Aug. 3: Defensive linemen
Aug. 4: Linebackers
Aug. 5: Defensive backs
Aug. 6: Specialists
Key backups: defensive end Konrad Zagzebski (redshirt sophomore), defensive end Pat Muldoon (redshirt junior), defensive tackle Bryce Gilbert (redshirt sophomore), defensive tackle Warren Herring (redshirt sophomore)
The game experience and veteran leadership returning to the University of Wisconsin's defensive line is overwhelming entering the 2012 season. Despite losing two senior starters (Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu) to graduation and redshirt junior Jordan Kohout to health issues, the Badgers' defensive line rotation contains four projected starters with multiple starts under their belt and experienced depth.
It'll be a key component as the d-line enters year two A.W. (after Watt), as the Badgers' front four are hopeful that they can replicate what J.J. Watt did so well for them in the 2010 season: create havoc.
Even though the Badgers ranked 13th in the nation in scoring defense by allowing their opponents just 19 points per game, the forward unit struggled to create a consistent pass rush. The Badgers ranked 70th in the nation in sacks per game, averaging just 1.79 during the season, and totaled only 11 sacks and 15 tackles for loss among the four projected starters.
The Badgers ranked 60th in the nation and sixth in the Big Ten by allowing 152.64 rushing yards per game (4.29 yards per carry). Wisconsin was impressive defending the pass, finishing fourth in yards allowed per game, but the Badgers allowed opponents to complete 60.8 percent of their passes, 70th in the nation.
Maybe that's why the spring game performance gave the group such a heavy dose of confidence going forward, as the starters held the white squad to no points and four three-and-outs.
"You have to keep in mind that we were going against the two offense … but I think we played well," said Allen, who finished with three tackles for loss, after the game. "When we were pass rushing, it was kind of a race to the QB … We were joking amongst ourselves that we were competing against each other to try and get production. We played pretty well."
With the sudden and unexpected loss of Kohout, the importance of Allen will become even bigger this year. Working next to the 34-tackle, one-sack sophomore season of Ethan Hemer, the veteran of the group who earned a scholarship in January after having started 20 of 27 games), Allen has played in 26 games in the last two years and tied for second on the team with four sacks.
"We have a good group of leaders on the defensive side of the ball," Allen said following the spring. "I want to think I have stepped into a leadership role, too. I am not a freshman or sophomore anymore, and I think I have got some good experience. It's my goal to be more vocal."
While Hemer and Allen will be charged with stopping the run in the middle, the tandem of David Gilbert and Brendan Kelly will be crucial on the ends. Last season was supposed to be Gilbert's coming out party and he lived up to that hype in the four-game nonconference season, registering 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
But after breaking his foot in the Nebraska preparation week, Gilbert was lost for the season and setbacks kept him off the field in the spring. However, Gilbert's misfortune turned out to be a big benefit for Kelly.
After struggling with groin and hand issues throughout his career, Kelly stayed healthy for the entity of last season, playing in all 14 games, starting nine, and set career highs in tackles (33), tackles for loss (five), sacks (three) and forced fumbles (two).
"He is the epitome of the guy you look for in our program," said strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert of Kelly. "He has preserved and he is going to keep plugging away. He's going to find a way and keep grinding. Some guys face some adversity and they crumble or quit on you. He obviously is the exact opposite because he has had as good of summer as anybody. He's taken a leadership role. You can tell how important it is with him."
Added Kelly: "Obviously physically you are going to progress throughout your career. You are going to get bigger, strong and faster, but having the confidence in my play and having a full season under my belt as a starter was huge. You can rely on your body to be there, and your boys can rely on you."
The injuries not only appear to be in the past for Kelly, but for Muldoon, as well. One of the prized commits in the 2009 signing class, Muldoon battled an ACL tear that stunted his growth and limited his production in 2010, but bounced back by playing in 12 games with two starts and 14 tackles last season.
"He's a leader that leads by example," said Allen of Muldoon. "Especially on the defensive line, we've all played together before and you know what the other guy is going to do. It's nice to get a lot of reps with your defensive line partners … so we're glad to have him back healthy."
Muldoon will be the No.3 defensive end and the end position has good depth and youth behind the starters with redshirt junior Tyler Dippel (14 games played in 2011) and Zagzebski (five games). What's sitting behind the defensive tackles is still in question, as Herring only moved from end to tackle in the spring and Bryce Gilbert (four games) hasn't seen meaningful reps at the position.
With defensive line coach Charlie Partridge having a yearly goal of having a six-to-eight man rotation, fall camp will be an integral time for the Badgers to develop some depth.
"If you get to seven or eight you feel good, but you got to have six," said Partridge. "You know how quick that changes because you lose a guy and you are down to five or four. We truly have to get up to eight by the start of the season so we can always carry a healthy six."