Spring wrap-up: defensive line

Part 1 of BadgerNation.com's 11-part look at the 2005 spring football practice season

News and notes — After entering spring as arguably Wisconsin's biggest question mark, the defensive line enjoyed a strong spring and heads into the summer months as a relative strength, especially considering that Badgers had to replace five seniors, including four starters.

Three starting spots appear set: sophomores-to-be defensive tackles Justin Ostrowski and Nick Hayden and right defensive end Jamal Cooper. At left defensive end, however, junior Joe Monty, sophomore Kurt Ware and redshirt freshman Jason Chapman all saw time with the first team. Each member of that trio also missed some of spring ball due to injuries. Ware and Chapman also finish spring as the UW's top two reserve defensive tackles. Redshirt freshman defensive end Mike Newkirk established himself as a valuable pass rusher who will likely work into the rotation, particularly with the nickel defense.

Tackles Gino Cruse and Mark Gorman and end Brandon Kelly saw some work with the second team, but leave spring as third-team players, along with end Adam Purcell and tackle Derek Yentz.

Spring MVP — Jamal Cooper. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound athlete has an unorthodox build for a defensive lineman, but he was the Badgers' most consistent and productive defensive player this spring. Exceptionally quick with good speed off the edge, Cooper will likely be the Badgers top pass rusher. Despite his lack of size, Cooper is surprisingly competent against the run, due to very good technique and use of leverage. He has also emerged as a leader (typically the quiet variety, though he will become vocal on occasion) on a line with few experienced players.

Springing ahead — This was also a very good spring for Jason Chapman, Kurt Ware, Justin Ostrowski and Nick Hayden, all of whom took strides to position themselves to play key roles in UW's defensive fortunes in the coming season.

Chapman redshirted last fall and suffered a shoulder injury in October that required surgery and still is not 100 percent healthy. But he was a star for much of spring, particularly after he shifted back to end from tackle for several practices in the middle of spring. He spent the stretch run of the spring practice season flip flopping between end and tackle, often taking reps at end with the first-team defense while playing tackle with the second team. He also played tackle or nose guard with the nickel defense. In each guise, Chapman was a difference maker. He is very quick, with good closing speed for a 275-pound lineman. And despite the limitations his shoulder created, Chapman displayed a punch off the line that helped him get into the backfield and make plays.

Ware is similar to Chapman in that he is an athletic 275-pounder who could play anywhere along the line. Ware, however, converted to defensive end from tight end last fall and made the transition look seamless this spring. Ware was a difference maker wherever he lined up, but in contrast to Chapman he made more plays at tackle. It seemed he was more instinctual when lining up inside, and his quickness and punch off the line proved troublesome for UW's interior linemen. Ware also displayed an uncanny knack for knocking down passes at the line of scrimmage.

The Badgers needed Ostrowski and Hayden, groomed as the heir apparents to Anttaj Hawthorne and Jason Jefferson since last fall, to step up this spring and they did. They form a tandem of 300-plus pound pluggers with decent athleticism. They were average pass rushers this spring but were sturdy versus the run. Neither is likely to spend much time in the backfield, but they can fill lanes versus the run, keep bodies off the Badgers' linebackers and, potentially, collapse the pocket.

Pressing questions — The most important question cannot be answered until the action is for keeps in September. Despite an impressive showing this spring, this is a defensive line that is very green. Cooper, Monty, Hayden and Ostrowski were all role players last year and among the other defensive linemen who took part this spring, only Mark Gorman and Brandon Kelley have ever played before. This line appears to have enough talent to succeed, but how well they will handle their larger roles is anyone's guess until they can prove it on the field.

The second key question is who starts at left defensive end? The prediction here is that Chapman will earn that spot, but that Ware and Monty will play quite a bit as well. With Ware and Chapman developing the versatility to play end or tackle, defensive line coach John Palermo will have some options with his rotations.

Finally, though a crop of freshmen will join the team in the fall, and the Badgers appear to have seven linemen it can trust already, depth is still a concern. A big part of this ties into the unit's lack of experience, but an injury or two could be devastating.

Looking ahead — The Badgers appear to have a solid six-man rotation with a seventh, Newkirk, in the mix as a designated pass rusher. Despite replacing all four starters, the defensive line looks like it could once again be an asset this fall, though it certainly will not approach the productivity of last season's group.

The x-factor in UW's quest for depth on the defensive line is tackle Gino Cruse. The redshirt freshman is bigger and more athletic than either Hayden or Ostrowski but he was wildly inconsistent. Cruse, however, did appear to be making strides late in the spring. He looks nearly unblockable at times in one-on-one drills, but he needs to improve his technique and become steadier with his effort and attitude.

Brandon Kelly could develop into a situational pass rusher. He is not particularly quick off the line, but he has decent closing speed and he is another player who knocked down quite a few passes at the line of scrimmage. Kelly, though, must improve against the run.

The Badgers may also bolster depth via the 2005 recruiting class, which includes as many as a half dozen defensive linemen. Dan Cascone, a 6-3, 330-pound tackle, is a likely candidate for early playing time, filling a niche as a run-stopper in short yardage.

Terrance Jamison and Jeff Stehle could eventually play end or tackle and Matt Shaughnessy will play end. Travis Beckum will open his career at sam linebacker, but could play end. Another versatile athlete, Jarmal Ruffin, could play end. But counting on freshmen to perform immediately is precarious.

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