Preview 2008 - Defense
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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.
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
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)
Strength of the defense: Experience, linebackers
Weakness of the defense: Health, size on the front seven
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.