Wisconsin’s defense has been one of the best statistical units in the nation over the last three years. In 2015, former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda helped guide Wisconsin to rank first in scoring defense (13.7 ppg), second in total defense (268.5), fourth in rushing defense (95.4 yards) and seventh in passing defense (173.2).
Those numbers will be difficult for first year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to duplicate next season, but in order for Wisconsin’s defense to get even better, the defensive line needs to find a way to improve its numbers. The line has done well over the last three years creating the lanes for the linebackers to rack up the tackles for loss, but the line was responsible for only 12 of Wisconsin’s 74 tackles for loss and four of Wisconsin’s 29 sacks a year ago.
In order for Wisconsin’s defense to take the next step, Wisconsin needs to continue to identify the right players to thrive in the trenches in the 3-4 scheme. After signing three defensive linemen in the 2015 recruiting class, Wisconsin inked five players in this year’s class who have the ability to evaluate the line.
Without question, the headliner of the group is Garrett Rand, who could easily see the field this season in Wisconsin’s talented young corps.
“Physically, he’s coming in as the most ready to go, that’s the first and foremost thing,” said defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield. “If you get to know Garrett, mentally he’s on a different level. He’s done a great job of getting his body ready. When you talk to him he’s all about football. He loves to work out, he loves to play, he loves the game and he’ll have a chance to fight for some playing time.”
Showing the ability to quickly get off the line of scrimmage, resulting in him getting better leverage against his opponent in order to make a play in the team’s backfield, Rand does a good job of tracking down the ball carrier, playing with a consistent motor and playing with a mean streak.
Although Rand will enter Wisconsin at the nose tackle position, his skill set allows him the flexibility to line up at a defensive end position, much like what Breckterfield has done with senior Arthur Goldberg and junior Conor Sheehy. With Breckterfield consistently rotating along the line, the door is wide open for Rand to earn playing time in 2016.
While Rand will be a likely contributor, the rest of UW’s 2016 defensive line class will likely need some seasoning, including Isaiahh Loudermilk, who will be adjusting to 11-man football after playing eight-man football at Howard (KS) West Elk.
With his frame and physical tools, it is difficult to not be intrigued by what kind of football player Loudermilk could become. Outside of playing on the defensive line, he also lined up at tight end and registered seven catches, 163 yards and five touchdowns. Playing on both sides of the ball and on the high school basketball team, Loudermilk’s footwork should be ahead of the curve and help him get off the line of scrimmage quickly.
As usual, the Wisconsin summer football camp provided dividends for the Badgers’ recruiting class, as Tyler Biadasz earned his offer after working out for the coaching staff. Projected as a nose tackle, Biadasz is also capable of playing defensive end. He needed to get stronger to help him deliver the push he needs to win battles in the trenches, opening up alleys for the linebackers, but Biadasz has a winning mentality (bookending his high school career with state titles) and steadily improved since his freshman season, strongly suggesting he hasn’t scratched the surface of his potential.
Keldric Preston is entering Wisconsin with his position a little bit of a question mark, as there has been talk of him starting at outside linebackers and transitioning to defensive end. Breckterfield said on signing day that he will start out as an end, but his ability to get after the quarterback (five sacks last season) has UW excited to use him in passing situations.
“He will start out more in passing situations, want to use him kind of like Zander (Neuville) and kind of like T.J. Watt toward the end,” Breckterfield said of Preston. “We will start him off there in pass situations and see how his body grows. He’s coming in to compete as a third down pass rush guy.”
Regardless of his position, if Preston can continue to improve his burst off the line and add weight to his frame, he could eventually turn into an edge rusher that will be difficult to stop. It might take a redshirt year in order for him to adjust, along with seeing how his body develops, but Preston beings a skill set that UW will love to develop.
The second commitment for the 2016 recruiting class and the first in-state prospect to commit to Paul Chryst, Luke Benzschawel will start out as an end. Listed at 6-7 and 255 pounds, Benzschawel’s biggest priority will be adding weight. His older brother, Beau, showed that he was able to add the necessary weight during his first year at Wisconsin, entering the program at 250 pounds and building his frame to make eight starts on the line this past season as a redshirt freshman.
“Luke is a big long athlete and what he grows into will be determined over the next year of his career,” said special teams coach Chris Haering, who recruits Wisconsin. “I know his brother came in; I was asking his brother, ‘compare yourself to Luke at this age.’ Luke’s about seven or eight pounds heavier, and now Beau is a 315-pound offensive lineman. You just don’t know. Again, a guy who played both sides, very athletic.”
If Luke can put on the weight and continue to develop as Wisconsin finds the best position for him to play, he should be able to crack the defensive line rotation by his redshirt sophomore or redshirt junior year.
Wisconsin also showed interest in Mike Panasiuk (Michigan State) and Thomas Schaffer (Stanford) along the defensive line, but the four commits Wisconsin signed will continue to add what is already a talented corps that took a step last season.
Signing Day Grade: A