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2008 Wisconsin Preview - Defense
Wisconsin DE Matt Shaughnessy
Wisconsin DE Matt Shaughnessy
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 20, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Wisconsin Badger Defense

Wisconsin Badgers

Preview 2008 - Defense


- 2008 CFN Wisconsin Preview | 2008 Wisconsin Offense
- 2008 Wisconsin Defense
| 2008 Wisconsin Depth Chart
- 2007 Wisconsin Preview
| 2006 CFN Wisconsin Preview 

What you need to know:
Banged up all year, the defense didn't do anything particularly well, but it didn't struggle in any one area, either. The big question will be health with several players suffering big injuries over the last 12 months. New defensive coordinator Dave Doeren has some work to do to make sure things are fine without all the stars, but no matter who's playing, there will be more attacking and more pressure in the backfield. The D line is a mess with all four starters coming off an injury with the biggest hits taken by DE Matt Shaughnessy (broken leg) and DT Jason Chapman (torn ACL). The secondary could be terrific, but projected starting corners Allen Langford and Aaron Henry are coming off torn ACLs suffered late last year. The linebacking corps will clean up plenty of messes with the three starters, led by Jonathan Casillas, returning. On the plus side, all the injury problems have led to developed depth across the board. The second teamers, at most spots, are ready.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Jonathan Casillas, 96
Sacks: Kirk DeCremer, 5.5
Interceptions: Shane Carter, 7

Star of the defense: Senior LB Jonathan Casillas
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DT Mike Newkirk
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore SS Jay Valai
Best pro prospect: Senior DE Matt Shaughnessy
Top three all-star candidates: 1)
Casillas, 2) FS Shane Carter, 3) Shaughnessy
Strength of the defense: Experience, linebackers
Weakness of the defense: Health, size on the front seven

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: Call the depth chart a work in progress as all four projected starters are hurt. The biggest problem is now at end where 6-6, 253-pound senior Matt Shaughnessy, an All-Big Ten talent who finished fourth on the team with 60 tackles and five sacks with 18 tackles for loss, broke his leg in spring ball and will have to fight to be 100% for fall practices. However, he's expected to be fine for the start of the season. He hasn't had the best of luck with injuries, suffering a torn ACL at the end of 2005, but when he's right, he's a fantastic pass rusher and one of the team's most active all-around defenders.

On the left side, sophomore Kirk DeCremer is trying to get healthy after having back problems this off-season. The 6-5, 238-pounder had a fantastic first season with 30 tackles, 5.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss as he came through with big plays off the bench time and again. Very smart and very athletic, he's a bit of a pass rushing specialist, but he could grow into a bigger all-around role and be better against the run if he gets more time and if he can hold up.

The other big injury concern is at tackle where Jason Chapman is the star in the middle when he's healthy, but he suffered a torn ACL late in the year against Ohio State and is still working to try to get back by the start of the year. He made 26 tackles and two sacks before getting hurt, and if he doesn't rush it and is fine, he'll be a rock against the run and a good interior pass rusher. However, he doesn't have a space-eater's bulk and will need his quickness to produce.

6-3, 261-pound left tackle Mike Newkirk is undersized for a Big Ten interior, but he's tough and he's active making 41 tackles, a sack, and 10.5 tackles for loss last season. The senior takes a beating because of his size, and he had to miss time this off-season with a shoulder problem. In a perfect world, he takes about 70% of the snaps as part of a rotation, and he continues to grow as a third down playmaker.


Projected Top Reserves: With Chapman trying to get back healthy, 6-6, 298-pound junior Jeff Stehle got his chance this off-season to see plenty of first team reps at right tackle. He's one of the team's bigger linemen, but he's hardly a space-eating beefeater and he hasn't lived up to his decent prep résumé yet making just nine tackles in the rotation.

Looking to be a part of the rotation at either end spot is 6-3, 238-pound junior O'Brien Schofield, who made eight tackles last season and got the start in the Outback Bowl. Extremely quick, he has the potential to become a breakout pass rusher if he doesn't have to play every snap. He's more of a specialist who could shine behind DeCremer on the left side. He's cousins with NFL starters Bobby Engram and Vonnie Holiday.

For a line that needs size and experienced depth, JUCO transfer Dan Moore provides a little of both. The 6-2, 270-pounder is bigger than some of the Badger tackles, but he's an end. A decent pass rusher with the athleticism of a linebacker, he could be an interesting option on the right side until Shaughnessy is healthy.


