Wisconsin defensive line coach John Palermo has a simple request for his defensive tackles.
"I need them to play their asses off, that's what I need them to do," Palermo said. "They anchor the middle and give us a good push on pass rush."
So far this spring, the tackles have done just that, forming the foundation for a defensive line viewed by many as the strongest unit in the Badger defense.
"They've had a good spring. Anttaj (Hawthorne) and Jason Jefferson, they've improved," Palermo said. "Justin Ostrowski's coming on, I think we'll be able to count on him in the fall, as well as Kalvin Barrett."
For Palermo and the UW defensive line, everything starts inside with left tackle Anttaj Hawthorne. A first-team All-Big Ten media pick in 2003, he led the team in tackles for losses with 20.
"Anttaj is unbelievable. He's going to be an All-American," Ostrowski said. "He does all the right things: he keeps a low center of base and does everything wonderful."
This spring, expectations are much higher as the senior from Hamden, Conn., prepares for his final season in a Wisconsin uniform.
"I'd be disappointed if he's not an All-American this year," Palermo said. "Maybe that puts a little too much pressure on him, but if he's not All-American I will be disappointed because he can play that kind of football."
Hawthorne is well aware of the high hopes the coaching staff as well as his teammates have for him this season.
"JP's going around saying I'm one of the best he's ever had, I'm not trying to let him down," Hawthorne said. "That's probably my No. 1 goal. No. 2 is not let the team down."
Hawthorne will grab most of the headlines on the defensive line, but lining up next to him at right tackle is 6-foot-3, 308-pound senior Jason Jefferson.
"Jason's a technician," Hawthorne said of Jefferson. "Sometimes if I have a question, I'll be like, "J.J., what's going on right here?' and he'll help out. I don't think we'd be able to function as well without J.J. out there."
There's more to the Wisconsin tackles than Hawthorne and Jefferson, though. Behind the starting duo, freshman Justin Ostrowski and senior Kalvin Barrett have emerged as dependable reserves. Ostrowski is currently the team's top backup to Hawthorne at left tackle and Barrett will spell Jefferson on the right side.
A one-time offensive guard, Barrett has shown flashes of potential in his time on defense, but the coaching staff would like to see more consistency from the 319-pounder.
"Kalvin has a lot of ability and there's certain things he does really well," Palermo said. "He's kind of stubborn, that's why he didn't play more on offense. So, if he complies with what we want, then I think he'll have an opportunity to play more."
Since he switched to defense on a full-time basis, Barrett has improved little by little.
"Kalvin's doing good, he just gets better and better every day," Hawthorne said. "There's a few things—he's not perfect, but with a little bit of work, he's going to be a good player too."
While Hawthorne, Jefferson and Barrett all have significant game experience under their belts, Ostrowski is simply looking to get on the field in 2004.
"I just have to work my way into the rotation," he said. "If I do the right things, that gives trust for Coach Palermo to put me in."
As a redshirt last season, Ostrowski spent most of his time on the scout team, preparing the No. 1 offense.
"Playing on the scout team, I improved a lot," he said. "It gave me a chance to go against the starters. It gave me a chance to get better on my footwork, my pad level and whatnot. I still need to improve on those levels but they're getting better."
The talented lineman from Portage, Wis. believes he can set himself apart from some of Palermo's other options in the rotation.
"Just my work ethic [sets me apart]," he said. "They work hard, too definitely, but I've always worked hard in whatever I do. I give it my all. All I have to do is work hard and things will work out."
Having the opportunity to watch veterans like Hawthorne and Jefferson has aided Ostrowski's development.
"It's a great deal because you can watch them when the ones go out there and you can see what they're doing right—footwork, pad level—and see where you need to get to," he said.
Palermo believes he can utilize each of his top reserve tackles come fall.
"Right now I feel comfortable that both those guys could come in at certain situations in a football game," Palermo said of his depth at tackle. "I won't want either one of them to be our starters right now. Justin's still probably a year away from being good enough to be a starter. Kalvin could be a starter, but he's a guy that needs to become more consistent."
Hawthorne knows that for the defense to be successful in 2004, the guys inside will have to take care of business.
"The major thing we're going to have to do is make plays in the backfield and pressure the quarterback—keep the quarterback on his heels," Hawthorne said. "Also, keep the offensive line off the linebackers, let them run free and make plays."