Badgers looking to fill holes at end

With Erasmus James and Jonathan Welsh a UW memory, attention turns to a less experienced cast

As spring practice gets underway, Wisconsin defensive line coach John Palermo has his work cut out for him. Gone is his standout defensive end duo of Erasmus James, a consensus All-American, and Jonathan Welsh, an honorable mention All-Big Ten choice, who combined for 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss last season. Replacing them will be a relatively untested group, led by Joe Monty and Jamal Cooper.

"It's hard to beat that crowd we had a year ago," Palermo said. "These guys have a lot of growing up to do. They're all young players and as long as they continue to get a little bit better every day, maybe they'll have a chance to be a good defensive line this fall."

Currently, Monty is the favorite to replace James at left end, with Cooper sliding into Welsh's old right end position. Behind them is an inexperienced group consisting of Kurt Ware, Brandon Kelly and Mike Newkirk. With James and Welsh taking their games to the professional ranks, the current UW defensive ends know they have some large shoes to fill.

"There's no way we can replace them," Cooper said. "We've just got to play our own game. If you go in with the attitude of trying to replace somebody, you're going to fall short always. You've just got to go out with your own game and do what you can do."

Palermo believes he has a solid first-team pairing in the steady Monty and Cooper, whom he says has a chance to be as good as any end he has ever coached. A sophomore-to-be, Cooper played at 205 pounds last season and has added 10 pounds to his sleek frame in the off-season.

In order to achieve production resembling that of last season's ends, Palermo and the Badgers know they will have to establish some depth behind Monty and Cooper. Ware, a former tight end, will push Monty for snaps on the left side. Freshmen Kelly and Newkirk are also expected to contribute.

"Rotation is something that's earned," Palermo said. "If those guys earn it, by God, they'll be in the rotation. If they don't, we're going to just have to suck it up and those guys will have to play more snaps."

Wisconsin was able to get Monty and Cooper game experience last season. Due to injuries, Monty made two starts in place of James, while Cooper replaced Welsh against Northwestern. In 12 games, the two combined for six tackles for loss and three sacks.

"Those are two guys who earned spots in the rotation a year ago," Palermo said. "Those two kids have proven they can play. What we've got to do is find some help for them in a backup role."

That experience is something Ware, Kelly and Newkirk lack. Preparing them for that backup role becomes the job of Palermo, who has coached the Badger defensive line for the last ten years.

"The biggest strength we have right now is an outstanding coach," Newkirk said. "Coach Palermo is a great asset to the football team. He does a wonderful job with the defensive line. We've got a bunch of guys who want to play and are willing to listen and to learn. Having a coach like that, the sky's the limit."

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