2011 Wisconsin Preview – Defense
Wisconsin LB Chris Borland
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Wisconsin Badger Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: More of a pass rush would be nice, and more big plays all across the board will be tough without J.J. Watt, but the Badger D should be among the best in the conference if injuries aren't a problem. Defensive coordinator Dan Doeren is gone to be the head man at Northern Illinois, and now it'll be up to Chris Ash to keep the production going as the head coordinator, but line coach Charlie Partridge and head coach Bret Bielema will have their say. The defense loses Watt off the line, and the top three tacklers are gone, but three starters are back on a line that should be a rock against the run if tackles Patrick Butrym and Jordon Kohout can play up to their promise. The linebacking corps might lose key parts in Blake Sorensen and Culmer St. Jean, but the return of Chris Borland from a shoulder injury should do wonders for the front seven. The secondary should be even better after a solid 2010 with the expected emergence of Aaron Henry into more of a leader at free safety and with Antonio Fenelus one of the Big Ten's best ball-hawking corners.
Star of the defense: Sophomore LB Chris Borland
Tackles: Mike Taylor, 58
Sacks: Louis Nzegwu, 3
Interceptions: Antonio Fenelus, 4
Player who has to step up and be a star: Sophomore DE Pat Muldoon and Junior DE David Gilbert
Unsung star on the rise: Senior CB Devin Smith
Best pro prospect: Borland
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Borland, 2) CB Antonio Fenelus, 3) FS Aaron Henry
Strength of the defense: Tacklers, Defensive Tackle
Weakness of the defense: Pass Rush, J.J. Watt
State of the Unit: The defensive front did a solid job against the run but didn't get into the backfield when J.J. Watt wasn't going nuts. The Houston Texan finished second on the team with 62 tackles with seven sacks and 21 tackles for loss and a whopping nine broken up passes, and now it'll take several players to pick up the slack from the lost production. Even though Watt bolted a year early, the line should be strong with three starters returning and excellent promise in the rotation.
With Watt gone, now it'll be up to senior Louis Nzegwu to become one of the main pass rushers to use his speed and quickness to get into the backfield. The veteran was supposed to be the star of the show last year, and he was fine making 46 tackles with three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. Smart, he's an Academic All-Big Ten performer and should be a bigger factor with more responsibility on his shoulders. With a great motor and good quickness, he should be solid, but not Watt. He'll be backed up by 6-6, 244-pound junior Brendan Kelly, who took last year off after missing most of 2009 with a hand injury. A great recruit in 2008, he has the quickness and the strength, but he hasn't done much yet with ten career tackles and no sacks.
Taking over on the right side, and trying to be the one new starter who can fill in for Watt's absence, is a combination of sophomore Pat Muldoon and junior David Gilbert. The 6-3, 258-pound Muldoon is a smart, quick pass rusher with a high motor and good closing skills. He made seven tackles and two sacks in his limited time, highlighted by a sack against Ohio State, while the 6-4, 239-pound Gilbert is one of the team's stronger players and turned in a decent season as a key reserve making 21 tackles with 1.5 sacks. The Florida native has had some big moments as a special teamer, and now he'll be used as a good all-around end prospect.
With Watt gone, the leader of the line will be senior tackle Patrick Butrym, who has taken on a bigger role this offseason and should be in the mix for all-star honors. He started every game last year and was a spot starter two seasons ago, making 28 tackles with 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss in 2010. At 6-4 and 285 pounds he has decent size and great strength, and he doesn't get shoved around easily. Adding more bulk to the left defensive tackle slot is 6-3, 316-pound sophomore Beau Allen, a huge reserve who saw time in every game as a true freshman and held strong with 15 tackles. While he won't come up with any tackles for loss, he'll gum things up on the inside.
Growing into a star at right tackle is sophomore Jordon Kohout, a 6-3, 285-pound athlete who was supposed to play right away as a true freshman, redshirted, got stronger, and came up with a good year making 22 tackles with a sack despite getting hurt. A major factor over the first half of the year, he suffered an ankle problem and missed a little time. When he's right, he'll be a do-it-all inside presence and the possible star of the front four. He'll work in a rotation with sophomore Ethan Hemer, an academic all-star who started six times and finished with 21 tackles. He's not going to get into the backfield on a regular basis, but at 6-6 and 297 pounds the former walk-on is a big body who always goes full-tilt.
Watch Out For … the Muldoon/Gilbert platoon. No one can replace Watt, but these two have good pass rushing skills and nice athleticism in a rotation on the outside. The each have enough experience to know what they're doing and lessen the pain of losing the star.
Strength: The tackles. A projected weakness going into last year is now a positive. Butrym and Kohout aren't household names, but they're good, sound interior presences who should be able to keep one of the nation's top run defenses rolling. The Badgers will get good production from all four spots up front.
