Wisconsin scoring defense ranking under Paul Chryst, 2015-present: 1st, 4th, 3rd, 34th (*gasp*), 10th, 9th, 4th.
Now, time for a little blasphemy:
- Jim Leonhard wasn’t DC until 2017, and Dave Aranda doesn’t get enough credit for getting the ball rolling on this run of excellent defense. Bringing him and the 3-4 defense to Madison is indisputably the best decision Gary Andersen made in his two years in Madison (unless it was leaving Wisconsin).
- If UW underachieves this year, it might just be because of the defense. Yes, I’m serious.
Now, before lightning strikes me down, let me say 1) I don’t think UW will underachieve this year, and 2) Aranda started this run, but Leonhard had clearly put his imprint on things, and I don’t want him going anywhere. However...
UW isn’t Ohio State and when you start thinking things are automatic is when you get blindsided. The Badgers have to replace eight starters on defense from last year’s wrecking crew, including a truly dynamic duo at LB: Jack Sanborn (1st team all-B1G) and Leo Chenal (B1G LB of the year). The Badger D may well be elite this year, but they’re going to have to earn it behind some new faces stepping up.
Starters—DE: Isaiah Mullens (SR), Rodas Johnson (JR); NG: Keeanu Benton (SR)
Key reserves—DE: James Thompson, Jr. (JR), Isaac Townsend (JR); NG: Ben Barten (rsSOPH), Gio Paez (JR)
Benton might be the single most important defensive player in the B1G this year. I say this both because of the importance of the NG demanding attention to the UW 3-4 scheme, and because of the the lack of proven depth behind him. But mostly because he’s really fucking good. UW rotates liberally on the D-line, so hopefully either Barten or Paez can step up this year. I have no good reason for thinking that Gio Paez is going to make a leap, especially since he missed the spring with injury, but I still do. If neither he nor Barten are the answer backing up Benton, UW might just move Mullens over.
That probably isn’t the preference though, since Mullens is ready to come into his own at DE. He has plenty of experience including a few starts under his belt and got a lot of praise during the spring. Again, UW likes to rotate, so just view Johnson and Thompson as 2A and 2B, and expect Townsend to get plenty of run, too. If the unit is plagued by injuries, things could go south. But the two-deep looks pretty damn good.
Starters—OLB: Nick Herbig (JR), C.J. Goetz (SR); ILB: Tatum Grass (JR), Jordan Turner (SOPH)
Key reserves—OLB: Kaden Johnson (rsSOPH), Darryl Peterson (rsFR), T.J. Bollers (rsFR); ILB: Jake Chaney (SOPH), Maema Njongmeta (JR), Spencer Lytle (JR)
There’s a ton of (mostly young) talent here, but it’s never great to only have one returning starter back. That said, Herbig is fantastic. Jack Campbell is probably viewed as the best LB in the B1G this year, and he did lead the conference (nation?) in tackles last year. But Herbig had more sacks last year than anybody still playing in the B1G. He’s a perfect fit for what UW wants to do: wreck drives with impact plays. Goetz isn’t as highly touted, and won’t be spectacular, but in his time on the field so far, he’s been effective at cleaning things up, and should be fine, especially with the attention Herbig will receive.
The top reserves are all quite young. Johnson and Bollers were both major signings coming from the backyard of fellow Quadrangle members Minnesota (Johnson) and Iowa (Bollers), but Peterson might get the most playing time this year. Regardless, it’s a pretty fair bet that at least one, and maybe two, will prove they belong and earn significant time.
On the inside, Turner started a couple of games late last year, and the coaches are quite comfortable with him. Maybe not “next Chenal” or “next Sanborn” comfortable, but he should be a good one. Grass is more of a projection, but “solid” would probably be sufficient. Lytle was hurt over much of the spring, but had been moved from OLB to ILB. Either he, Chaney, or Njongmeta should get plenty of snaps.
Starters—Alexander Smith (SR), Jay Shaw (Grad Transfer)
Key reserves—Justin Clark (Grad Transfer), Ricardo Hallman (rsFR), Cedrick Dort, Jr. (Grad Transfer), Semar Melvin (JR)
After losing starters Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks (and seeing likely starter Dean Engram switch to WR), UW leaned heavily into the transfer portal, nabbing Shaw (UCLA), Clark (Toeldo), and Dort (Kentucky). While you can’t expect every transfer to work out, the early returns have been good to great on all three. And Jim Leonhard knows how to coach up the secondary. While it might seem reasonable to think that the transfer from Toledo would be the least B1G ready, don’t be surprised if Clark is UW’s nickel back. Hallman and Melvin both saw some action last year and should be fine in spot duty.
Starters—FS: John Torchio (SR); SS: Hunter Wohler (SOPH)
Key reserves—¯\_(ツ)_/¯ [Okay: Owen Arnett (rsFR), Preston Zachman (rsSOPH), Bryce Carey (JR, transfer), a handful of true freshmen]
Look, this was going to be the least experienced unit already, and then Travian Blaylock, the projected starter at SS, tore his ACL in the spring. Hopefully there is enough duct tape and bailing wire on hand.
Given the situation, there is no bigger question than if Hunter Wohler is ready to fulfill expectations. A four-star recruit in the class of ‘21, Wohler mostly played special teams last year, but did enough in limited defensive reps to be tabbed as a potential breakout player coming into this year. If so, and if he and Torchio stay healthy, this could still be a clear positive for the D. But the margin for error is virtually non-existent. If either starter gets hurt, Leonhard is going to have to get really creative. As I’ve noted a couple of times already this week, it’s a good thing the non-conference seems manageable. But the season-opener in Columbus could be gruesome if the secondary is still a work in progress (or maybe even if it has gelled). And honestly, there’s no good reason to overlook Washington State in week 2.