Bret Bielema, the Badgers' exuberant defensive coordinator, wants to know who is still coming back, as UW prepares for its 15 spring practices, which begin Friday afternoon.
"Everybody wants to talk about the ones we lost," Bielema said recently. "I want to talk about the ones we got. I think anytime you lose sight of that you are just kind of burying your head in the sand. It doesn't do any good to think about what you don't have any more. All we want to do is get focused on the guys we have."
It is impossible to get around what Wisconsin has to replace. Not when of those seven missing starters, six are likely NFL draft picks, including two potential first-round choices. But turnover is the nature of college athletics and Bielema is a glass-as-full-as you-make-it kind of guy.
"Any time that you have a situation coming back into the spring you know you are going to have new faces, new opportunities," Bielema said. "You are excited as a coach to kind of see what you have out there."
So what does Bielema want to see from the Badgers' defense this spring?
"I want to be sound," he said. "I want those guys to understand what good football means. It's not a magic play, it's not a magical call. It's about playing tougher than the other guy and being sound in what you do."
Wisconsin has four starters returning: linebackers Andy Crooks, a sophomore-to-be, junior Mark Zalewski and senior Dontez Sanders, and senior cornerback Brett Bell. The latter will miss all of spring practices and likely all of summer workouts while he recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
A handful of additional players — defensive ends sophomore Jamal Cooper and junior Joe Monty, senior cornerback Levonne Rowan, senior linebacker LaMarr Watkins and strong safeties junior Johnny White and junior Joe Stellmacher — have some starting experience. Junior Reggie Cribbs started seven games at mike linebacker last season but is expected to miss spring workouts while focusing on academics.
The experienced returnees provide a helpful starting point, but Bielema and Co. still face a daunting task.
Bielema was spoiled in his first year in Madison. Blessed with a veteran defense, he conducted a unit that ran roughshod over opponents through Wisconsin's 9-0 start last fall.
But the Badgers must replace a star-studded defensive line that included tackles Anttaj Hawthorne and Jason Jefferson and ends Erasmus James and Jonathan Welsh. The Badgers will also miss four-year starting corner Scott Starks, three-year starting free safety Jim Leonhard, strong safety Robert Brooks and top reserve corner Chuckie Cowans.
Bielema does not necessarily want to have his 11 starters nailed down by the end of spring. What he wants is a good idea of the depth that he has available heading into the fall.
"I think you've got to say I've got my top 22," he said. "Find out who they are and establish that and then understand that in the fall there's going to be a freshman group coming in. We've got to find out if there's any football players in there that can help us. But I think you want to be able to establish a solid two-deep in your program."
UW's likely starters heading into spring are Cooper and Monty at ends; sophomores Justin Ostrowski and Nick Hayden at tackles; Zalewski, Crooks and Sanders at linebacker; Bell and Rowan at corner; White and junior Roderick Rogers at safety.
Like most coaching staffs, Wisconsin's espouses the notion of getting the best possible players on the field. This year that will play itself out most clearly in the defensive backfield, especially this spring. With Bell ailing, there will be plenty of reps for younger players, such as redshirt freshmen corners Jack Ikegwuonu, Allen Langford, Jameson Davis and Antonio Freeman.
"You've got to turn as many negatives as you can to positives," Bielema said. "We wish we could have him but …. that's just another opportunity for us to get guys out there…people that we feel we've just got to find out exactly what their answers are at corner and see if they can continue to give us a better improvement."
In just about any other situation, Langford and Ikegwuonu would have played last season. But with four veteran corners in front of them, there was no sense burning a year of eligibility last fall. That tandem will push Rowan for the starting corner spot opposite Bell and will compete hard for the nickel cornerback spot. Freeman and Davis will also be in the mix for the nickel job.
Last Friday, at the Badgers' underclassman timing day, Ikegwuonu and Freeman stood out, each covering 40 yards in the 4.4-second range, according to two sources. Bielema chose not to discuss the players' workout results. (The fastest Badgers were receiver Jonathan Orr and corner Levonne Rowan, who each ran in the low 4.3s).
Depending on how the players progress, some corners may be tried at safety during spring workouts. Ikegwuonu, who played free safety for a short time in fall camp last year, would be an obvious candidate.
As it stands, juniors Zach Hampton and Stellmacher will push White and Rogers for reps.
Last season, seemingly the only question mark was at linebacker, where the Badgers had to replace all but Zalewski, who was changing positions. This year linebacker is UW's most experienced position defensively, but Bielema, who doubles as co-linebackers coach, is far from content.
"By no means are those guys playing at a level that will win the amount of games that we want to win," he said. "There is a dramatic need to improve greatly at those three positions and I think they are focused on what they need to do. More importantly, what happened last year, happened last year. All we're focused on is what they can do this year."
Who will push the starters?
"At strong linebacker, at sam, ‘Zew' is going to return as a starter," Bielema said. "Paul Joran [a junior] is a guy that we felt was pushing him going through fall camp but he got a little nicked up with an ankle injury in the UNLV game and wasn't able to really re-gain his balance throughout.
"At the mike position [senior] Elliot Goode was coming into the No. 1 linebacker a year ago in the spring [before suffering a knee injury] and he's recovered from his knee injury and now looks to be in the best shape since I've been here. And obviously between Dontez, LaMarr and there's some young kids, [redshirt freshmen] Jammar Crane and Nick Sutton, who we expect to do some good things for us as well."
Along the front four, junior Mark Gorman is a capable reserve who could play tackle or end. He made big strides last offseason.
"They are young players that had an evolution of just learning the position to its truest form," Bielema said. "The opportunity for those guys to work daily now, to rotate in there now with the twos is going to be good development for them."
Redshirt freshman Jason Chapman, who is expected to play tackle this spring, missed bowl workouts after undergoing shoulder surgery and will have an opportunity to show off his potential this spring.
"I think a big thing with him is, obviously, make sure that he's back at 100 percent health," Bielema said. "And the one thing that I would say about the entire freshman class is a lot of guys out there that we think potentially might be able to be good football players for us but they are an unknown right now. I don't really like to comment on anything until I've seen it happen. Him, [defensive end Mike] Newkirk, Nick Sutton, Jammar Crane, Allen Langford, Jack Ikegwuonu, those freshmen there… Those guys are untapped potential that we just don't know a lot about at this point."
Notable: Bielema said sophomore walk-on Casey Hogan has been switched from safety to sam linebacker, while sophomore James Kamoku has been moved back to safety from will linebacker, where he spent part of last season.