Building quality depth is a high priority for the University of Wisconsin over its three weeks of fall camp, especially on a defense that has to retool its personnel and replace five defensive linemen.
While Wisconsin appears set with senior nose tackle Warren Herring anchoring the line, the ability to move him around in UW’s 3-4 scheme will partially depend on whether true freshmen Jeremy Patterson or Conor Sheehy can be counted on for meaningful reps right from the start.
“Conor Sheehy and Jeremy Patterson have come in great and have looked great,” said Herring. “They’re getting the playbook down every day. They’ve had to ask some questions here and there but they are very talented guys. I can’t wait to see what happens when they strap on the pads. They’re very physical, they’re smart, and they like to fly around.”
Defensive tackle was one of the key recruiting positions Wisconsin targeted in the Class of 2014. Not only did the Badgers lose Beau Allen to graduation, but Bryce Gilbert decided not to return after spring after graduating early and Arthur Goldberg has yet to play meaningful reps.
Sheehy was targeted by the former coaching staff because of his versatility and remained committed to Wisconsin Coach Gary Andersen and his staff, despite being heavily pursued by Michigan. Patterson picked Wisconsin in late October from multiple BCS offers.
Being known as athletic pass rushers, both have started to adapt to Wisconsin football.
“I’ve got a lot of people helping me out,” said Patterson, who finished his high school career with 33 tackles for loss and 23 sacks. “If it’s been the seniors or (the) defensive line, it doesn’t matter. Everybody has been helping me out.”
“All of the young guys know that the defensive line is a family and that we are very open to anything and no question is a bad question,” Herring added.
With the NCAA giving assistant coaches access to their players over the summer, defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a has been able to go over certain aspects of the playbook that have helped expedite the transition for the freshmen.
“I feel pretty good about the playbook right now,” said Sheehy, who had 43 TFLs and 14 sacks in his career at Milwaukee Marquette. “It’s just getting it all down and all together is the biggest issue, but it’s going pretty well so far. Konrad Zagzebski has been helping me learn the plays and also helps me out with my technique. He’s been a big help to me so far.”
With Gilbert no longer on the team, the 6-5 Sheehy - a former four-star recruit who was ranked the No.30 defensive end in the country by Scout.com – is learning both the nose tackle and end positions to give flexibility to the line.
“I’m willing to do whatever I can to help the team to the best of my ability,” said Sheehy, who said he is up to 280 pounds. “They haven’t really said what position they like me at but either way I feel comfortable at end or tackle.”
As he did last fall camp, Andersen gave all the first-year players a black stripe on their helmets instead of the classic red motion W worn. The only way to blend in with the group was to do enough in camp to impress the “big brother” assigned to them.
With Wisconsin only having two senior defensive linemen in the program, it made sense for Zagzebski to be paired with Sheehy and Patterson be led by Herring, who has already been impressed with the 6-3, 326-pound prospect.
“(He’s made) constant gain since day one, especially throughout the summer,” Herring said of Patterson. “It’s tough for a lot of freshmen coming in for the first summer conditioning. He went through those stages but every day he got better and continued to improve. He isn’t afraid to ask questions, he’s smart, he knows a lot of the plays and he knows where he needs to be.
“He shows his football smarts a lot of the time. If he does ask a question it is usually about a complex play that we haven’t put in yet, that we’re not focusing on. I have to be like, ‘Jeremy we’re not in that part yet so you don’t have to worry about it.’ He wants to know more and he continues to get better every day.”
With open playing time available, Patterson is using the chance to be on the field for the season opener against LSU as his motivation to carry him through the rigors of fall camp.
“The coaches have made it clear to me that it’s up to me if I want to play just with how hard I work in practice and what I do off the field,” Patterson said.