Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Defensive Line

Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Defensive Line

Football

Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Defensive Line

Main Story – Developing Starting Ends

There’s no question Wisconsin has an embarrassment of riches on the offensive side of the ball, returning experienced position players at quarterback, running back, fullback, wide receiver, tight end and all five offensive line spots.

When the focus flips to the defensive side of the ball, the script is completely reversed and the biggest question mark could be the group in the trenches.

After having tremendous depth at the defensive end position with Chikwe Obasih, Alec James and Conor Sheehy, the latter two on N.F.L. training camp rosters, Wisconsin and defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield already knew the group would be in transition. Throw in injuries to its two most significant returning players and the performance in the trenches could be the team’s biggest question mark.

Rand, who has played in 28 games and recorded 13 tackles last season, was set to move to end after playing nose tackle in his first two seasons, but suffered an Achilles injury during summer workouts and will miss the entire season.

To make matters worse, sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk, the other projected starter at defensive end, missed all of fall camp and the first game of the season with a knee injury. The 6-7 sophomore is expected to return Saturday against New Mexico and increase his reps entering the start of conference play. Loudermilk’s long reach has proved to be an impact player in situational play, recording 11 tackles, including six solo stops, 1.5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks.

Needing more than Loudermilk to make things work, Breckterfield entered fall camp with a youthful group that primarily includes Aaron Vopal, Kraig Howe, David Pfaff and Keldric Preston. Those four have played in a combined seven games and made two tackles, none of which came outside of nonconference play.

Because of that shortage in depth, Wisconsin’s coaches approached redshirt freshman offensive lineman Kayden Lyles about a potential position switch earlier this summer. The 323-pound Lyles would be buried on the depth chart of the line this upcoming season and he has the physical ability to make an impact on the unit.

Getting urging from senior nose guard, and roommate, Olive Sagapolu, Lyles made the switched, opened fall camp lined up as the defensive ends on UW’s No. 1 unit and finished the season’s first game with two tackles.

The uncertainty of the position also allowed Brecketerfield to give all of his position players a fair shot, something redshirt freshman Matt Henningsen took advantage of in fall camp. Choosing to walk on over scholarship offers from Buffalo, Northern Illinois and a host of others, the Menomonee Falls native starting taking first-team reps during the Badgers’ fifth practice in fall camp after improving his footwork, hand placement and physicality during the summer.

That growth made Henningsen a sure bet to play meaningful snaps when UW opens its season against Western Kentucky. He did his job with four tackles and limited outside chunk plays.

Even when Loudermilk returns, two inexperienced players will get the bulk of the work in the early weeks of the season. The performance of those players will go a long way into silencing or increasing the questions about whether UW can put enough pressure on opposing offenses to benefit the back end of the defense, a unit that has been one of the nation’s best in recent years.

Subplot – UW’s Depth at Nose Tackle

As badly as Wisconsin is struggling with its experience on the ends, the Badgers are able to anchor that youth around senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. Having made 38 tackles and 4.5 tackles in 36 career games, Sagapolu started 10 games last season and was a key contributor to a unit that ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense (262.1 yards per game), No. 3 in scoring defense (13.9 points per game), No. 3 in rushing defense (98.4 ypg) and No. 1 in pass efficiency defense (96.4).

But with Rand out for the season, true freshman Bryson Williams may stand as the lone player who could serve as a quality backup behind Sagapolu. Knowing UW needed to find Sagapolu’s replacement on the recruiting trail last year, Wisconsin made Williams one of its main focuses when recruiting that position.

Williams was squeezed out by some programs because college staffs thought he wasn’t big/physical enough at 290 pounds to play nose or tall enough to transition to defensive end. Those programs that saw through that saw a three-sport athlete who has a quick first step, good agility and is really athletic for his size (a 4.85 40-yard dash and a 30.5-inch vertical). He has the physical strength to battle in the middle of the trenches, squatting over 500 pounds and benching over 350 and, most importantly, plays hard. Scouts have compared Williams to current Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Not surprisingly, Breckterfield – Donald’s college coach at Pittsburgh – took a shine to him. It’s not hard to see why.

Named first-team all-state as a junior and senior, Williams finished three-year varsity career with 195 total tackles, including 77 tackles, three sacks and four rushing touchdowns as a senior. That kind of athleticism was one of the big reasons why new Nebraska head coach Scott Frost came in with a late scholarship offer, one that Williams appreciated but ultimately turned down.

Williams was slotted as the No. 2 nose tackle on the first day of spring, further cementing his place as Sagapolu backup this season and his replacement at the position in 2019. Question is now how well he can adapt to taking on college offensive linemen.

Stat to Know

Over the last five seasons (2013-17), Wisconsin ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring defense (16.1 ppg), total defense (286.2 ypg), rushing defense (104.4 ypg) and pass efficiency defense (106.0). Alabama led the nation in scoring defense (14.5 ppg), total defense (282.3 ypg) and rushing defense (87.8 ypg) over those five years, while Clemson (105.6) ranked No. 1 in pass efficiency defense.

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