MADISON - Looking around the meeting room prior to the start of spring football, Chikwe Obasih saw a lot of familiar faces. He also saw the look of determination in everybody’s eyes.
In the junior defensive end’s opinion, there’s no reason Wisconsin’s front shouldn’t be dominant throughout the 2016 season. The Badgers only lost two rotation players – Jake Keefer to graduation and Arthur Goldberg to head injuries.
That’s allowed Wisconsin’s defensive line to jump right in with line coach Inoke Breckterfield and start working ahead of the learning curve during the first three spring practices.
“Our group has talked about this for a long time, ever since the nucleus of the group formed under Coach Chad (Kauha’aha’a) my redshirt freshman year,” Obasih said, referring to Conor Sheehy, Alec James and Jeremy Patterson. “We’ve been waiting for this moment. I think we’re ready, we’re smart and we’re athletic.”
In order to take that next step, Obasih says the Badgers’ defensive line has to be more than just bodies who swallow up offensive linemen, opening up alleys for the linebackers to clean up the plays. Five of Wisconsin’s top six tacklers a year ago were linebackers. Michael Caputo was the only outsider, but the senior was often positioned like a linebacker in certain schemes.
As a result, only Obasih – who led the group in tackles (41) and tackles for loss (five) – received all-conference recognition (honorable mention all-conference by the media).
This year Wisconsin is looking to create more one-on-one opportunities for the defensive linemen to take advantage of the group’s experience and abilities.
“The opportunities will be there,” Obasih said. “It’s just a matter of us taking advantage of it.”
While losing the services of Goldberg, who had 17 tackles last season and could play at end or nose, the Badgers have the personnel to absorb those losses. Sheehy had a line-best two sacks and a forced fumble a year ago and increased his weight by nearly 20 points to 290 since December. Like Goldberg, Sheehy has the ability to line up on all three spots on the line.
James earned the starting spot in Wisconsin’s third-down peso package with Zander Neuville (who is out this spring recovering from shoulder surgery) and can compete for a starting spot opposite Obasih. Sophomore nose tackle Olive Sagapolu (seven tackles) was a nice surprise as a true freshman last season and will fortify the middle of the line for the next three years with the help of Patterson (6-3, 340 pounds).
If that’s not enough, Wisconsin has a talented group of young ends – redshirt sophomore Billy Hirschfeld and redshirt freshmen Kraig Howe and David Pfaff – who are talented enough to work their way into the rotation.
But the group’s success will be largely based on Obasih’s performance, who has shown to be the group’s most athletic playmaker off the edge.
“I need to stay healthy and get stronger in the weight room,” Obasih said. “I’m working on being more flexible and become a master of the defense. We’ve switched the names of some of the calls and added some new ones, so it’s important to get the young guys up to speed to build depth.”
The success of Wisconsin last season was predicated on stopping the run, as the end results show. UW was 10-0 when holding an opponent without a 100-yard rusher and 0-3 when UW let a tailback break the century mark. But to be fair, UW’s lost to Iowa and Northwestern after allowing a combined 23 points, 20 of which came as an indirect result of turnovers creating a short field.
Against USC, the Badgers limited the Trojans’ stable of running backs to 65 rushing yards. UW held eight of its 13 opponents under 100 rushing yards in 2015, second only to Alabama (11) in keeping opponents under 100.
That’s the goal again this year, only with a little more chaos sprinkled in.
“We have guys who can go inside and outside,” Obasih said. “We’ll see how everybody develops, but we’re excited for our future.”