Big Ten Breakdown: Wisconsin Badgers, Part 2 (Defense and Specialists)
In the first part of this series, I looked at Wisconsin's offense, as well as the overall team outlook. In this part, I'll look at the defense, as well as the measurable parts of the special teams.
2010 scoring defense: 20.5 PPG (third in the conference), total defense: 321.8 YPG (second), rushing defense: 3.93 YPC (sixth), passing efficiency allowed: 125.01 (fourth).
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 4.4.
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: First (2006).
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: Eighth (2008).
Returning starters: DE Louis Nzegwu, DT Patrick Butrym, DT Ethan Hemer, DT Jordan Kohout, LB Mike Taylor, LB Chris Borland, CB Antonio Fenelus, CB Devin Smith, FS Aaron Henry.
Open positions: DE, LB, SS.
Wisconsin will go into 2011 with new faces at defensive coordinator. In fact, these will be the third defensive coordinators under Bret Bielema during his tenure in Madison.
Familiar faces Charlie Partridge and Chris Ash will replace erstwhile coordinator Dave Doeren,
Partridge has been the defensive line coach at Wisconsin since 2008, while Ash has been the defensive backs coach for only one season.
Bielema, who played nose tackle for Iowa during the early 90's, has a background on defense. Despite this, the Badgers have consistently had good, but not great defenses under Bielema. Perhaps the turnover of the coordinators explains that. Comparatively, the consistency of the offense might go back to having the same offensive coordinator for the past seven seasons.
Either way, it is difficult to know what kind of changes, if any, Partridge and Ash will institute.
They will certainly keep their base 4-3.
The Badgers were extremely aggressive under Doeren, blitzing as much as 80 percent of the time and always on passing downs. It remains to be seen if that will change, but given the speed in the linebacker group, as well as the pass rushing issues I foresee with the front four, I expect they will maintain the status quo.
Also there is a question of whether Wisconsin will use nickel and dime formations in passing downs as regularly as they did last year. A change might be precipitated due to a secondary that lacks depth and an extremely strong and fast linebacker corps.
The Badgers opened up fall camp with the following as the starting four: senior Louis Nzegwu at weak-side end, junior David Gilbert on the strong-side, senior Patrick Butrym and sophomore Ethan Hemer at defensive tackle.
Other players that will push for playing time include sophomores Jordon Kohout and Beau Allen inside, along with junior Brendan Kelly and sophomore Pat Muldoon at the ends.
All of the first string players are returning starters, with the exception of Gilbert.
Nzegwu started all 13 games last year opposite J.J. Watt. Despite playing on the same line as one of the three best linemen in the conference, Nzegwu had limited productivity, recording three sacks, 7.5 tackles-for-loss and three hurries.
Gilbert has been a strong pass rusher in limited playing time throughout his career. This year will be a test to see how he does as an every-down player.
Patrick Butrym also started all 13 games last season. He was third on the team with 2.5 sacks. He is not physically blessed, but makes up for it with a good deal of hustle. Moreover, he is unlikely to stop many players in the backfield, but does a nice job of occupying blockers, thereby allowing linebackers to make the play.
Hemer took the starting job away from Kohout last season. He might have the highest upside of any player on the line, but he has yet to put it all together.
There is a reason Kohout got pushed out of his job. As a sophomore, he still has room to grow, but right now, he is the fourth-best tackle on the team.
At 310 lbs, Allen is the biggest of the bunch. Last year, he was still learning the ropes. This year, he should be ready to make more substantial contributions.
Like Allen, Muldoon spent much of last season learning the ropes.
Finally, Brendan Kelly showed enough promise as a freshman that he burned his redshirt. Nonetheless, injuries have kept him off the field for the past two years.
The Badgers have solid players throughout their two-deep, and with four experienced bodies in the middle, UW will be difficult to run against.
The question is will Wisconsin field a dominant lineman in the mold of outgoing defensive end J.J. Watt and O'Brien Schofield before him?
Nzegwu is the most notable player and he was decent starting opposite Watt, but he doesn't seem to have the ability to take over games.
In short, I question whether there is a real force in this group.
Speaking of playmakers, sophomore Chris Borland is back after missing much of last year with a shoulder injury.
Borland will join junior Mike Taylor and senior Kevin Claxton as the starting linebackers.
In 2009 and 2010, Borland played mostly on the weak-side. This year, he will be in the middle in order to give him more of an opportunity to make plays.
