BadgerNation: It appears you have a lot of talented players at your disposal on this defense. How do you feel about the group you have coming back?
Dave Aranda: I feel good right now with our ones, the recall that they have and their ability to play fast. They’ve retained the knowledge base we all went through last year. That’s a big positive. I think there’s some guys with playing experience. We’re a little young at inside linebacker, but T.J. Edwards and Leon Jacobs are stepping in. There is such raw athleticism at that spot that it’s fun to be able to work with that.
The DBs, the corners and safeties have been impressive in terms of their recall and their play-making abilities. It’s way early but it’s been positive. The d-line, we’re looking for big steps from them. I know that we’ll get that. They’re hungry to contribute and be playmakers and factors in our wins. They’ve got an edge to them, which I’m excited about.
The ones I feel real good about. The twos we’ve got some work to do. The twos we’ve got some really true youth. At inside linebacker we’ve got two true freshmen, so there’s going to be some baby steps there.
BN: The spring is important for all the reserves but probably really big for your last recruiting class, especially since you probably didn’t have a lot of time to evaluate them in the fall. With guys like Jeremy Patterson, Billy Hirschfeld and Conor Sheehy, you likely need a couple of them to play big roles this fall?
DA: There’s no doubt. We lost a lot of guys last year, seniors walking out the door from the previous year going into last year. The difference was that in each position group there was a Marcus Trotter, a Derek Landisch, a Konrad Zagzebski, a Warren Herring, some veteran there that had been there and done that in some form or fashion. We don’t have the enormous losses we had two years ago, but we don’t have as many of those veteran leaders in the front seven.
What that says is the guys you mention have to step on up. Whether it’s a Conor Sheehy or a Hirschfeld or a Patterson, they have to be able to take more of a leadership role when needed. When their time is called, they’re going to have to be able to show up and play. It’s there time because no veteran is going to take those reps.
BN: You are pretty experienced in the secondary with returning all your starters. Evaluate the cornerback play from a year ago. Even those they didn’t generate a lot of turnovers, they’ve played pretty solid. How did Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton play?
DA: Darius was very solid, and he’s a guy who can blitz, who can cover man-to-man and has great vision in the zones. I was real happy with Darius. He’s a great technician. I think there’s room to improve there, but he really took a big step this past year.
I think Sojourn has all the potential in the world, and he knows this. He is at his best, to be honest, when he plays the exact opposite of Darius. Sojourn needs to have a little bit more swagger back in his game and play free and loose. Darius is just the opposite. He plays his best when he’s very controlled and concentrated.
To get them on their own level and playing their best is a challenge. I know the guys are excited about doing that. The impact Sojourn can make is enormous, so we’re looking to get the best out of him.
BN: How much did it hurt to lose Austin Hudson to a transfer at safety and where is your depth across the secondary?
DA: It does hurt. We didn’t have a lot of depth to begin with and now there’s some holes we’ve got to be able to fill. We’ve got some young guys coming in that may transition to that spot, and we’ll see where it goes. We’re doing the best we can to get some corners who may have the possibility of being a situational safety because our numbers are very thin. If we were to get hit with a bug, we have to be able to mix and match.
I feel good about Tanner McEvoy; I feel good about Michael Caputo; I feel good about Leo Musso. There are some guys at that safety position who have played and played well that you can count on in games. The talk and the language coming out of them in terms of the adjustments we are making is pretty cool, and that’s exciting.
BN: You didn’t get a lot of time to work with McEvoy last season but seeing what he can do for this team with his versatility and athleticism has to be a big advantage for you?
DA: No doubt. Just the range and leadership he gives you, along with the savviness he has when playing in the middle of the field, those are things that are hard to teach. Those things come to him naturally and he is going to be a big help to us.
BN: Does the Outback Bowl win give this team some momentum coming into this spring compared to what it’s been in the past?
DA: It’s always better when you win. That win came at a time when we needed something good to happen. That was a big thing I remember about that one. It showcased the grit this team has. For us to be good with the new team we have now, we have to get that grit back. I think it showed a lot of people what can happen when guys play together, guys play through whatever obstacles come up and fight through adversity. What a great lesson that is. We’re so young in so many different spots that we can point to that.
BN: With a new defensive staff around you, how much transition is it for you to get everyone up to speed so you can continue building this 3-4 defense?
DA: There are a lot of great ideas. Every year you have to be able to change and adjust based upon who your personnel is, how people are playing you, what are the trends offensively and defensively and who is on your staff and the expertise certain guys bring. Between Daronte (Jones), Inoke (Breckterfield) and Tim (Tibesar), there’s good ideas that are floating around. It’s healthy to implement those things. Once you add them in, you subtract the other things that we’ve done that we’ve outgrown or don’t have the people for. All that’s positive because it creates the best unit. That first game of the year (against Alabama), we’re definitely going to have to be that.