"I think as a defensive front right now we're playing very well against the run and against the pass," defensive line coach John Palermo said Friday. "So I'm very pleased with the young players at this point."
Before he hurt his right knee on the third day of practice, sophomore Justin Ostrowski looked like the team's best defensive tackle. But with Ostrowski out, Jason Chapman (6-4, 280) has entered the starting lineup at left defensive tackle. Chapman redshirted last season and opened this camp as a second-team defensive end.
"He's a talented individual," Palermo said of Chapman. "He's just now starting to grasp that position and I think do a pretty good job at it…
"But just to replace (Ostrowski) — that's a tough situation to put Chapman in. What I hope is that he can go in there and do the best that he can do right now."
Losing Ostrowski is very significant, especially for a defense as young as UW's. The Badgers still appear to have decent depth along the defensive front, though. And Palermo said that at least for the Sept. 3 opener with Bowling Green, missing Ostrowski will not shake up the rotation too much.
"To be honest with you, for the first game my thoughts were to even play defensive ends at defensive tackle," Palermo said. "Simply because of the spread offense and to get as much speed on the football field as we can get. So really, eventually I was going to move Chapman in there anyway for the first game."
"We are just going to mix and match and try to do the best that we can in preparation for the first game," Palermo said.
Palermo is confident that he knows what the players in his rotation can add to the lineup. Bowling Green's up-tempo spread offense, however, is a quite a departure from UW's offense.
"It's going to be a pretty big transition going against our offense, who is a two-back, slam-it-at-your-[butt] offense, to a spread offense," Palermo said. "So I think obviously the more athletes you can put on the field at one time, as long as they're going to be physical, the better chance you have against a spread offense."
Palermo tries to rotate his defensive linemen in order to keep them fresh. But last season, the NFL-bound starting quartet of Erasmus James, Anttaj Hawthorne, Jason Jefferson and Jonathan Welsh took the vast majority of the reps, with Cooper, Monty, Ostrowski and then-senior Kalvin Barrett regularly working in.
With far less experience now, will it be more of a pure rotation this season?
"I think there will be three ends and three tackles that you say, ‘okay, those are the six guys that you are counting on to be 100 percent ready for the football game,'" Palermo said. "And then there will be another tackle and another end that will be spot players. So we'll probably still end up still playing somewhere in the neighborhood of eight to nine guys."
How that rotation will work, though, remains to be seen. Palermo is still assessing his options, especially as they relate to the opener.
"I think it's still a little up in the air," Palermo said. "I think I'll have to wait until we work on Bowling Green, just to see what certain individuals can do with that spread offense before I make a determination."
Other than Chapman's shift, the starting four has been consistent throughout camp: Nick Hayden at right tackle and Monty and Cooper at the ends. Those four players will definitely have a prominent place in the rotation, against Bowling Green and throughout the season.
"At what positions right now I don't know," Palermo said.
Ware looks like the No. 5 lineman currently. In addition to serving the second team at defensive end, he has rotated in with the first defense, at times spelling Cooper on run downs and Monty on pass downs. He is also taking some reps at tackle.
"He's playing end in our base stuff and he's playing tackle in our nickel stuff," Palermo said. "So, yeah, he does have a place and he's an individual that's made a great deal of improvement…
"He's very athletic and is 286 pounds right now. So he's big enough to play inside and quick enough to play out."
Cruse may have been buried on the depth chart had Ostrowski and true freshman defensive tackle Jeff Stehle remained healthy. Stehle missed several practices with a shoulder injury, but returned to action Monday. Palermo said Friday, though, that he now expected Stehle to redshirt. Prior to his injury, however, Stehle looked like he was edging ahead of Cruse on the depth.
"There are certain things you have to do to motivate kids and giving Jeff reps was a way to motivate Gino," Palermo said.
Cruse still creates moments of frustration for Palermo, but he has shown improvement this fall and appears to be taking advantage of the regular reps he has received since Stehle's injury.
"I'm on his [butt] all the time, but he's been a very pleasant surprise, particularly [Friday] morning he had his best practice," Palermo said. "Gino made a bunch of plays [Friday] and did it the right way. I'm encouraged by that. I'm not 100 percent sold yet but I'm encouraged by the progress that he's made…
"If he does what he's supposed to I really like him. And when he doesn't I don't like him.. .
"If he'll continue to stay focused, he can help us."
"Danny Cascone's got a way to go," Palermo said. "He's got to lose a little weight and he's got to get a little bit stronger. Jeff Stehle I thought was really making progress before he hurt his shoulder. So I could see him down the road being a pretty good player for us."