As for 2009, Mike Taylor began the season as the starter until a torn ACL took him out of commission. This opened the door for Borland who started six games, had 54 tackles, 10.5 tackles-for-loss, five sacks, one interception, five forced fumbles, seven quarterback hurries and a blocked kick.
He also kicked three extra points and had seven kickoff returns and one punt return.
In short, he is versatile and has a huge future if he can stay healthy. He's a bit short to attract much pro attention (5'11"), but if he can stay healthy, he can finish his career as the best Big Ten linebacker since A.J. Hawk.
As for Mike Taylor, he's also very good. He won't be returning punts or kicking field goals any time soon, but he is a strong tackler and fast enough to cover receivers.
Finally, Kevin Claxton has patiently waited through four years of special teams and backup duty. He is never going to be an NFL linebacker or even a great college linebacker. However, if he can play solid football, that should be enough next to Taylor and Borland.
One issue with this group is health. Both Borland and Taylor have already had major operations, and both have missed practices this summer.
There is a substantial drop-off from the first team linebackers to the second team linebackers. In fact, all of the second team players are inexperienced sophomores or redshirt freshman.
If Borland or Taylor is unable to play, that could cause big problems for the Wisconsin defense.
In closing, I admit that I was probably generous in my ranking of the Wisconsin linebackers. However, I do think Borland is that good, and if he can stay healthy, he will be one of the three best linebackers in the conference this season.
The Wisconsin secondary will line up with senior Antonio Fenelus at one corner and fellow senior Aaron Henry at free safety. Senior Devin Smith is the prohibitive favorite to start at the other corner. The only non-senior will be the strong safety, which will be occupied by either sophomore Dezmen Southward or junior Shelton Johnson.
Fenelus is the best of the bunch. Last year, he wrested the starting position away from Devin Smith and never looked back en route to being named All-Big Ten. He is strong in run support and will not shy away from a tackle.
Last season, he was occasionally overly aggressive and it cost him. This season he will look to put the final polish on his game.
Smith spent most of last year in nickel and dime packages, after starting 13 games in 2009. He is a solid cornerback and won't be too much, if any, step down from the departed Niles Brinkley.
However, in the recently released opening game depth chart, Smith was listed as co-starter with junior Marcus Cromartie. That could change between now and the opener, but it goes to show there is serious competition at the position.
Shelton Johnson backed up former UW free safety Jay Valai last season. He also picked up a start against Minnesota when Valai was injured. He came into spring camp as the prohibitive favorite to win the job, but has since been passed by Southward.
The competition for starting strong safety will probably continue until the first game, and maybe into the season.
There is very little depth after the starters. This is especially true at cornerback, where the only other non-freshman is senior former walk-on Andrew Lukasko. In effect, Bielema might look to his true freshmen here.
This is a strong group, who, like the linebackers probably couldn't sustain an injury. There are the starting four, a spare experienced safety and then everybody else.
The Badgers return both their punter and kicker, as well as multiple return men with experience.
The kicker is senior Phillip Welch. In three seasons of starting, he has been so-so with a career field goal percentage of 77.1. His freshman year was his best season when he made 20-of-24. He then had a sophomore slump and evened out last season, making 77.3 percent of his attempts.
Despite Welch's experience, Bret Bielema says the position is up for grabs. This is because Welch is currently nursing an injury, he has a history of big misses late in the game and the player that is getting the most reps in Welch's place—redshirt freshman Kyle French—has had a strong camp.
The punter is senior Brad Nortman. Badger fans probably associate Nortman with his successful fake punts in both the Iowa game and the Rose Bowl, but he is a punter as well. Last year was his best yet, as he posted an average of 43.41 yards-per-punt. That would have been good enough for fourth in the conference, if he had enough punts to be eligible.
Last year's primary return man was David Gilreath. However, multiple players got work on both the punt and kick return.
Receiver Jared Abbrederis and Aaron Henry gained punt return experience last season. On the kickoff return, both Abbrederis and running back James White combined for 20 returns.
Also, true freshman receiver Kenzel Doe will be in the mix at both kick and punt return and true freshman running back Melvin Gordon might play a role on kickoffs.
Doe is probably the most explosive of the potential return men, but Abbrederis is the most dependable.
And, of course, there is always Chris Borland.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 2
Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Iowa Hawkeyes.
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