brought it down for an interception and tried to out run Robinson.
It was the only personal goal he failed in all season.
"J.J. Watt is incredible," Bielema said after the Michigan contest. "A big play guy. He's just a dominant player."
So who attempts to replace Watt?
It is going to be a committee.
Senior Louis Nzegwu, Watt's former roommate, started last year and flashed at times. His entire spring should be focused on consistency.
Junior David Gilbert has been coming in as a pass rusher for two years now. He has the build and tools of a pass rusher. Now he must add some actual moves. With the increased playing time he is sure to receive, Gilbert should be chomping at the bit to show what he is capable of in spring.
After those two featured guys, redshirt sophomores Tyler Dippel and Brendan Kelly will both be given a chance during spring ball. Bielema has spoken highly of both for two years, but both have suffered injuries that have limited them. Staying healthy will be as important as shining during spring camp.
No matter their individual skills or place on the depth chart, however, every defensive end will have the same goal this spring.
"I feel like if I use my technique and if I am in the weight room hard enough, I have the tools to be as successful as J.J.," Gilbert said. "It's all about how you approach it, and I've put myself in a constant attack mode."
As the elder statesmen of the defensive end group, Nzegwu will be attempting to replace Watt's production as well as his leadership.
It is with the intangibles that Nzegwu learned most from Watt.
"I took advantage of what he did because I was underneath his wing," said Nzegwu. "Me and him worked out a lot and watched a lot of film. He would watch film at home and was working for hours and hours. He had a phenomenal leadership, which is hard to replace."
While there are question marks surrounding the end of the defensive line, interior of the front four will be as solid as it has been in years.
At the beginning of last season, that was far from certain.
"I love the ways these guys have progressed throughout the year," Butrym, a native of Waukesha, said. "The depth was really question at the beginning of the year, but the group has really matured."
"It's exciting that all those guys are going to be back," co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge added. "As the season wore on, because of the experienced they gained, they really aren't playing like freshmen right now. Sometimes I have to remind myself that they are freshmen, so it's exciting for the future."
And the future will be on display this spring.
Multiple analysts were calling Kohout a future star last season. Butrym improved throughout the year to provided a pass rushing threat up the middle. Allen played in 12 games as a true freshman and came in as one of the highest rated Badger recruits last season — his ceiling hasn't even been grazed yet.
Since it is Watt they are all trying to replace, it is encouraging they all have his approval.
"No doubt about it, the Badgers will be back," Watt said. "They'll be back better than ever. When they come back, they'll win."