Watch Out For ... the line to turn out fine. Yeah, everyone's hurt, but everyone's also supposed to be back. There's a chance everyone could be 100% by mid-September. However, there's a big question mark about how long the starting four can hold up.
Strength: Experience. Again, assuming everyone is healthy, or at least most of the line can suit up, there's plenty of talented, veteran players to work around. The one positive with all the injuries is the time given to the backups. This spring and this off-season allowed several backups to see meaningful time they wouldn't normally have received.
Weakness
:
Size. Besides the health issue, this is a smallish line. Wisconsin has focused more on getting smaller, more athletic linemen over the years, but this is still the Big Ten and there's still a place for a 300-pound rock of granite in the middle. The Badgers don't have one.
Outlook: The Badger line was decimated by injuries in 2005, came back with a strong 2006, and then appeared to be reloaded for 2007 only to have a slew of injuries hit throughout the year. Even so, this was still a productive group that'll be excellent if everyone can get healthy. That's a big if considering all four projected starters have problems. From Shaugnessy's broken leg to DeCremer's back to Chapman's knee to Newkirk's shoulder, there's a lot to be worried about. There's decent depth, but most of the top projected backups haven't seen the field. 
Rating: 7.5


Linebackers


Projected Starters: The linebacking corps will be the strength of the defense and could challenge the running backs as the strength of the team with all three starters returning. The star of the show is senior Jonathan Casillas, a guided missile of a hitter who came off an 83 tackle sophomore season to lead the team with 96 stops, a sack, and nine tackles for loss. He's not all that big at 6-2 and 220 pounds, and if he has an NFL future it'll be at safety, but he's a heck of a weakside defender who comes up with huge plays when he gets room to move. He's the player the defense will revolve around and the team leader voted captain as a junior.

6-1, 226-pound junior Elijah Hodge stepped in to the middle role and turned in a nice season making 67 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. While he's not that big on the inside, he's a tough player with good range. Now the brother of former Iowa star, Abdul, has to make more tackles, be more disruptive, and take the fight to the running back; he has to make more plays at the line.

Also returning to the starting lineup is second leading tackler DeAndre Levy on the strongside after making 70 stops with three sacks and ten tackles for loss. Versatile enough to play either outside linebacking spot, and at 6-3 and 234 pounds, the senior is strong enough to move to the middle if absolutely necessary, he's a good all-around playmaker who'd get far more attention if Casillas wasn't in the spotlight. He has All-Big Ten talent, but he gets lost in the awards shuffle.


Projected Top Reserves: While there's no moving Casillas out of the weakside spot, 6-3, 220-pound junior Javery McFadden needs to find a spot on the field. A good special teamer so far, he showed this spring the potential to be a stud on the defense as he was flying around making plays all over the field. He should be a bigger part of the rotation, and should keep Casillas fresh, after making 13 tackles last season.

Pushing hard for the starting job in the middle is sophomore Culmer St. Jean, a 6-1, 229-pound speedster who was good on special teams and finished with 17 tackles. While he wasn't used as a pass rusher, the former high school quarterback has the potential to grow into one. He can also play on the strongside if needed.

Playing behind Levy on the strongside is 6-1, 223-pound sophomore Blake Sorensen after making 14 tackles on both special teams and defense. While he doesn't have great range, he's a tough inside linebacker who'd be more suited for the middle if he was a little bigger. He's a sure tackler with a good nose for the ball.


Watch Out For ... St. Jean. Hodge will get the starting job in the middle, but it's going to be close. The coaching staff wants to find a spot, and develop more of a role, for the promising sophomore.
Strength: Experience. Not only do all three starters return, but all three backups are ready to step in if needed. There should be an excellent rotation to keep everyone fresh and overcome the problem with ...
Weakness
:
Size. This isn't always a bad thing as Wisconsin has gone the SEC route of bulking up players who'd normally be thought of as safeties, but there aren't any 250 pounders here. This is a quick, tough unit, but it'll average around 225 pound per man.
Outlook: The three starters combined for 233 tackles going 1 (Casillas) - 2 (Levy) - 3 (Hodge), and there's no reason to expect even more production this season now that everyone knows what they're doing. Making the situation even better is a promising lot of backups led by St. Jean and McFadden, who'll be key players going into next year. This group will once again be fantastic against the run and good at getting into the backfield, but to nitpick, it needs to do more against the pass.
Rating: 8


Defensive Backs


Projected Starters: Taking over the full-time role after Jack Ikegwuonu left early for the NFL will be 6-0, 187-pound sophomore Aaron Henry ... maybe. Coming off a torn ACL suffered in the bowl game, the gifted young prospect still has to prove he has the next-level speed and athleticism he showed off before getting hurt making 38 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and an interception. Fast enough to be shot out of a cannon into the backfield, and with decent size, he could grow into the team's shut down corner if he can get healthy. He might take a little while to get back, but he's expected to be in good shape to start the year.

Also returning from a torn ACL is senior Allen Langford, a promising corner who would be the team's No. 1 coverman if he was 100% healthy. At 5-11 and 188 pounds, he's a decent tackler making 33 stops before suffering the knee injury against Ohio State, and while he was a good man defender and broke up six passes, he only came up with one pick.

