Last season, Purdue's defense was supposed to suffer a significant drop-off. The 2003 Boilermakers were ranked 14th in the nation in scoring defense and 13th nationally in total defense, but the 2004 edition had to replace eight starters. To make matters even more troublesome, one of Purdue's three returning starters, cornerback Antwaun Rogers, was hindered by injuries for much of the season.
A challenge? Absolutely. A problem? Not at all. The Boilermakers' defense thrived yet again, finishing fourth in the Big Ten in scoring and total defense, after placing third the year before. They slipped to No. 40 nationally in total defense, but were No. 15 in scoring defense.
This year the Badgers face a similar challenge. UW lost seven starters from a defense that was No. 6 in the nation last year in scoring defense and No. 9 in total defense. The standard expectation is that the Badgers cannot possibly approach that level of play in '05 with all the new faces in the starting lineup. UW coach Barry Alvarez, however, is confident that the defense will play well this season.
"I'll be very surprised if we're not a good defensive team," Alvarez said in Chicago Tuesday at the Big Ten media days. "I'll be very surprised.
"I just think we'll be good. The fact we can run, the kids want to play and we'll be stronger in some areas. I just feel we'll be a nice defensive team. That's just my feeling. I hope I'm right."
"I see how hard they work and there's no reason why we shouldn't be a good defense," Alvarez said.
The Purdue case lends credence to the assertion that the Badger defense can still flourish this season.
"I really think (Purdue defensive coordinator) Brock (Spack) has done a tremendous job with that defense," Alvarez said. "To come back and play as well as they did last year, that's a testament to him and his coaching ability. I thought they were really a good defense last year and obviously with a year under their belt they should be better."
Repetition, repetition for top offensive linemen
With only 11 scholarship offensive linemen on the roster, the Badgers will not have a true two-deep at the five positions this fall.
"What we're going to do… We're not going to prepare a two-deep," Alvarez said. "We're going to prepare three guards and three tackles and rotate them through the practice… And most teams now, won't have a two-deep. If you have three guards who can play and you have three tackles who can play you are all right."
UW had only six offensive linemen participate in every spring practice this year and had to conduct some sessions with as few as seven healthy bodies.
"It was a struggle," said left tackle Joe Thomas, who missed a few spring practices while competing with the UW track team. "We had three tackles rotating with the 1s and 2s basically. It was hard but it got… the guys that hadn't had the No. 1 experience a chance to step in and practice against the No. 1s and get the experience they need in order to play."
The Badgers had 10 linemen on the spring roster; they are slated to have 12 this fall, not including any walk-ons that could be added in fall training camp or when classes begin in September.
Alvarez said UW will still be able to field a scout team offensive line without a problem.
"Just to have someone else up there (on the two-deep) to line up doesn't serve its purpose," Alvarez said. "We're going to get the guys who (are going) to play more of the reps."
In addition to Thomas, the tackles in the rotation will be Kraig Urbik and Danny Kaye, who are competing for the starting right tackle job. The guards will be Jason Palermo, Matt Lawrence and Andy Kemp. For all intents and purposes, Palermo also remains Donovan Raiola's primary backup at center. Look for Marcus Coleman to fill out the spots ‘in the depth' along the line. Coleman has played guard, tackle and center in practice for the Badgers.
"It's going to be tough," Thomas said. "In camp we're going to rotate three tackles for two lines. For us that's just going to mean our reps go up one-and-a-half times… It's going to be a lot harder than it's been in the past just because you can get so many more reps but we're going to have to do it."