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Badgers Football: A look at where Wisconsin's depth chart stands on defense

With Wisconsin's spring practices now completed, we look at the projected depth chart for the Badgers' defense.

Defensive End

Projected Starters: Alec JamesChikwe ObasihConor Sheehy

Projected Backups: Garrett Rand

Wildcard: Isaiahh Loudermilk

Wisconsin's defensive line didn’t lose anybody from last year’s roster, so the group is full of talent and experience. The projected starters started over 30 games last season and all had between 27 and 23 tackles and at least 1.5 sacks. With another year of seasoning, this group could be in line for some special things.

Obasih didn’t practice this spring and Sheehy and James were limited during the full contact scrimmages, so that opened up opportunities for younger players. Wisconsin moved Rand from nose tackle to end to have him start learning the position and add some depth. The 6-2, 270-pound sophomore has deceptive speed and good upper body strength to make some plays off the edge.

“I want to be real versatile,” Rand said. “I don’t want to know how to do one thing. I want to know how to do everything to help out the team.”

After redshirting last season, Loudermilk was one of the studs of camp on the entire defense. His 6-7 frame gives him length to bat down passes and be intimidating when he’s coming after the quarterback, but his size requires him to stay low in order to get quality leverage on offensive linemen. His strength is certainly in the pass rush, so Loudermilk has a chance to be involved in certain packages in the line.

“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back and we’re going to get some young guys to step up, too, to give us some more depth,” James said. “We’re going to be good.

Nose tackle

Projected Starter: Olive Sagapolu

Projected Backup: Jeremy Patterson

Wildcard: Billy Hirschfeld

Sagapolu was limited to nine games last season because of a wrist injury, but the junior has played in 22 games in his career and was fully healthy throughout camp. He’ll be back to anchor the middle of the line, but his absence last season allowed Sheehy to get reps at nose and become comfortable at the position.

Patterson has had a nondescript three seasons on campus and only played in two games last year. Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield says Patterson needs to shed weight from his 350-pound frame in order to get on the field. He'll be challenged by Hirschfeld, who has moved over from end in an effort to get on the field quicker with all the talent that was ahead of him at end.

Outside linebacker

Projected Starters: Garret DooleyLeon Jacobs

Projected Backups: Zack BaunAndrew Van Ginkel

Wildcard: Christian BellKeldric Preston

Needing to replace both starters from last season, Wisconsin outside linebacker coach Tim Tibesar feels comfortable with the strides Dooley has made and kept him with the starters virtually the entire spring. Beyond the senior are some question marks, but the answers have started to gain some clarity.

UW started Baun next to Dooley for the first part of spring but still felt the position was lacking some leadership. That’s part of the reason the Badgers decided to move Jacobs back to the outside during camp, and the results have been positive. Jacobs came in as an outside linebacker and was going to be buried on the depth chart as an inside backer, part of the reason he approached the coaching staff following the Cotton Bowl to tell them of his willingness to move back. 

His production over the last two weeks earned him reps on the first team and his approach/energy to practice appeared to give the unit some confidence.

“I'm excited for Leon and about Leon,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “There's a guy that would do anything for this team, and he did it. Last year at this time he was playing fullback, and then he jumped in and had injuries and was playing inside backer, but I think the outside is a really good fit for him …He's a guy that is capable of having a really big impact on this team, and I'm excited for him to have that senior year that you're playing your best football. He works. He's talented. I think he'll be really a big part of what we do defensively.”

Tibesar says he wants a rotation of at least four guys, so UW will need one of its younger players to step in. Van Ginkel shows experience having played two years of college football and has done a nice job transitioning from the end position. Preston and Bell are raw but have flashed potential.

Inside linebacker

Projected Starters: Jack CichyT.J. Edwards

Projected Backups: Ryan ConnellyChris Orr

Wildcard: Arrington Farrar

The projected starters and the backups were severely limited or out throughout spring practices, which allowed new inside linebacker coach Bob Bostad to get a long look at some of the younger players. Redshirt freshman walk-on Mike Maskalunas and redshirt sophomore Nick Thomas both got a lot of work, but Thomas appeared to severely injure his leg late in spring and Maskalunas still has some polishing to do. 

Farrar was moved from safety to the position midway through spring and will provide an interesting conundrum for the staff – play him this year on special teams and/or potentially in some kind of hybrid role on the defense or redshirt him considering the depth in front of him? The answer will probably become clearer in fall camp.

Cornerbacks

Projected Starters: Nick NelsonDerrick Tindal

Projected Backup: Lubern Figaro, Dontye Carriere-Williams

Wildcard: Caesar Williams

Wisconsin is in a position of strength with its corners. Tindal has played in 38 games and started all 14 games a year ago, finishing with three interceptions and 11 pass breakups. Nelson sat out after transferring from Hawaii last season but started in 21 of the 23 games he played for the Warriors. Both players complement each other well and have the potential to be a special combo.

The backup spot equates to the battle for the starting nickel cornerback. Figaro and Carriere-Williams each split time with the first-team defense in camp, but Figaro usually got the node opposite Nelson when Tindal was out. Figaro is a senior who has been through the ups and downs but Carriere-Williams is a very confident redshirt freshman with plenty of swagger.

Williams was close to playing last season until the staff decided keeping his redshirt intact was the way to go. Defensive coordinator/secondary coach Jim Leonhard is high on Williams’ ability, but the redshirt freshman missed most of spring with a core injury.

Safety

Projected Starters: D'Cota DixonNatrell Jamerson

Projected Backups: Joe FergusonPatrick Johnson

Wildcard: Eric Burrell

Dixon’s emergence last season will be a big help to Jamerson, who is a perfect fit for the free safety position because of his background as a cornerback and wide receiver to allow him to cover the field from sideline to sideline. Switched to the position prior to the spring, Jamerson is still becoming comfortable with the communication aspect of free safety but says the transition has been smooth.

Ferguson is a competent veteran who has seen plenty of time on special teams and different defensive packages, while Johnson got his feet wet last season as a true freshman. Both players will likely have an expanded role with Farrar moving to inside linebacker. Burrell is a hard hitter like Dixon but is still growing in the pass coverage aspect. If he gets that down, he’ll be a solid player down the road.


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