Beau Allen returns to help usher Wisconsin's defense into a new era. - Mike McGinnis
New coordinator Dave Aranda has a plan, and it should have Badgers fans salivating.
MADISON, Wis. -- The minute rumors broke that Dave Aranda would follow Gary Andersen to Madison, Wisconsin fans couldn't help themselves from dreaming of exciting 3-4 schemes and blitzes sending safeties and linebackers darting every which way.
If Aranda's comments on the nine scholarship players projected to play defense hold any merit, then such intrigue around the Badgers' defense should only grow stronger. Under Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge in 2012, the defense was certainly effective but also rather vanilla, the kind of group that often went unrecognized despite finishing third in the Big Ten in total defense.
On Wednesday, National Signing Day, one of the new defensive coordinator's most interesting comments was how much of a premium he places on speed and athleticism when recruiting.
"I would say toughness and being a smart kid, being tough, and then being fast," Aranda said of the most important traits he looks for in a recruit. "I think the speed is the equalizer. When I look around the conference and I look at us, and ... to do some of the things that we're aiming to do, we need speed."
In fact, the two new defensive recruits reeled in since Andersen took over -- Leon Jacobs and Donnell Vercher -- indicate a fresh approach for UW. Aranda spoke of watching Jacobs playing basketball and throwing down dunks over opponents, shooting a thumbs up at the onlooking recruiter as he dropped from the rim. Jacobs also won a dunk contest one time.
Jacobs could line up at inside or outside linebacker or even defensive end, according to Aranda, perhaps the type of versatile athletes that will form the foundation of Wisconsin's reconstructed defense.
Though Bret Bielema's staff picked out nearly every other defensive recruit in the 2013 class, Aranda said players like Alec James, Chikwe Obasih, Garret Dooley and Matt Hubley are exactly the types of athletes he usually targets. As Andersen and the rest of the staff reviewed tape of recruits at the Rose Bowl, they were struck by the number of what Aranda described as "hyper players" that had already been picked out and praised the work of his predecessors.
"When I look at the defense, I see long, rangy athletes, I see front-seven guys that are long," he said. "When I look at the seniors here at Wisconsin, I see what we needed was skill with speed. So that's what we're able to go after and get."
Both Obasih and James appear to have the right build and athleticism to fit into a scheme that will clearly emphasize speed over power, somewhat of a fundamental change for this program.
Aranda found much success at Utah State using a 3-4 setup and the Aggies finished the season ranked 14th nationally in total defense, one spot ahead of Wisconsin under then-defensive coordinator Chris Ash. If Aranda found that much success with players that most football powers either overlooked or ignored, it's hard not to think about how far he could take this unit with more elite athletes who don't need the development period required of many WAC recruits.
Aranda even mentioned that he's noticed a major difference on the recruiting trail when he steps into living rooms and tries to sell high school stars on the Badgers.
"I think Wisconsin is a national brand, so it sold itself a little bit," Aranda said. "Just when you walk into the school, you're noticed, and so it gives you a platform to really get in-depth with recruits and really talk about the football program, talk about the academic programs here."
With the likes of Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer returning for their senior seasons in 2013, Aranda has said he will not immediately jump to a three-man front but will experiment with some fresh, creative looks. Give him a few years, however, and "vanilla" may be the last word that comes to mind describing the Wisconsin defense.