Spring Preview: Defense

With spring football getting into full swing this week for the University of Wisconsin, Badger Nation preview the main units. First is the defense, where UW needs to find starters on the defensive line, find healthy bodies at linebacker and build more chemistry in the secondary.

MADISON - The big ‘to-do' last spring Defensive Line Coach Charlie Partridge was finding eight capable bodies that can provide a ever-changing, and fresh, rotation on the defensive line.

This spring is the same idea, except the thing Partridge needs now is starters. On the flip side, when junior lineman J.J. Watt hears people question the players on the line, he feels like his group has all the answers.

"Last year, people thought the defensive line was going to be a weakness," Watt said. "This year, people think the defensive line is going to be a weakness. Really, that's fine by us because the media and all that, they see stuff from the outside. We see a Wednesday morning 6 a.m. workouts, guys watching tons of film at nights, guys working our in the weight room and trying new moves every single day. When you put in all that type of work and preparation for the season, you are not going to let yourself down by being a weakness.

"Trust me, we're not going to let the defensive line be a weakness. The defensive line is where it all starts for the defense. If we can provide a strong defensive line, the rest of the defense will follow."

The rotation lived up to the billing last season, as the Badgers led the Big Ten and ranked fifth nationally against the run in 2009 (88.2 ypg), a number that was what it was because Wisconsin didn't allow a single Big Ten team to rush for over 100 yards.

The numbers were low because of O'Brien Schofield's 24.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks, Dan Moore's 21 tackles, two sacks and Jeff Stehle's 19 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks. Those three players are gone, along with two other reserves in the middle of the line.

"We need to find interior defensive lineman," Head Coach Bret Bielema said. "It's going to be interesting to see who emerges out of that group."

The two players Bielema and Partridge are counting on are juniors Patrick Butrym and J.J. Watt. Butrym is coming off his best season with the Badgers, registering 24 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and an interception, and was one of the key contributors in the rotation.

The jury is still out on Watt and if the coaching staff is going to move him to the interior. A highly versatile player for Wisconsin, Watt's season at defensive end was overshadowed by the outstanding play of Schofield, but the Pewaukee native had 44 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks while emerging as a leader in the locker room and the weight room.

What has to excite Badger Nation, however, is that the junior still has room to grow, and has spent the majority of the offseason watching NFL film and meticulously critiquing every one of his pass rushes and plays he had.

"Last year, my pass rush wasn't up to snuff," Watt said. "OB had most of our sacks for the defensive line, so I want to step up my game in that area. I want to continue to get better in the run game and enhance myself overall as a player."

Next to Watt and Butrym, the Badgers have seen redshirt freshman Jordan Kohout (who enrolled last spring and has transformed his body) and Eriks Briedis (fully healthy after a neck problem and weighs in at 275 pounds) take positive steps.

Other x-factors this spring is redshirt Tyler Dippel, who had recovered from an ACL tear and can play both inside and outside on the line, and walk-on Ethan Hemer, the scout team player of the year that has transformed his body in a positive direction.

The Badgers will look toward junior Louis Nzegwu (3.5 sacks) and sophomore David Gilbert (who was a standout on special teams after enrolling last spring) to provide some pressure on the outside. If breakdowns occur out there, those standout run-stopping numbers will be a memory.

"We're really chomping at the bit (to get back on the field)," Watt said. "The Miami game left a good taste in our mouths, and we want to get back out there to capitalize on the gains we made last year and capitalize the games we made so far in the offseason.

"We have a ton of great young guys on the defensive line and we're going to have a big rotation like last year so everyone stays fresh."

Linebackers

With Freshman Player of the Year Chris Borland and the up-and-coming Mike Taylor missing spring practices while recovering from their surgeries, eyes will be on Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorensen to set the pace for a unit that will have a lot of young players rotate through.

St. Jean, who started at middle linebacker for the first 11 games, finished second on the team with 64 tackles while Sorensen, who split time with St. Jean at the Mike, added 40 tackles.