Weakness: Pass rush. The Badgers only came up with 23 sacks and 66 tackles for loss, and that's with Watt cranking out seven sacks and 21 stops behind the line. Finishing 91st in the nation in tackles for loss isn't acceptable.
Outlook: The line was grouchy going into last season after it was called the possible weak link on a strong team. It came through just fine, and now there's even more of an attitude with all the talk around the loss of Watt. With three starters back and good size and toughness across the board, the run defense will be fine, but there's no replacing No. 99.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: The linebacking corps was good last year and has the potential to be terrific if everyone stays healthy and everyone plays up to their potential. Gone is the team's leading tackler, Blake Sorenson, and the third-leading tackler, Culmer St. Jean, but some key parts are back and there's a whole bunch of athleticism and talent to get fired up about.
The key to the linebacking corps, and maybe the defense, is the return of sophomore Chris Borland in the middle. The 5-11, 244-pound cult hero came out of the blue to dominate as a true freshman, earning Big Ten Freshman on the Year honors, making 54 tackles with five sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, and with five forced fumbles. However, he suffered a bad shoulder injury and missed almost all of the 2010 season after making seven tackles and a sack in just over a game of work. A guided missile of a big hitter in the middle, he's a playmaker all over the field and has All-America potential if he can stay on the field. Out this offseason resting up, he has to prove early on that he's not rusty.
If Borland isn't right, then 6-2, 232-pound sophomore Ethan Armstrong and 6-0, 221-pound redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter will see plenty of action. Trotter was a star on the scout team last season and was terrific this spring, getting all over the field and making things happen whenever he got a chance. Armstrong is a smart, active interior presence who made 14 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss as a key reserve working mostly in garbage time.
Considering Borland missed most of last year, the only returning starter is junior Mike Taylor, a 6-2, 225-pound junior who earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors after finishing fourth on the team with 58 tackles with a sack, two picks, and eight tackles for loss. Past a knee injury that knocked him out two years ago, he's a fast playmaker on the weakside who can be used as a pass rusher and is great at staying with running backs in pass patterns. Staying healthy isn't a given, having knee problems last season, but as long as he's fine, he's going to be one of the team's most productive defenders. Backing him up will be sophomore Conor O'Neill, a reserve who saw a little time late last year finishing with six tackles and two broken up passes. At 6-0 and 219 pounds he isn't all that big, but it can move.
Senior Kevin Claxton will take over the full-time job on the strongside after making 24 tackles with two tackles for loss as a spot starter. A hybrid defender, he's 6-1 and 233 pounds with the size to be used like a pass rushing end and the quickness to make things happen on the outside. The coaching staff has been looking to find a spot for him, and now there's an opening. He'll combine with 6-1, 232-pound sophomore A.J. Fenton, who saw time in every game and finished with six tackles in a limited role. A top middle linebacker prospect when he joined the team two years ago, now he'll work in a variety of ways including on special teams.
Watch Out For … Borland. It's a bit of a stretch to say that he's to the linebacking corps what J.J. Watt was to the defensive line, but if he's back at full steam after his injury, the Badger defensive front seven gets a star leader to revolve everything around.
Strength: Tackling. Outside of Borland, the Badger linebackers are rarely big names on the all-star circuit and they usually don't get a whole lot of respect. That's mostly because the huge stats aren't there, but this group, like last year's corps, is full of sound tacklers that won't miss a stop. Considering that the linebackers were blown over by a slight breeze a few years ago, this has been a big area of improvement over the last few seasons.
Weakness: Pass rush. The potential is there for Taylor and Claxton to fly into the backfield, and without J.J. Watt to count on, there's a chance the linebackers will be asked to do more. The players are in place to be more disruptive.
Outlook: As long as Borland is on the field and being the 2009 Borland, all will be fine. Taylor is good and the combination of Claxton and Fenton should be solid, but it's all up to the man in the middle. If he's hurting, then it'll take a big season from Armstrong or Trotter to save the linebackers.
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: The secondary came up with a decent season, but the corners often survived by the skin of their teeth on deep plays, and they were small. Big, physical receiving corps could get down the field and make things happen, but the Badger defensive backs didn't get any help from the pass rush. Corner Niles Brinkley is gone as is safety Jay Valay, but the secondary should be stronger.
The leader and the star of the secondary should be free safety Aaron Henry, a Second Team All-Big Ten performer on the field, and an academic all-star in the class room. The 6-0, 211-pound Florida native made 58 tackles with two picks and seven broken up passes, and now he's taking on a more active role both as a vocal leader and an on-field playmaker this spring. Fine after suffering a torn ACL that cost him all of 2008, he has good size, tremendous speed, and should be all over the field. Backing him up is 6-0, 205-pound redshirt freshman Michael Trotter, who was the Wisconsin state defensive player of the year in 2009 making 130 tackles. While he doesn't have elite speed, he's an active hitter.
