The play of Chris Borland will be key to stopping the run more effectively this season.
Even before Oregon's lightning-quick one-two punch of LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas racked up more than 300 rushing yards on the Badger front seven in the Rose Bowl, the Wisconsin run defense was no dominant force.
The Badgers allowed 152.8 rushing yards per game in 2011, the sixth-best average in the Big Ten and 60th best nationally. At first glance, these numbers seem okay---both are about as close to average as can be. But when you consider the gaudy numbers Wisconsin's offense put up last year, they look a bit more troubling.
Even though Wisconsin's opponents found themselves behind in games more often than not, they still had enough opportunities to rack up a respectable amount of rushing yards. Wisconsin co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge knows that in the Big Ten, you need to be able to stop the run to have success.
"We could really improve the run defense. Statistically, that was one of the things we were a little disappointed in," Partridge said after Wisconsin's third spring practice Tuesday.
Playing the run effectively starts up front. Partridge favored a deep rotation of linemen last season, but it seems more likely a smaller, more experienced group of players will take the lion's share of defensive line snaps this fall.
Partridge identified two three-man rotations of players that "could be on another level,": David Gilbert, Brendan Kelly and Pat Muldoon at defensive end and Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and Jordan Kohout at defensive tackle. All six are seniors or juniors.
Gilbert got off to a quick start in 2011, picking up three sacks in the first four games of the season before suffering a season-ending foot injury that will keep him out of spring camp. He redshirted last year, and Partridge said the extra time to develop could give the injury a bright silver lining in the future.
"He turned 18 in late October of his freshman year, so just from a maturity standpoint, to think what he'll be that last year, and even this year, is exciting," Partridge said.
The real strength of Wisconsin's run defense, and perhaps the defense as a whole, is at the linebacker position. It all starts in the middle with consensus first all-Big Ten honoree Chris Borland, whose ability to fill holes between the tackles was described by Bret Bielema as "unprecedented" Monday.
New Wisconsin linebackers coach Andy Buh was all smiles when I asked him what it's like to come to a program with a player like Borland already in the fold.
"It's like Christmas Day (when) you walk into a situation where you have such a dynamic football player with all the production that he's created," Buh said. "it makes my job a little easier."
Fellow first-teamer Mike Taylor is penciled in to start on the weak side and Ethan Armstrong, who started two games last season, seems like the favorite to open the season on the strong side. But both players will miss all of spring camp, giving some of the younger Wisconsin 'backers a shot to show their skills.
"Ethan Armstrong is gonna be the front-runner at (strong side linebacker), but Conor O'Neill is having a heck of a first couple of days of spring. It will be a good battle come fall camp," said Buh.
Borland, Taylor, Armstrong and O'Neill are all upperclassmen as well, so the Badgers will have a wealth of experience in their front seven this fall.