Projected Starters: Chikwe Obasih, Conor Sheehy
Projected Backups: Alec James, Zander Neuville
Wildcard: Billy Hirschfeld
Obasih, Sheehy and James will all be rotating in during the fall, as James saw his reps increase over the second half of spring practices with the first-team defense in base packages. Obasih appears to be the most athletic player of the group, while Sheehy has the size and speed to play both inside and outside. Neuville paired with James as the down linemen in UW’s third-down package last year but missed all of spring with a shoulder injury, so his role is still undetermined.
Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield spoke glowingly about the development of Hirschfeld during the spring and could use him in situational packages in the fall.
Projected Starter: Olive Sagapolu
Projected Backup: Jeremy Patterson
Sagapolu was one of the surprises a year ago by playing in all 13 games and appears to be a future four-year starter for Wisconsin at nose tackle. Patterson’s development hasn’t nearly been as quick, which is why the Badgers are hopeful that Patterson can make a jump forward and become the backup. If he can’t, UW will likely move Sheehy inside in some situations or take a close look at incoming freshman Garrett Rand.
Projected Starters: Vince Biegel, T.J. Watt
Projected Backups: Zach Baun, Garret Dooley
Wildcard: Jake Whalen
There’s no surprises here for those that have watched practice. Biegel is not only the best linebacker on the roster, he might be the best defensive player on the field and the emotional leader of the team. Biegel’s switch from the boundary to the field linebacker position could mean big things for him in 2016, as former teammate Joe Schobert won Big Ten linebacker of the year at that spot last season.
Watt’s quick development shouldn’t be a surprise (after all, it runs in his family) and the fact that he’s been playing the position less than a year should excite fans. As he continues to understand concepts, reads and pressures, he could really be something special for the defense.
Dooley is a natural outside linebacker and should be a solid reserve this upcoming season. According to head coach Paul Chryst, the junior took strides during the team’s winter conditioning period and is carried over into spring.
“(Dooley) has put himself into a position where he was kinda cutting it loose and playing, and that will be big for us,” Chryst said. “That's one of the things we did a nice job of last year was playing four outside backers, and I think he's put himself into the conversation. He's given himself a chance for that, and I think he's a guy that can be a four-phase special teamer.”
Baun appeared to maximize his reps with the second-team defense and continues to learn the position after being a high school quarterback. Whalen was sporadically injured throughout spring but has a chance to earn some reps in the fall.
Projected Starters: Jack Cichy, T.J. Edwards
Projected Backups: Chris Orr, Ryan Connelly
This group is stacked and gives defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach Justin Wilcox options. Edwards appears the closest to locking up a starting spot but isn’t guaranteed, even after his breakout redshirt freshman season. Orr was the first breakout sub and Cichy was the second, as his three consecutive sacks against USC in the bowl game is still an impressive feat. No matter which two start, all three will end up playing and perhaps at the same time in some instances.
The play of the trio overshadows Connelly, who earned a scholarship last fall and is a solid backup for the group.
Projected Starters: Sojourn Shelton, Derrick Tindal
Projected Backup: Natrell Jamerson
Wildcard: Titus Booker
The biggest mystery here will be who will emerge as the starting nickel cornerback for Wisconsin, as Shelton (entering his fourth year as a starter) and Tindal (the team’s nickel the last two years) have taken all the first-team reps. Jamerson and Booker are entering just their second year as a cornerback, transitioning from receiver and running back, respectively. Jamerson flashes at times but has struggled in one-on-one coverage. Booker’s athleticism and ability to close distances make him an intriguing option but he’s yet to play in a game.
There’s a strong belief that defensive back coach Jim Leonhard will give UW’s three incoming freshmen – Dontye Carriere-Williams, Ke’shan Pennamon and Caesar Williams – a chance to contribute.
Projected Starters: Leo Musso, Joe Ferguson
Projected Backups: Arrington Farrar, D’Cota Dixon
Wildcard: Keelon Brookins
This is easily the most concerning position on the defense and maybe on the team, as the Badgers didn’t see anybody jump up and assert themselves during spring. Worst yet, the two players who took a lot of the early first-team reps – Musso and Dixon – missed significant time due to class conflicts (Musso) or a head injury (Dixon).
Although he was brought in with the notion of playing linebacker, Farrar – the former four-star recruit out of Atlanta – has come as advertised and is a ball hawk, having a good nose for the football and can finish plays. Ferguson has the most game experience of the group (outside Musso) and Brookins looks much more natural at safety than he ever did at linebacker.
Like cornerback, UW will likely give some incoming freshmen – namely Eric Burrell and Patrick Johnson – a chance to earn some playing time.