Junior Shelton Johnson was a huge hitter in practices, and last season he finally got to show a little of what he could do on the field making 15 tackles with a start and backup time in every game. At 6-0 and 186 pounds, he's not huge for a strong safety, but he can get around like a corner and should be a statistical star against the run if he can hold up. 6-2, 200-pound sophomore Dezmen Southward adds more size to the position and saw enough time to be ready to do more after making eight tackles. A very smart, very strong prospect and special teamer, the Florida native can be used in several spots. He's still emerging, though, having started playing football as a high school senior.
About to shine on the outside is senior Devin Smith, an Academic All-Big Ten performer who was terrific this offseason and appears ready to become one of the league's best corners. At 5-11 and 185 pounds he's bigger than recent top Badger corners, and he can fly. Consistent in the open field against the run, he made 30 tackles as a key backup, making eight stops against Northwestern. Now he'll be a key starter on the left side, while 6-1, 185-pound junior Marcus Cromartie, a reserve over the last two seasons making just four tackles so far. Strictly a special teamer over his first two seasons, he's overdue to use his size and track speed in the secondary.
Returning to his starting spot at right corner is senior Antonio Fenelus, the team's leader in picks last season making four, to go along with seven broken up passes and 56 tackles. A First Team All-Big Ten performer, he's 5-9 and 193 pounds who has a way of always being around the ball. Smart, he was on the Academic All-Big Ten team in each of the last two seasons and is rarely out of position. Feisty, he plays bigger than his size. Bringing more size is 5-11, 192-pound redshirt freshman Peniel Jean, a good recruit last year who was going to see time right away, but ended up redshirting. Smart and active, he could grow into a good safety or a whale of a nickel and dime defender.
Watch Out For … Smith. He served as a nice reserve throughout last year, and now he should shine in a full-time job. The senior corner is a veteran with size and playmaking skills, and he could be a fringe all-star.
Strength: Toughness in the open field. The Badger corners can stick and they can handle themselves well against bigger receivers – for the most part. They have problems deep, but they don't get pushed around and they don't let running backs crank out large runs when they get to the next level.
Weakness: Consistency. This has been a problem for the last few years. San Jose State's Jordan La Secla looked like Tom Brady, completing 20-of-26 passes for 228 yards and two scores. La Secla shouldn't have thrown better than Bobby Brady against the Badger secondary. Terrelle Pryor was held in check, but with six weeks to prepare, the secondary couldn't come up with stops against TCU's Andy Dalton as both a runner and a passer.
Outlook: More help from a pass rush would be nice, and more big plays, after coming up with 14 picks, is a must, but the secondary should be solid if Smith plays as expected and Henry and Fenelus build on their strong junior seasons. The Badgers should be strong in the defensive backfield, but they need to be consistent.
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: Senior Phillip Welch was a Lou Groza semifinalist in 2008 and has been solid ever since. A big bomber, he has connected on 54-of-70 field goals in three years, bouncing back from an average 2009 to nail 17-of-22 field goals and all 67 extra points. While he hit 8of-12 field goals from beyond 40 yards, he missed a 39-yarder against TCU. Even so, he'll be one of the best kickers in America.
Senior punter Brad Nortman has been a good three-year veteran averaging 42.1 yards per kick on 153 career attempts with 50 put inside the 20. While he put 14 inside the 20 last season, a career-low, but that's because he wasn't used as much with just 38 attempts after kicking it 66 times in 2008 and 49 in 2009. He came up with his best average cranking out 42.7 yards per try.
Gone is dangerous return man David Gilreath, who averaged 24.4 yards per kickoff return, with a very big touchdown against Ohio State, and averaged 10.2 yards per try. WR Jared Abbrederis is a great athlete who averaged 9.6 yards per punt return, and he'll get a long look at the job. RB James White might not be used as much on kickoff returns considering his need in the backfield, but he's the most experienced returning option.
Watch Out For … the kickoff returns. As a team, the Badgers didn't do too much on kickoff returns, averaging 22.4 yards per try, but Gilreath was great. Abbrederis is a nice option, and there are several other speedsters who'll give it a try, but this was a problem in the past and the coaching staff is putting an emphasis on making sure it's not a negative.
Strength: The kicking game. Welch and Nortman are ultra-reliable. They were among the best kicking pairs last year, and the year before. There isn't a more experienced kicking game in America.
Weakness: Coverage teams. Even though Nortman is excellent, the punt coverage team didn't get the job done allowing 12 yards per try and a touchdown. The kickoff coverage team was even worse allowing 24.2 yards per try and two scores.
Outlook: After a horrible 2009, the special teams improved last year in every way but kick coverage. Welch and Nortman are terrific, and the return game will turn out to be fine, but keeping big, game-changing returns to a minimum is a must.
Unit Rating: 8
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