One of the nation's best pickoff artists returns to his spot at free safety. 6-2. 202-pound junior Shane Carter is a big hitter with a fantastic nose for the ball with seven interceptions and 56 tackles as he turned in an honorable mention All-Big Ten season. Health was an issue for him in the past, but he was able to stay on the field for every game last year and became the leader of the defensive backfield. The brother of former NFL star, Cris Carter, Shane has an excellent mentor to go to.

Taking over the strong safety job this spring was 5-9, 200-pound sophomore Jay Valai, a smallish hitter who only made four tackles last year, but should be a force as the year goes on. Originally considered a corner, he proved in practices that he's tough enough to handle the safety job while also showing off the speed to be a good helper when the ball is in the air.


Projected Top Reserves: While Valai might have been one of the better revelations this spring, junior Aubrey Pleasant isn't going to just hand over his starting job. Finally able to stay healthy after struggling through injuries early in his career, the 6-1, 197-pounder made 47 tackles and picked off two passes at strong safety, and while he was good, he wasn't special. At the very least he'll be a key fifth defender in nickel packages and will form a great rotation with Valai.

With both starting corners trying to come back from torn ACLs, redshirt freshman Mario Goins and sophomore Niles Brinkley got plenty of work this off-season and each appears ready to start if needed. The 5-10, 176-pound Brinkley saw a little time on special teams last year, and while he isn't all that big, he's extremely quick and isn't afraid to get physical. The 6-1, 185-pound Goins has rock-solid starter written all over him. Along with his size, he has good straight-line speed and could be used as a pass rusher if the coaching staff wants to get creative.

Free safety Kim Royston chose to transfer leaving a gaping hole in the backup role behind Carter. Chris Maragos quickly filled the need and looks like a keeper. The 6-0, 196-pound junior transferred from Western Michigan where he was a little used receiver. He has good size, but his real asset is excellent speed. He was a star Wisconsin high school sprinter running the 100 and 200 meters at a state championship level.

Watch Out For ...Valai. He was supposed to be a sleeper prospect in the mix going into last year and Carter turned into a star. Now at strong safety, Valai might grow into a major producer.
Strength: Veterans ... maybe. If Langford and Henry are healthy, the Badgers will, for all intents and purposes, have four starters ready to lock down on most mediocre receiving corps. There might not be a true No. 1 coverman yet, at least one hasn't been able to emerge, but the overall production should be fine.
Weakness
:
Interceptions from the corners. Wisconsin as a team, picked off 12 passes last year. Seven came from Carter and five came from the corners with no one getting more than one. The secondary was fine, but it rarely came up with the really, really big, game-changing play.
Outlook: The secondary tried to rely on Ikegwuonu, but he was flaky, at best, and then the pass defense picked apart late once injuries hit. The pass D was better than the overall stats. Now, if Langford and Henry can come back from their torn ACLs and be the players they were before getting hurt, the secondary will be fantastic with Carter, Valai, and Pleasant forming a fantastic group of safeties to rely on. There's interesting, developed depth and the potential for a great starting foursome if everyone is right.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: It'll be an ongoing battle between redshirt freshman Philip Welch and junior Matt Fisher to replace Taylor Mehlhaff, who hit 21 of 25 field goals and had tremendous range. Neither one took the job this spring and while each has a decent leg, the job will go to the more consistent of the two.

Also needing to be replaced is punter Ken DeBauche, who averaged 41.6 yards per kick but was generally a disappointment considering how good he was earlier in his career. Ken's brother, Brad DeBauche, walked on to the team last year and was the main punter throughout the off-season, but Welch had a few chances to show what he could do and true freshman Brad Nortman could take the job by the horns this summer.


Sophomore David Gilreath, an emerging receiver, is an elite kick returner averaging 23 yards per kickoff and 14 yards per punt return.

Watch Out For ... the overall kicking game to be not that bad. No, Welch and Fisher won't be Mehlhaff, but DeBauche is replaceable as long as the coverage team is solid. Wisconsin always gets production out of its placekickers.
Strength: Gilreath and the coverage teams. Opposing teams are going to have to start staying away from Gilreath at all costs. The punt coverage team was tremendous last season and the kickoff team allowed fewer than 20 yards per try.
Weakness:
Sure thing kickers. There's the potential for good things to happen with several good young prospects, but can anyone be as consistent as Mehlhaff? DeBauche might be replaceable, but he was around forever.
Outlook: The return game will be fantastic as long as Gilreath is handling things, and the coverage units should be fine, but there's a big, major concern at both kicker spots with neither Welch nor Fisher standing out in the battle for the placekicking job, and everyone waiting to see what Nortman can do before deciding on who'll handle the punting chores.
Rating: 6.5