2012 Wisconsin Preview - Defense
Wisconsin LB Chris Borland
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Wisconsin Badger Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Somewhat quietly compared to the press the offense gets, the defense should be outstanding with a little more help from the pass rush. The linebacking corps is loaded with Mike Taylor and Chris Borland two tackling machines who should be all-stars with All-America potential. As good as the linebackers will be, the secondary could be even better with the return of top corner Devin Smith from a foot injury and with the safety tandem of Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward among the best in the Big Ten. The tackles will also be a positive with a terrific rotation to hold up against the run, but there isn't a killer of a pass rusher to rely on. Getting into the backfield more would be nice, but defensive coordinator Chris Ash isn't going to sell the house to be more disruptive; the D won't have to take any major chances.
Star of the defense: Junior LB Chris Borland
Tackles: Mike Taylor, 150
Sacks: Beau Allen, 4
Interceptions: Shelton Johnson, 4
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior DE Brendan Kelly
Unsung star on the rise: Junior S Dezmen Southward
Best pro prospect: Borland
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Borland, 2) LB Mike Taylor, 3) CB Devin Smith
Strength of the defense: Linebacker, Secondary
Weakness of the defense: Pass Rush, End
It's not like the Badgers got into the backfield in bunches last season, and now they need to find pass rushers from somewhere. The hope is for senior Brendan Kelly to grow even more after making 35 tackles with three sacks and five tackles for loss. At 6-6 and 255 pounds he has the size and the look of a Big Ten end, but he missed time early in his career with a hand injury and he's trying to stay healthy. A great recruit in 2008, he has the quickness, strength and tools, but now he has to be the type of disruptive force that makes quarterbacks worry.
Trying to do more on the other side will be just Pat Muldoon, a 6-3, 258-pound junior who made 14 tackles with three broken up passes. He's a smart, quick end who has the potential to be a pass rusher, but he hasn't been able to translate his high motor into big numbers so far. He'll have to battle with junior David Gilbert, a 6-4, 250-pound key reserve who's one of the team's strongest players for his size. A nice veteran, he followed up a 21-tackle 2010 with three tackles in a few games before getting knocked out with a foot injury.
6-6, 305-pound junior Ethan Hemer is hardly a household name, but he's on the verge of being an all-star with great quickness and enough experience to be a rock. Quick off the ball, the academic all-star made 34 tackles with a sack, but now the former walk-on should be more of an interior pass rusher. He'll work in a rotation with junior Jordan Kahout, a 6-3, 292-pound veteran who had problems with an ankle injury but came back to make 22 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss. He's talented, strong and athletic – he'll be perfect working in where needed.
At 6-3 and 323 pounds, junior Beau Allen is a strong, large body in the middle who came up with a shockingly great season as one of the team's best pass rushers making four sacks and 5.5 sacks with 22 tackles. He was expected to gum up the works against the run, but he turned into a playmaker into the backfield and grew into a disruptive force despite working as a spot starter.
Watch Out For … Kelly. The line needs a pass rusher on the outside and Kelly has to step up his game and be the main man. The tackles will do their part and it's not like there will be a ton of chipping and double teaming, so it's up to Kelly to take his game to another level.
Strength: Tackles. This could grow into one of the Big Ten's most underappreciated positions. Allen, Hemer and Kohout form a terrific trio to work on the inside with quickness and toughness. This is a scrappy group that will battle for a full sixty minutes.
Weakness: Sure-thing pass rushing ends. Kelly has talent and Gilbert could be great if he's all good after his foot injury. Every once in a while the Badgers get a playmaker to emerge from out of the blue, but there isn't a J.J. Watt ready to step in and shine.
Outlook: The line will be good enough. It's not going to be a major positive and it's not going to be flashy, but it'll get the job done. The tackles will do a little of everything right in the interior, and they might have to unless the ends start to get to the quarterback more. Motor won't be an issue and everyone will be active, but a couple of players need to come up with surprising All-Big Ten seasons.
Unit Rating: 7
There was plenty of hope that Mike Taylor would grow into a top producer after making 58 tackles in 2010, and all he did was lead the team with 150 tackles, to sacks, nine tackles for loss with two picks and three forced fumbles on the way to All-Big Ten honor. At 6-2 and 222 pounds he's built for the weakside, and while he can move and he can hit everything in sight, he's not necessarily a speedster. Getting into the backfield isn't going to be a problem, and holding up on short-to-midrange pass plays is a given, but his real worth is as a tackler against the run. He made 22 stops against Ohio State and 13 against Oregon – both losses – and cranked out seven double-digit tackling games in the final 11.
Junior Chris Borland became a cult hero in his first season earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors as a pass rushing machine and with five forced fumbles, but he suffered a bad shoulder injury and missed almost all of 2010. He came back roaring last year coming up with 143 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, two picks, five forced fumbles and five broken up passes in the middle. The 5-11, 250-pounder is a guided missile of a tackler who goes 100 miles per hour on every play. While he's not a speedster, he has good range and he hits like a ton of bricks.
6-2, 225-pound junior Ethan Armstrong can see time in any of the three spots and should get the call on the strongside to start. While he was banged up by the end of the season, he was a solid spot-starter and backup making 29 tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss. A smart, active presence in the interior, he moves well. He'll have to battle with 6-1, 219-pound junior A.J. Fenton, a smallish special teamer who made one tackle. 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.
Somewhere in the mix will be Conor O'Neill, a 6-0, 225-pound junior who has seen a little time over the last few years and played a much bigger role last year making 29 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss. Active and experienced enough to play either outside spot, he'll likely start out working behind Taylor but he could see time on the other side.
Watch Out For … the strongside spot. Taylor and Borland will make every play that's there to be made, and others that won't. Now the Badgers need to find the right running mate to hold up next to those two, and several players will get their chances.
