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Wisconsin defense seeing winds of change

Over a month of spring practices, Wisconsin's defense has shown that it might look a tad different from last year.

Grey Satterfield

Alas, the final days of spring football culminate with Saturday's annual spring game. Over a month's worth of practices has given a younger team more experience, especially along the defensive front. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's first year at Wisconsin yielded some amazing results:

  • Ranked sixth nationally in scoring defense (yielding only 16.3 points per game)
  • Ranked seventh in total defense (giving up only 305.1 yards per game)
  • Ranked fifth in rushing defense (102.5 yards per game)

A new season arises, and with that, the loss of a band of senior players that created a solid two-deep for most of 2013. Among the departed include the following:

  • Defensive linemen: Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Pat Muldoon, Tyler Dippel
  • Linebackers: Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong, Brendan Kelly, Conor O'Neill
  • Secondary: Dezmen Southward

That's at least nine players who significantly contributed to the Badgers' impressive defense last season. The starting front seven -- all with the two-deep behind it -- was the defense's strength last season, especially stout against the run as seen above. The secondary, though solid, had its rough moments (see: the Arizona State, Ohio State, Penn State and South Carolina games). All in all, though, 2013 was a successful season for the defense, especially considering its switch to a 3-4 base.

This leads to our biggest question for the spring practices and ultimately leading into fall camp: though upperclassmen in nose guard Warren Herring, defensive end Konrad Zagzebski and linebackers Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter return, who will step up to earn more reps and turn those heads as they begin to march into summer conditioning and preseason camp?

One player in particular who's impressing is redshirt freshman defensive end Chikwe Obasih. Per head coach Gary Andersen's post-practice talk on Thursday, he mentioned Obasih has improved enough to garner some significant reps.

That's high praise for a player who didn't see the field in 2013. At 6'2 and 245 pounds, he's lighter than last year's ends in Hemer and Muldoon (both in the 270-to-290-pound range) and the difference is noticeable. It's also not the only different look players have shown this spring.

Defense playing musical chairs

You've heard about the many musical chair-like position switches the coaches have come up with during the past month, and even before spring ball started up. Here are just a few transitions from what we've seen so far:

  • Alec James moving to defensive end from outside linebacker
  • Joe Schobert moving to inside linebacker, then back to outside linebacker
  • Leon Jacobs moving to inside linebacker from outside linebacker
  • Michael Trotter moving to inside linebacker (the "rover" position, compared to twin brother, Marcus, who's in Borland's old "mac" position) from safety
  • Garret Dooley seeing time as a defensive lineman
  • A.J. Jordan moving to defensive back, but then due to injuries, back to wide receiver and playing both sides of the ball
  • Michael Caputo moving to F-side linebacker but then back to safety, as safeties coach Bill Busch said he's staying as a leader in the defensive backfield now

Spring football allows coaches to experiment with these moves to see where players can contribute and make an impact. It is only spring football, but it's started some buzz within the fan base as to what's next with Aranda's defensive schemes, especially with a potent LSU team coming up in the first game of the year in Houston.

The defense did have some growing pains, it appears, during the spring:

After that, Zagzebski and company appeared to turn things around the next practice thereafter and seemed to never look back.

Who to watch in Saturday's spring game

It's hard to take away much from just one spring game, and based off of what we were told the format would be per Wisconsin --  approximately 40 plays of offense vs. defense (unscored), with the second half made up of two 15-minute quarters with normal scoring and rules -- half of it won't be typical of a normal football game.

There was talk of the defense going to a more 3-3-5 look this week, with the 3-4 being the base defense still, per Andersen. Last year saw the 3-4 scheme mixed with an even or odd"look, with Kelly or Armstrong lining up as a pseudo linemen on the even side, along with nickel and dime looks in a 2-4-5 or 1-4-6 subpackages that seemed to give opposing offenses fits with Aranda's blitzing scheme.

But for the sake of excitement for the first "game" of football in the better part of four months, and from what has been reported over the past month, here's my list of defensive players to watch this weekend.

1. Defensive linemen: Alec James and Obasih. Both have been mentioned by Andersen as those who have stood out. Can both players, from the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, continue the momentum from this spring going forward into summer conditioning and camp? At least for now, they seem ready.

2. Linebackers: Not necessarily one or two players altogether, but see who plays where. As mentioned earlier, there's been much movement for this group in terms of personnel. I do want to see how the group meshes together, with Landisch and Marcus Trotter returning, along with Schobert and Vince Biegel who received some decent playing time as well last season. I also want to see Michael Trotter and Jacobs inside to see their progression through the spring.

3. Defensive backs: Devin Gaulden and Austin Hudson. Devin Gaulden is the feel-good comeback story for this spring. After a series of injuries, the junior has made the most of his spring, now looking to be the third cornerback behind Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton.

Hudson's one of four scholarship players who enrolled early in the spring to take advantage of these early practices. With the battle for the starting safety spot open opposite Caputo, it could be a competition between Penial Jean, Leo Musso (who, per B5Q's Luke Mueller, was held out of Thursday's practice) and the Florida freshman to receive playing time.