Looking for answers up front

Wisconsin's defensive line should still be good this season, but questions need to be answered

The University of Wisconsin is no longer blessed with four senior defensive linemen on the verge of NFL careers. But that does not mean the front line is bound to fall to disrepair.

The Badgers have considerable talent and some experience returning in ends Jamal Cooper and Joe Monty, tackles Justin Ostrowski and Nick Hayden and combo linemen Kurt Ware and Jason Chapman. Redshirt freshman Mike Newkirk, who is shifting from end to tackle, should provide quality depth. And the four incoming freshmen will all get serious looks.

The question, however, is how will all the pieces come together?

"We've got enough bodies. Now it's a matter of putting them in the right position," UW defensive line coach John Palermo said last week. "It could be a down-and-distance-type deal. We might have a big team, we might have a speed team, we might have a nickel team. I don't know yet. There's too many unanswered questions right now."

Cooper (6-foot-4, 217 pounds) was the team's most productive lineman in spring practices and he should be a consistent playmaker this fall. He is undersized but is so sound technically that he has held up fine versus the run in the playing time he has received so far.

Fellow sophomores Ostrowski (6-5, 304) and Hayden (6-5, 302) are set to start on the inside. They have good size and ability and should be stout against the run, but they have not shown a penchant for getting into the backfield.

Coming out of the spring, the question in the starting lineup was at left defensive end.

"From a competitive standpoint, we've got three other guys, Kurt Ware, Joe Monty and Jason Chapman (who), I think, are all adequate to good players," Palermo said.

Monty (6-2, 252) has played in 24 games and started twice. Chapman (6-4, 280) and Ware (6-4, 274), meanwhile, are relatively green but were dominant at times last spring.

"Joe brings experience, toughness," Palermo said. "I think Kurt and Jason are both big, athletic kids and we just have to find out how tough they are in two-a-days."

How will playing time break down?

"I think it all depends on down and distance," Palermo said. "We could put the two big ends in there on first down and then put Jamal in there on second-and-long, third-and-long. At this particular point, again, I don't know. We want to try to get the best four guys on the field at one time. If that means putting Kurt and Jason Chapman inside, then so be it."

For now, however, Hayden and Ostrowski are set on the inside.

"I think they just need to continue to improve," Palermo said. "They're both good football players. Someday I want them to both be great football players. They made great strides in the spring and I think they'll do the same in pre-fall."

Newkirk, who has bulked up to 260 pounds, was shifted to tackle to provide more depth at that position.

"I like his aggressiveness, I like his toughness," Palermo said. "He doesn't run as good as some of those other kids playing end so instead of him being an average-speed end, he could be a fast tackle and that's what I hope to get out of it."

Newkirk's wrestling background — he was a two-time state heavyweight champion — could help him battle through the traffic in the middle of the line.

"At tackle, I'd say, right now with Justin and Nick, I think we're in good shape with the first group," Palermo said. "And then we'll have Mike Newkirk. The jury's out on the rest of them right now so we'll just have to see. Again, I feel very comfortable if need be to put Chapman or Kurt Ware or even Joe Monty down inside."

As for the true freshmen, Dan Cascone (6-3, 330) and Jeff Stehle (6-4, 275) will play tackle, while Matt Shaughnessy (6-6, 235) and Terrance Jamison (6-4, 250) begin their careers at end.

"I'm hopeful that one or two of them will (contribute)," Palermo said. "For me to say one or the other at this particular point would be very premature. I don't know."

Sophomore end Brandon Kelly (6-4, 250) and redshirt freshman tackle Gino Cruse (6-5, 312) could boost the depth if they improve this fall.

"If they do well, it will be a pleasant surprise," Palermo said.

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