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Wisconsin Badgers Football: 2019 is a Bounceback Year for the Defense

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At least that’s what we’re all hoping

We’ve reached the part of the week where we preview and discuss the rosters, expectations, and hopes for the Wisconsin defense for the 2019 season. Before we get to the breakdown, let’s take a moment to appreciate the most valuable player for the defense the past few seasons: the 3-4 defense.

By far the best thing about the Gary Andersen era was Dave Aranda and his transitioning the defense from a base 4-3 to a 3-4 defense—a defense Wisconsin has continued to use since Andersen’s first season. Just how valuable has the 3-4 defense been over the years? Below are the S&P+ rankings for every Wisconsin defense over the past ten years. For reference, 2013 was Andersen’s/Aranda’s first season, and 2018 was last season.

Wisconsin Defensive S&P+ Ranking By Year

Year Defensive S&P+
Year Defensive S&P+
2009 32
2010 40
2011 36
2012 12
2013 11
2014 15
2015 4
2016 7
2017 4
2018 29
The 3-4 arrived in 2013

So the numbers don’t line up perfectly (damn you, 2012!), but since Wisconsin transitioned to the 3-4, the defense has only had one season worse than 15th. Looking at these numbers, it is surprising the 2018 defense rated that well, because it sure didn’t look great to the amateur naked eye. The 3-4 defense has spoiled Wisconsin fans so much that an objectively pretty good defense seemed miserable compared to the prior five seasons.

Clearly and mathematically, then, the 3-4 defense simply had an uncharacteristically poor season in 2018, and we here at the OTE Wisconsin writer’s lounge attribute that to the 3-4 playing with an undisclosed injury. An offseason to recover should have the 3-4 right back where we all want it to be: as one of the top two defenses in the conference. Who’s going to help make that happen?

The Linebackers

Projected Starters: Zach Baun, Sr. (OLB), Noah Burks, Jr. (OLB), Chris Orr, Sr. (ILB), Jack Sanborn, So. (ILB)

Cal Sport Media

Since the implementation of the 3-4, no positional group has excelled more than the linebackers. Every year Wisconsin loses a couple, every year the new guys are just as good or better. 2018’s group is the lone exception, as injuries, lack of D Line help, and other reasons limited their effectiveness in a big way.

2019 is going to be a bounceback year for one of the consistently best-ish units in the conference. Baun and Orr have done some good things over their careers, but they’ll have to step up as the #1 guys at their positions. And seriously, the defensive line should be a lot better this year, hopefully eating up blocks and applying pressure to free up the constantly blitzing linebackers to get at the quarterback.

The Secondary

PS: Rachad Wildgoose, So. (DB), Faion Hicks, So. (DB), Scott Nelson, So. (S), Eric Burrell, Jr. (S)

Wisconsin’s secondary is young, surprisingly experienced, and very, very deep (at cornerback). In addition to Wildgoose and Hicks, Wisconsin boasts six defensive backs who played at least four games in 2018. Despite extreme youth in the secondary in 2018, the unit played well as a whole. D’Cota Dixon is gone, but Scott Nelson showed himself capable of making a lot of great plays as a safety, even though he, like everyone else on the defense, had injuries following him around all season.

As with the linebackers, and improved defensive line should help the secondary. Even the best defenders can’t stop a wide receiver when the quarterback isn’t getting pressured. With so many cornerbacks having experience coming into 2019, this should be an interesting group to watch. Jim Leonard (probably) isn’t scared to tweak playing time and starters to make sure the best players are out there, and there are a lot of guys who’ll want more playing time than they’re getting at the start of the season.

The Defensive Line

PS: Isaiahh Loudermilk, Jr. (DE), Garrett Rand, Jr. (DE), Bryson Williams, So. (NT)

Getting Garrett Rand back after missing all of 2018 is huge for this defense. Not only is he an ox that can play all three positions, but after these three guys there isn’t much of anything in the mold of proven commodities that can step in. Last year after Rand went down, Wisconsin moved an offensive lineman, Kayden Lyles, over to defense, and he actually ended up playing a lot. Not...not ideal. But this starting lineup is a force to be reckoned with and offers no glaring weaknesses.

From a depth perspective, this is a group that could potentially see some new names rotate in and contribute. Boyd Dietzen, Isaiah Mullens, Rodas Johnson, and Keeanu Benton are all redshirt or true freshmen that are capable of seeing early playing time. If they don’t break through early on, Matt Henningsen, Aaron Vopal, and David Pfaff were able to get meaningful snaps last season.

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