While there are few questions with the quarterback of the defense, the absence of Jae McFadden (team-leader with 74 tackles and started every game at strongside linebacker), both weakside backers, the transfer of Leonard Hubbard to Illinois State and the suspension of Nick Hill means the Badgers will see plenty of young faces.

Junior linebacker Kevin Rouse, highly recruited out of high school, is finally healthy and will get a chance to play his way into the rotation; sophomore walk-on Matthew Groff and redshirt freshman Ethan Armstrong will see the most reps of their young careers and redshirt A.J. Fenton has benefited greatly from his redshirt season, being able to focus on one position.

The Badgers still need depth, which seems to be the primary reason the coaching staff moved junior Kevin Claxton from strong safety (where he played sparingly his first two seasons) to linebacker in hopes of utilizing his talent.

"We really feel that's been a good move for him to this point," Bielema said of Claxton. "We'll try to figure out what he can do during the spring."

Secondary

If there ever had been a Jekyll and Hyde group all season, it would have to been the secondary. After giving up 396 passing yards in a win over Michigan State, the Badgers limited their next four opponents to an average of 164 passing yards, a run punctuated by holding Purdue to season lows of 81 passing yards and 141 total yards.

After giving up 323 passing yards to Indiana, UW responded by holding Michigan, then the conference's top-scoring offense, to just seven second-half points, only to be picked apart by Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka a week later, being torched UW for 364 passing yards in a two-point loss.

How do the Badgers' respond against one of the top pass offenses in the country two weeks later – they limited Hawaii to just 197 yards through the air, their lowest total of the season.

Under first-year secondary coach Chris Ash, Wisconsin returns its two main cornerbacks – senior Niles Brinkley and junior Devin Smith – from last season, a group that had their share of ups and downs since being named UW's starting cornerbacks prior to the Purdue game. The year of experience will certainly be beneficial.

"One of the main reasons that I hired Chris was for his teaching abilities and what he can bring to the table as far as a technician and teaching kids how to play the game," Ash said. "Especially the way that we approach spring ball from the beginning, the first two practices, almost half of it is dedicated to fundamental work so you really get a chance to see his hands-on touch and see how the players respond."

Junior Antonio Fenelus has a lot to prove after a couple step backs in 2009. A standout special teams player his freshman year, Fenelus started from week three to week eight, but his struggles in coverage forced the coaches to start Brinkley in front of him. Fenelus started well on the first day of spring camp, registering an interception during 7-on-7.

Fenelus wasn't the best pick pocket of the day, as sophomore Marcus Cromartie notched two knockdowns and a pair of interceptions during the drill, the second of which jumping a pass route thrown by Curt Phillips.

This spring will also be vital for junior Aaron Henry, who was not himself after missing the entire 08 season recovering from an ACL tear. Henry never got his swagger back at the corner position and was eventually moved to the safety position late in the season to get reps.

With team captain Chris Maragos having graduated, Henry will start camp as the first-team free safety opposite senior Jay Valai (51 tackles, 3.5 TFLs), another player hoping to bounce back from a so-so season.

"He's definitely got the chance to be the guy," Bielema said of Henry. "It's in his hands and we'll see what he decides to do with it. There's going to be some other guys. We've moved a couple of corners around to see if they can give us some experience or a chance to do something as well."

The two guys Bielema referred to are redshirt freshman Dezmen Southward and converted linebacker Conor O'Neill, two former St. Thomas Aquinas players the Badgers will likely try at cornerback and free safety, respectively, for now to see what happens.

"Dez in particular is so raw," Bielema said. "He played basketball his first three years of high school. He's got great savvy, is very tough on our scout team. He's been limited because of his hand. We're going to keep him at corner. If we line up all 88 guys on the goal line and run a 40-yard sprint, I bet you he might win the race. He's very gifted, very athletic, very talented.

"We recruited Conor as a linebacker but because of depth and because of what we saw, the defensive coaches really wanted to give him a chance at safety. He worked there during bowl prep, and has looked good. We're excited to see what he can bring to the table at safety."


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