Spring Position Preview: Defensive Line

With the Wisconsin football team starting its 15-spring practice slate this week, Badger Nation dives into the position battles. Next, we focus on the defensive line, a position that returns only one starter, but has plenty of talented prospects waiting in the wings.

MADISON – When told about UW offensive line coach Bob Bostad's goal of having his starting five set by the end of spring camp and if he had a similar goal, defensive line coach Charlie Partridge wasn't shy about disagreeing.

Make no mistake about it, Partridge wants his players to step in and claim the three vacant spots on the defensive line. What Partridge really wants is to develop a seven or eight-man rotation on the defensive line, allowing him to constantly send fresh, capable players in to wear down opposing offenses.

"You've got to have seven to accomplish the things you want to accomplish and that is where the positions are just different," Partridge said. "It's my goal to come out of spring with seven or eight guys that can roll as we need."

Does Partridge have the tools at his disposal to make his dream a reality?

"There are so many unanswered questions with three starters leaving the group, ask me in five practices," Partridge said with a big grin.

Fair enough.

With the exception of senior O'Brien Schofield, Wisconsin has a limited amount of game experience returning in 2009, as graduated seniors Jason Chapman, Mike Newkirk and Matt Shaughnessy were fixtures on the defensive line over the course of their respective careers, starting a combined 120 career games and 39 games a year ago.

Schofield, after switching from linebacker to defensive end, has experienced tremendous growth since he started the 2008 Outback Bowl. Starting all 13 games in 2008, Schofield was the team co-leader with five sacks and ranked third on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss.

"The Outback Bowl, I was just getting into the rhythm of things and now, I feel I have knowledge with a year under my belt and playing the entire season," Schofield said. "I learned from those guys (the three graduated seniors) and I got a little bit of leadership and experience under my belt."

With Schofield returning at one defensive end spot, the other end spot is up for debate. Through two open practices, the two players that have emerged have been redshirt freshman Brendan Kelly, freshman Anthony Mains and redshirt sophomore Louis Nzegwu.

Kelly was in the rotation last season as a true freshman, registering five tackles in playing in three of the team's first four games. Prior to the Ohio State game, Kelly suffered an injury to his hand when it got caught in a lineman's facemask and caused him to have surgery, but received a medical redshirt that allowed him not to lose a year of eligibility.

Mains redshirted last season and has put on considerable muscle mass since arriving to campus. Going in the wrong direction, however, has been Nzegwu. Appearing in 11 games last season, mostly on special teams, Nzegwu's work ethic has been the biggest thing holding him back, as he led the team last spring in ‘loafs' and has struggled early in spring camp.

"Louis needs to get going," Partridge said. "He's no longer a running back. Those years are far enough gone where you need to see the fruits of his labor."

Moving inside, all the Wisconsin coaching staff has talked about over the past year is J.J. Watt and the contributions he is bringing to the table. Transferring from Central Michigan and moving to defensive tackle, Watt, who has started this spring with the second team defense, spent the year getting acclimated to the defense, studying film and with three years of eligibility remaining, is looking to make an impact now rather than later.

"It's a great experience (redshirting) but I definitely glad that year is up," said Watt, who was named UW's scout defensive player of the year. "It was a lot of fun, but now my time us here where I can earn a spot and get to work for real. I have been waiting for a long time."

Moving inside, the starting unit has been fifth-year senior Jeff Stehle, who has appeared in 25 career games and was a second-string tackle last season, and senior Dan Moore, a JUCO transfer that overcame a serious knee injury last spring to play in all 13 games at defensive end and register 19 tackles

Moore's size (6-foot-2, 270 pounds) made him a prime candidate to move to the inside, a move that looks to have potential thus far.

Backing up Moore is sophomore Patrick Butrym, another 2008 backup that has put on considerable size since coming to campus.

Other players in the fold are Eriks Breidis and Peter Konz, both of whom redshirted last season, redshirt freshman Ricky Wagner, who came to UW as a tight end but switched to defense after experiencing a major growth spurt, and seniors Jordan Hein, a former wrestler at UW, and Dan Cascone.

Two other defensive line prospects are both newcomers to the UW program – David Gilbert and Jordan Kohout. Kohout, who will play at tackle, is a four-star tackle and ranked 17th in the country by Scout.com from Waupun is up to 260 pounds and is starting to make strides at the position.

Gilbert, a talented, three-star end from Florida, has added roughly 20 pounds to his frame since stepping on campus and has already been thrown into the mix, working with the second team defense on Saturday.

After losing Kirk DeCremer and Brandon Hoey to career-ending injuries the past two seasons and leaving the Badgers incredibly thin along the line, Wisconsin and Partridge are starting to cultivate some young talent to make his dream of a constant-rotating defensive line closer to a reality.

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