Strength: Taylor and Borland. The two combined for almost 300 tackles last season and should be as rock-solid as any linebacking duo in the country. They're as good and as sound as any linebackers in America.
Weakness: Raw speed. Granted, no linebacking corps had the wheels to keep up with the Oregon speedsters, but the Badger linebackers got their doors blown off in the Rose Bowl. They also had their lunch handed to them by Ohio State mobile quarterback Braxton Miller.
Outlook: Is this the best linebacking corps since the program became interesting in the early 1990s? Borland is special, Taylor is a phenomenal leader and tackler, and there are more than enough decent veterans to fill in the gaps. On the way is the team's top recruit, Vince Biegel, to add even more talent to the mix.
Unit Rating: 8.5
The safety situation is expected to be a major positive thanks to the return of Shelton Johnson, a good-hitting 6-0, 200-pound senior who finished fourth on the team with 54 tackles with six tackles for loss and four picks. With good size and nice range, he can get all over the field and make plays like a free safety, but he's a huge-hitting strong safety with the experience and ability come up with another huge statistical season.
Jumping into a starting role at free safety is talented junior Dezmen Southward, a 6-2, 210-pound tackler who came up with 35 stops with two broken up passes. A very smart, very strong prospect and special teamer, the Florida native is versatile and extremely athletic. The upside is there to grow into an all-star now that he has the starting job.
6-1, 188-pound senior Marcus Cromartie went from being a reserve to a good starter making 47 tackles with three broken up passes. With size and track speed, he has no problems jostling with the bigger receivers and can stay step-for-step with the faster ones. At some point he has to start doing more when the ball is in the air, but he's a good veteran corner to rely on.
One of the biggest boosts to the defense is the return of senior Devin Smith, who comes back from a foot injury that knocked him out after the second week of the season. At 5-11 and 190 pounds he has good size to go along with tremendous smarts and all-star ability both on the field and in the classroom. The Badgers survived without him, but this year he should be one of the Big Ten's best all-around corners. He can hit like a safety, but he can also fly.
5-11, 190-pound sophomore Peniel Jean was a good recruit two years ago and was supposed to see time right away, but he didn't get on the field until last season making 24 tackles with two broken up passes and now will work in a rotation with Cromartie at corner. Smart and active, he could end up working at safety or as a whale of a nickel defender.
Sophomore Michael Trotter was the Wisconsin high school defensive player of the year in 2009 making 130 tackles, and last year he got his feet wet making four tackles in five games of action. At 6-0 and 210 pounds he has great size and hits like a linebacker, but he doesn't have elite speed.
Watch Out For … Southward. He worked in a nickel spot and came up with a good year, and now he's expected to explode as a safety. It's asking a lot to replace Aaron Henry, the team's third-leading tackler, but Southward could be better.
Strength: Production. It didn't get a whole bunch of press, but the Badgers finished fourth in the nation in pass defense and came up with a huge season despite being mostly known for two season-changing breakdowns to lose to Ohio State and Michigan State. UW gave up just 15 touchdowns and picked off 16 passes.
Weakness: Reality. Yes, the Badger secondary was terrific statistically, but other than Michigan State, it didn't exactly face the NFC North when it came to passing games. Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins threw for 290 yards and three scores in the first meeting and 281 yards and three touchdowns in the Big Ten championship, while Oregon's Darron Thomas completed 18-of-24 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns with a pick in the Rose Bowl.
Outlook: The secondary should be outstanding, and it might have to be with a lack of a sure-thing pass rusher up front. No matter who the Badgers are facing, the pass defense should be solid with a terrific safety duo and with the return of Smith making the corners a major positive. The depth is a little thin, but this might be one the best secondary in the Bielema era.
Unit Rating: 8
Gone is Phillip Welch, the longtime kicker who was a Lou Groza semifinalist in 2008 and nailed 5-of-6 field goals last year. Sophomore Kyle French worked a little bit on kickoffs and stepped in for short field goals in the middle of the season hitting three kicks from under 30 yards. He missed two 50 yarders, but he has a good leg with the ability to start blasting away. Tremendously accurate, he should be a rock from inside 40.
Brad Nortman was a terrific punter who averaged 42.2 yards per kick and put 19 inside the 20. Gone, now it'll be up to redshirt freshman Drew Meyer, part placekicker and part punter who should be able to average more than 40 yards per punt without a problem, but it's asking a lot to replace a four-year starter who was as steady as Nortman.
Receiver Jared Abbrederis showed signs of potentially being a strong punt returner a few years ago, averaging 9.6 yards per try in 2010, and last year he became dominant ripping off 15.8 yards per try highlighted by a 60-yard touchdown against Indiana. He'll also be the main kickoff returner after averaging 24.6 yards per attempt. Running back James White will also get a few tries after averaging 21 yards per try.
Watch Out For … French. He showed he was able to connect from short range, and hitting the medium kicks won't be a problem, but can he nail the bombs? He has the leg, but he has to prove he can come through in the clutch.
Strength: Abbrederis. Not only is he the team's No. 1 receiver, but he's a tremendous all-around returner who has to be avoided whenever possible. He's outstanding at making the first man miss.
Weakness: Kickoff coverage. The punt coverage was fine, mostly because Nortman was always able to blast the ball deep, allowing 7.7 yards per try. However, the kickoff coverage was a disaster giving up 22.8 yards per attempt with a touchdown. On the plus side, there were plenty of opportunities with a whopping 80 kickoffs.
Outlook: The Badgers have been hit or miss over the years on special teams. Kick coverage has been an issue, but the kicking game has been solid. However, the two new kickers will be tested and have to show they can pick up where the great veterans left off, and Abbrederis has to be Abbrederis again on returns.
Unit Rating: 6.5
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