The similarities heading into the 2009 and 10 season breath hope. Defensive Line Coach Charlie Partridge had the challenging task of replacing three senior starters – Jason Chapman, Mike Newkirk and Matt Shaughnessy – with a group of inexperience unknowns.
That group of unknowns turned out to be strength with Schofield (24.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks), Dan Moore (21 tackles, two sacks), Jeff Stehle (19 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks) and reserves Dan Cascone and Jordan Hein bogged down the middle of the line.
As a result, Wisconsin's defensive line led the Big Ten and ranked fifth in the country in rushing defense, allowing just 88.2 yards per game on the ground. The Badgers held each of their last ten opponents to less than 100 yards rushing, the longest streak in the country last season and the longest streak in school history.
Now the Badgers are bringing back two starters (defensive end J.J. Watt and defensive tackle Patrick Butrym) and add a brand new cast of inexperienced unknowns. It's hard to view the line as a strength in 2010. Of course, it wasn't supposed to be that good last year either.
"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."
What people saw last year was a standout senior defensive end that created chaos, but what people missed was the overshadowed performance by Watt. Becoming a highly-versatile player for Wisconsin, the once tight end from Central Michigan finished his first season on the defensive line with 44 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, emerging as a leader in the locker room and the weight room.
"Just his story to get here, his drive is second to none," Partridge said. "His internal drive … he's never satisfied. He's never satisfied with how a practice goes … ever. He analyses himself to a degree that most young men his age just can't or don't have the maturity to do so. That's why he continues to get better, even when he is competing at a high level."
If Watt is one cornerstone of the foundation, Butrym is the other big piece of the puzzle. Coming off his best season with the Badgers, Butrym was in a three-man rotation with Moore and Stehle and still managed to register 24 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and an interception.
Next to Butrym in the interior, the Badgers will rely heavily on redshirt freshman Jordan Kohout. Hailing from Waupun, Kohout was a key member of the 2008 recruiting class and enrolled in January 2009 to take part in spring drills. After seeing his head spin throughout his first year, Kohout's second spring practice and looks more like a fish in water after a year of adjustment.
"He has shown glimpses of being a great player, and he will get it," Butrym said in the spring. "The freshmen — right now they are usually nervous about screwing up, and I really haven't seen that from Jordan. He has done a really good job with that. He will continue to progress."
On the opposite end, the Badgers hope junior Louis Nzegwu can continue to stay healthy and progress in a positive manner. Nzegwu, one of Watt's roommates, had three sacks in the spring game. More importantly, Nzegwu has started to model and show glimpses of his predecessor, Schofield, imitating the way Schofield attacked the offseason to go from being a good player to a great player.
Sophomore David Gilbert, a standout on special teams after enrolling last spring, adds depth at the position, and fought tooth and nail with Nzegwu to earn playing time. Sophomore Brendan Kelly is also in the mix after missing time the last two seasons with hand and groin injuries but like stated, he needs to stay healthy.
Walk-on Ethan Hemer, redshirt freshman Tyler Dippel and freshman Warren Herring are other options after having strong finishes to the spring. Hemer was UW's Defensive Scout Player of the Year, Dippel has allowed a torn ACL injury to fully heal and Herring got his feet wet after enrolling at semester and working extensively with Partridge.
Still, the Badgers are still looking for depth, which might come in the form of incoming freshmen Beau Allen and Kyle Costigan. Recruited as a two-way lineman, Costigan has added upwards of 40 pounds since he got his full scholarship offer, forcing Bielema to try him as a defensive tackle to see if he can be the spark plug.
While the Badgers didn't know what Costigan was going to do, the coaching staff has had high hopes for Allen since he committed back in December. The tackle from Minnetonka has lived up to that reputation through summer workouts. Watt called him the most prepared freshman lineman he's seen and senior safety Jay Valai texted Bielema just to tell him that Allen is a freshman that gets what UW is trying to do.
"Good players recognize good players," Bielema said. "It doesn't necessarily mean watching their skill set, it's just the way they carry themselves, the way they do drill work. I think that makes a big statement."
After the big win over Miami gave the team a good taste in their mouths heading into the offseason, the defense, specifically Watt, is chomping at the bit to get back out there and prove people wrong all over again.
"We want to get back out there to capitalize on the gains we made last year and capitalize on the gains we made so far in the offseason," Watt said. "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."
The likely scenario
In order to be successful, Wisconsin needs to have a lot of healthy bodies rotating into the mix. We saw what a lack of depth accomplished in 2008 and what an eight-man rotation did in 2009. The more healthy bodies that can come in, put pressure on the quarterback and give studs like Watt a breathier, the better.
Even before the transfer of Tyler Westphal and the dismissal of Shelby Harris, depth was going to be an issue for this team. Watt would be vital to UW's success this season stopping the run and relieving stress on the passing game. He doesn't have to equal Schofield's monster season, but he'll have to put up similar numbers and hope the combination of Nzegwu-Gilbert on the end can provide some semblance of consistency.
The reason Stehle and Moore were so good last season is because they had Butrym, Hein and Cascone backing them up. With Butrym and Kohout being the starters, and have the potential to be just as good as last year's combo, the question is who will back them up? Allen is a likely choice, but he's only a freshman and doubtful to be super human.
Another player that could help is Pat Muldoon, a redshirt freshman from St. Xavier High in Cincinnati. Muldoon tore his ACL during his redshirt season, but is 100 percent healthy heading into this camp. Muldoon, like Allen, was highly recruited out of high school and a natural athlete. Question is: can be ready after missing so much time?