The Wisconsin Badgers head into 2010 brimming with confidence after a 10-3 2009 campaign that included a dominating 20-14 win over Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl.
However, despite playing probably their best game of the entire season against the Hurricanes, the one big question for 2010 is Wisconsin's defense. Now, their performance in the bowl game certainly gave fans some hope for next year, but is it indicative of how they'll play next year or was it just an anomaly in a season where, for the most part, Wisconsin's defense was a weak spot?
In 2009, Wisconsin gave up almost 22 points a game and if they hope to compete for the Big Ten title next year, that average has to decrease.
Although Wisconsin does have the majority of its starters returning next year, it loses maybe their three most important players on defense.
DE O'Brien Schofield, LB Jaevery McFadden, and S Chris Maragos are all gone next year and none of them will easily be replaced.
Fortunately for Wisconsin, they have some promising reserve players capable to take their place along with a handful of incoming freshmen.
Although the 2010 class is by no means star-studded (Wisconsin's never is), there are a few prospects that could make an impact in the near future.
By far the most promising of the incoming recruits is DT Beau Allen , who I highlighted in a previous article .
Allen isn't the only defensive lineman that Wisconsin is bringing in however. By far the strongest part of last year's defense, the defensive line is key to Wisconsin's defensive scheme and since Schofield is gone, it has never been more important for the Badgers to bring in young talent up front.
Joining Allen in the 2010 class at defensive tackle are Kyle Costigan and Bryce Gilbert.
Costigan, a 6-5, 265-pound two-star recruit out of Muskego, WI will have to have bulk up if he wants to play defensive tackle. At 265 pounds, he is undersized by about 30 pounds and he will either have to convert to end or gain that weight if he hopes to line up against the giant offensive lines of the Big Ten.
Gilbert, a three-star recruit out of Brookfield Central High School, has more of defensive tackle build than Costigan. Although he's only 277 pounds, Gilbert is also three inches shorter than Costigan and will use his smaller stature to get low on offensive lineman and clog up the middle.
As a junior, Gilbert had 51 tackles and seven sacks and could see a little bit of playing time next year in mop-up duty or if one of the starters needs a breather.
The Badgers also add a few defensive ends to next year's class. Sherard Cadogan, Jake Irwin, and Konrad Zagzebski all join the 2010 class with the hopes of seeing some possible playing time next year.
With Schofield's departure, one end position is open and there is no clear favorite for who will fill that spot.
With Chris Borland's performance in the Champs Sports Bowl, it is certainly a possibility that he could fill that role, but he is also a valuable linebacker and would need to drop back in coverage in some situations. With so much uncertainty heading into next year, all three of these recruits have a chance at earning a starting spot immediately.
And seeing how all three are three-star recruits, I'd say it's going to be a pretty fierce battle.
Cadogan, a 6-3, 230-pound freak of an athlete out of Cherry Hill, NJ, actually played outside linebacker while in high school and could be a speed rusher much like Schofield was. He ran a 4.6 40-yard dash and recorded 70 tackles and 12 sacks as senior at Camden Catholic High.
Irwin, a 6-5, 255-pound end out of Waunakee, also has a decent shot at some playing time. Irwin will be making a quick return to Camp Randall after his high school team won the Division II State Championship on the same field in 2009.
Zagzebski, Wisconsin's first commitment for the 2010 class, also has a realistic shot at starting. Originally committing to Minnesota, Zagzebski backed out and committed to Wisconsin in April. However, at only 225 pounds Zabzebski is extremely undersized. The D.C. Everest standout must put on some weight if he wants to live up to the hype he's getting (No. 41 DE in his class).
Joining the defensive lineman are a few good linebacking prospects as well. Mennasseh Garner, Josh Harrison, Cody Byers, and Cameron Ontko join a linebacking unit that played well in 2009, but are losing its leader, Jaevery McFadden.
McFadden led the team in tackles last year with 74 and also recorded one sack. However, the rest of the linebackers performed extremely well and there would probably have to be an injury or severe underachievement for any of 2010's recruits to see much playing time. Culmer St. Jean, Chris Borland, Mike Taylor, and Blake Sorensen will all compete for the three starting positions.
However, all four of the incoming 'backers have a bright future ahead of them.
Garner, the No. 27 outside linebacker in his class, comes out Pittsburgh, PA and looks to be maybe the most-talented linebacker recruit the Badgers have. Garner had offers from Pittsburgh, Maryland and Minnesota but chose to come to Madison after watching Wisconsin defeat Fresno State in early September. However, at only 201 pounds Garner looks more like a receiver than a linebacker, which is fitting seeing as he played both in high school.
Harrison, a 6-1, 220-pounder out of Huber Heights, OH, comes in looking to play middle linebacker. A few teams such as Toledo and Central Michigan showed interest in Harrison, but he decided to go to the Big Ten after watching Wisconsin open their conference schedule with a win over Michigan State.
Byers, also from Ohio, comes to Wisconsin after leading his high school, Archbishop Alter, to a state championship in 2009. At only 205 pounds, Byers will need to put on some weight to play outside linebacker, but probably won't have to immediately seeing as how there probably won't be too much playing time for him 2010.
The last linebacker coming to Wisconsin is Cameron Ontko of Cuyahoga Falls, OH. Rated as a two-star recruit, Ontko received offers from Indiana and Georgia Tech, but decided to commit to Wisconsin despite never visiting. As is the case for his fellow 2010 linebacker recruits, playing time will extremely limited next year.
Although the previous recruits are excellent additions, what Wisconsin truly needed was talent in the defensive backfield. No doubt the weakest part of their defense, Wisconsin's defensive backs gave up over 200 yards passing a game and seemed to falter in key situations. Hopefully with a year of playing time, the DBs will be a little better in 2010, but after watching 2009's performance, I'm really not too confident.
The Badgers do add one cornerback to the 2010 roster that could put some pressure on Devin Smith and Niles Brinkley, Wisconsin's starting cornerbacks.
Peniel Jean, out of Palm Beach Central High School in Florida, comes to Wisconsin after receiving offers from Maryland and Connecticut and could see some playing time in the nickel or dime packages. Jean, a two-star recruit, runs only a 4.6, but will definitely be a nice addition to a unit that needs all the bodies it can get. He will compete with Aaron Henry, Antoni Fenelus, and the other reserve d-backs for playing time next year.
The Badgers' last two commits are both safeties. After losing Chris Maragos, the Badgers have an opening at safety and uncertainty about who will fill it. Jay Valai will remain in his safety position after a good 2009 season, but the other slot is up for grabs.
Jameson Wright and Michael Trotter both come in hoping to fill that void. Wright, out of Ft. Pierce, FL, and Trotter, out of Marquette High School in Milwaukee, are both talented safeties, but both are rated fairly low in their recruiting class. Trotter, the higher-rated player, comes in at No. 86 in his class. However, don't let initial thoughts dissuade you. Maragos himself was a wide receiver at Western Michigan before he converted to safety when he transferred to Wisconsin. Anything is possible.
Although this recruiting class isn't anything to brag about, it certainly brings hope to a defense that struggled in 2009. If nothing else, these recruits will push the current starters to perform better and with three open slots, some fierce off-season competition is a guarantee.