But after not having a definitive playmaker in the group, the Badgers return experience and a budding playmaker at defensive end.
Wisconsin's defensive line will have to replace three players off last year's squad, two of which come from the interior of the line where Wisconsin has the greatest amount of depth. The Badgers lose the leadership of captain Patrick Butrym, but his numbers aren't irreplaceable (23 tackles, one sack). UW also loses senior-to-be Eriks Briedis, who had just one tackle last season and could still rejoin the team in the fall.
In the meantime, the Badgers will rely on redshirt juniors Ethan Hemer (6-6, 305) and Jordan Kohout (6-3, 292) and junior Beau Allen (6-3, 323) to fill out a solid interior. Hemer, who was put on scholarship after the season, is the likely replacement for Butrym in terms of defensive line leadership. Hemer earned a starting spot his freshman year and started all 14 games last season, finishing with 33 tackles.
Hemer will be the first to admit he needs to be better at pressuring the quarterback, as he finished with only one sack last season, a reason why he added a solid 10-15 pounds to his frame.
"I wanted to put on a little bit of weight but still stay quick," said Hemer. "That was my biggest focus throughout the winter. I come out to practice and I feel good. I'm trying to work on taking the tools I develop over the winter break and help them make me a better football player."
Allen continues to impress after playing in both his true freshman and sophomore seasons, as he's totaled 37 tackles and had 4.5 tackles for loss and four sacks last season. With Butrym gone, Allen will be the likely candidate to step in to fill his role clogging the interior and will likely blossom this season with the added plays he'll receive.
Like Allen, Kohout has been consistent in his production the last two seasons, totaling 22 tackles in each campaign. He admitted that his first year in Madison was a like a cold slap to the face, as he had trouble adjusting to the speed and strength needed to play his position. After the results the last two seasons, it's evident that Kohout has benefited from enrolling a semester early.
This spring will also be big for redshirt freshman James Adeyanju (6-2, 250), who added 15 pounds in the offseason and redshirt freshman Warren Herring (6-3, 273), who has switched from defensive end to defensive tackle and has added 13 pounds.
"Warren Herring is a guy who is really fast," said Hemer. "He's new to defensive tackle, but this spring is a perfect opportunity for him to get used to the position. I think we are going to see some really good things out of him once he understands to play the position."
The same could be said about redshirt sophomore Josh Harrison (6-0, 220), who has moved from linebacker to the defensive tackle position and is working in the rotation with redshirt sophomore Bryce Gilbert (6-1, 304).
"We kind of used (bowl practices) to move guys, and he (Harrison) kind of had some things there that we were happy to see," said UW coach Bret Bielema.
The other player UW needed to replace was Louis Nzegwu, who finished his senior season with 38 tackles, seven tackles for loss and a team-best 4.5 sacks. He also ended his career scoring his first collegiate touchdown, scooping up a fumble for a 33-yard touchdown in the Rose Bowl. Again, the Badgers have depth, and it starts with junior David Gilbert.
Gilbert (6-4, 255 pounds) had transformed his body since coming in as an underweight, scrawny freshman in January 2009 and was poised to be the playmaker. He looked like it through the nonconference slate – 3.5 TFLs and three sacks – but he broke his foot prior to the Nebraska game and missed the rest of the season. He fortunately was able to redshirt, and is hoping to get back on the field by the end of spring.
Opposite him is senior Brendan Kelly (6-6, 255), who had battled hand and groin injuries throughout his tenure at Wisconsin. Even so, Kelly was able to overcome those problems and be productive last season when Gilbert went down. In 14 games with nine starts, Kelly registered 33 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks and two fumble recoveries. Kelly played well last year, but showed at points that he was still getting used to the reads and reactions in game speed. A spring and fall camp of developing the finishing touches will help him immensely.
Although he is entering his fifth year, Kelly does qualify for a medical redshirt, and will have a chance to apply for a sixth year after his season.
Backing up Gilbert and Kelly will be redshirt juniors Tyler Dippel and Pat Muldoon and redshirt sophomore Konrad Zagzebski, a trio who are recovering from ACL injuries suffered early in their careers. Dippel (6-4, 255) played in all 14 games a season ago and finished with 27 tackles but, like Kelly, lacked some finishing touches and lost outside contain on more than one occasion.
Muldoon (6-3, 258) has played in 25 career games and finished with 14 tackles in 12 games last season and, like Kelly and Dippel, will benefit from a healthy spring and fall camp.
The big thing for Zagzebski (6-3, 258) was simply getting his body back into playing size. Coming in underweight because of his injury, Zagzebski has used the last two seasons to build his frame and regain his tenacity. He got a taste of action last season – five games played – and could see a lot more this season if he continues on the upward trend.
"He's just filled out," Bielema said. "I remember the first time I ever saw the kid. He was a sophomore in high school, blonde, curly hair, shirt off at camp and jacked up. You're like, ‘geez, that's the guy that you want.' Now he's just broad. He's transformed his body into something special."
With young guys – like redshirt freshman Jesse Hayes (who added 20 pounds since enrolling) – waiting in the wings, the leadership of Hemer has already started to emerge through four spring practices.
"Everyone wants to produce more and we know the only way we can get better is through hard work," said Hemer. "That's what we are working on now, putting in efficient work and pushing us to be the best we can."