Bright side: Switching to a 3-3-5 shouldn’t be too big of a deal for Wisconsin because they were already running a 3-4. You’re basically swapping out an LB for an additional DB. The front 3, even without Keeanu Benton, brings back a lot of talent and experience, and there’s plenty of proven talent in most spots. UW’s defense was better than it looked last year (and they were still 17th in scoring) as they were often playing from behind. All else being equal, there’s every reason to think the Badgers will continue to be a very hard team for most opponents to score on.
Not-so-bright side: It’s still a significant change in scheme. Wisconsin’s calling card on D has been the linebacking corps, and now you’re taking one of them off the field. While there is plenty of talent back, Benton and Nick Herbig were the two best defenders last year, and now they’re both Steelers. Where the Badgers have the least talent coming back is the secondary, the unit where an additional defender will be coming from. Oh, and don’t underestimate the impact of the change in offensive philosophy. Wisconsin’s D has been legit for most of the last decade, but it doesn’t hurt when you offense is leading the nation in time of possession. That’s probably not happening this year, so the D will be on the field for more plays.
Honestly, that last point bothers me the most. The best way to play great defense is not to have to play defense too often, especially while trailing. Wisconsin isn’t going to start giving up 40 ppg just because the D is on the field for an extra couple of drives per game. But there are several teams in the West—Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois—who will be happy to play position ball, bend, but don’t break against the Air Raid, and let the chips fall.
But the 3-3-5 is coming, so let’s look at the personnel.
- Starters: DE Rodas Johnson (SR), DE Isaiah Mullens (GR), NT Gio Paez (SR)
- In the rotation: DE James Thompson, Jr. (JR), DE Cade McDonald (JR), DE Darian Varner (JR), NT Curt Neal (rsFR)
The starters are all experienced and accomplished. Paez is frankly underrated, as is foreseeable for anybody who had to back up Benton. His health will be key as Neal projects to have a really bright future, but is still pretty green. Keep an eye on Varner, a transfer from Temple who was first-team All-AAC last year. Varner was headed to Virginia Tech before changing his mind and coming to Madison. He had 12.5 TFL last year and could add some disruption to a DL whose job is usually just to absorb traffic so the LBs can run wild.
If UW goes with two down lineman, they’re still going to be rotating quite frequently, but Neal and McDonald would seem likeliest to lose snaps.
- Starters: OLB Darryl Peterson (Soph), ILB Maema Njongmeta (SR), ILB Jordan Turner (SR)
- In the rotation: OLB C.J. Goetz (GR), OLB Jeff Pietrowski (JR), OLB T.J. Bollers (Soph), OLB Kaden Johnson (JR), ILB Jake Chaney (JR), ILB Tatum Grass (SR)
My two down linemen comment above was meant to reflect that it’s going to be hard to only have three of these guys on the field at a time. Goetz was the fourth starter last year, and he’s likely to see as much playing time as Peterson. Njongmeta had the best season last year of anybody in this group, and Turner was the defensive MVP of the bowl victory.
Pietrowski transferred in from Michigan State and could make noise if fully healthy. He was one of Sparty’s better LB’s in 2021. Bollers was a recruiting coup out of small town Iowa and may be ready to assert himself. He’s pushing 270 lbs, so could get deployed as an edge type on occasion. Time will tell. And the coaching staff seems to really like Chaney, as he ran with the first-team a fair amount this spring.
Starters: CB Alexander Smith (GR), CB Ricardo Hallman (Soph), CB Jason Maitre (GR), S Travian Blaylock (GR), S Hunter Wohler (JR),
In the rotation: CB Nyzier Fourqurean (JR), CB Max Lofy (JR), CB Jonas Duclona (FR), CB Jace Arnold (FR), CB Amare Snowden (FR), S Kamo’i Latu (SR), S Austin Brown (Soph)
Look, am I excited that Sauce Gardner is the prototype for what the new coaching staff is looking for in their CBs? Hell yes. Is there anybody remotely at that level on the roster? Probably not. But the future looks bright.
Smith and Hallman are both proven commodities. Hallman got picked on by MSU last year, but has really stepped up lately, having a great spring. Maitre is a transfer from Boston College and has pretty much locked down the nickel corner spot, though he’s capable of playing almost anywhere in the secondary.
Beyond that, though, there are question marks. Duclona and Arnold got plenty of run this spring as early enrollees, which is both encouraging and a sign that depth is an issue. A healthy Lofy (he missed spring) would help, but the Badgers also went out and landed Fourqurean as a transfer from Grand Valley State. A D-II All-American last year, Fourqurean was headed to Vandy until his former HC, Matt Mitchell, who is now the OLB and ST coach at UW, reached out. Finally I listed Snowden, a true frosh who did not enroll early. He’s way back in the pecking order, but was more highly rated than either Duclona or Arnold, and he’ll get every chance to prove he belongs higher on the depth chart. Plus, he’s 6’3” so I’m already expecting him to be the next Sauce Gardner.
At safety, Blaylock, Wohler, and Latu are all starter caliber and they’ll all see the field plenty as the staff likes to roll out the “dollar” (6 DBs) defense with some regularity. Blaylock missed last year with injury and, if healthy, should be a great addition. Wohler was the #2 in-state prospect in the ‘21 class, one spot ahead of Braelon Allen, and might explode into an All-B1G contributor this year. Seriously, keep an eye on him. He’s basically an LB with safety athleticism. And Latu might rack up the most tackles of anybody in the secondary.