UW tied for second in the Big Ten Conference last season with 23 sacks and Watt had nearly one-third of them (seven). The leading sack returner from last season is senior Louis Nzegwu with three, meaning the Badgers have loads of production that needs to be replaced in order to come even close to equaling the success the group had last season.
But if fans expect a drop-off, they haven't paid attention to recent history, and they haven't paid attention to what's coming back. Even with Watt's departure, the Badgers have seven returning players who saw quality snaps last season, including senior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym, who will be the leader of the line this season.
One of two seniors on the line (Nzegwu is the other), Butrym has the most experience, starting all 13 games last season and tying for second on the team in quarterback hurries, ranking third in sacks and tying for fourth in TFLs.
The two-deep at defensive tackle is solid … and big. At 285 pounds, Jordan Kohout played in 12 games (with starts in the first seven) as a redshirt freshman, an impressive achievement since he admitted his head was spinning throughout the first couple months in Madison. Walk-on Ethan Hemer (297 pounds) started the final six games (rotating with Kohout), notched 21 tackles and added more muscle to his frame during the offseason. Beau Allen (315 pounds) played in 12 games as a true freshman, coming in as one of the highest-rated Badger recruits last season, and was key was Kohout was battling an ankle problem.
"All three of those guys were freshmen last year ... which is extremely impressive at a position that's as physical as D tackle," Butrym said. "The improvement you usually see from freshman to sophomore year is pretty impressive … The five defensive tackles are back, (and) I think you can put any of us in and there won't be a drop-off."
Throw in the fact that sophomore Pat Muldoon has fully recovered from ACL problems and can be counted on for depth, and it's easy to see that things are looking up in the middle for a defensive tackle group that is striving to improve on just five tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season.
The production was solid, and David Gilreath and Nzegwu each finished with 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack in the spring game, showing the rest of Badger Nation that they are more than up to the task of following in the footsteps of O'Brien Schofield and Watt.
Nzegwu's biggest task is to play fearless. He finished third on the team in tackles for loss (7½) and eighth in total tackles (46) but now as a senior, he is being expected by the coaching staff to elevate his play. Gilbert has been waiting in the wings and didn't make a lot of plays last season behind Watt and Nzegwu (21 tackles, 1½ for loss), but the junior has transformed himself to look like a force off the end.
Enrolling as a lanky 6-4, 220-pounder, Gilbert enters fall camp at 255 pounds and, more importantly, his attitude is in the right place, allowing him to use the tools he's learned to become an impact player.
"It has got to be me. I have just got to get beasty," Gilbert said. "Beasty is every play someone is on the ground that is trying to block you. I have got to seize this opportunity. I have been here long enough and the coaches are expecting a lot of me. It is time for me to step up and be as good as I can be. I have big shoes to fill."
If one of those two players slack off, expect a finally healthy Brendan Kelly to push for time. The most active of the defensive linemen during the spring game (finishing with six tackles), Kelly has fought through a broken hand as a freshman in 2008 and through severe muscle tears in the groin that led to three surgeries and no playing time last season to finish third on the depth chart at the DE position at the close of spring.
Since coming to Wisconsin, Partridge has been a big believer that a successful defensive line contains a constant rotation of at least eight players, a rotation that allows fresh bodies to be pressuring and wearing down opposing offensive lines. With players finally getting healthy, it's not a far stretch to the imagination that the Badgers could have 12 healthy players blitzing the quarterback.
"We certainly have a lot of options and a lot of talent," Butrym said. "The sky is the limit for our group."