No Wisconsin Badgers unit was impacted more by the Gary Andersen hire than the defensive line. Positions, responsibilities and players' weights were overhauled to fit the 3-4 scheme favored by Andersen and the defensive coordinator he brought with him to Madison, Dave Aranda.
Last year's group resembled a traditional 3-4 defensive line. Beau Allen was the mammoth in the middle; his former partner inside, Ethan Hemer, moved to end and Pat Muldoon held down the other side.
The results were largely positive. Wisconsin allowed 16.3 points and 102.5 rushing yards per game, good for sixth and fifth best in the nation, respectively. The run defense, in particular, was stout regardless of the competition thanks in large part to the big men occupying blockers in the trenches. Oh, and some guy named Chris Borland.
This year's line features none of those pieces and will have much to prove when it steps onto the NRG Stadium turf Aug. 30 for the season-opener vs. LSU.
|DEPTH CHART: DEFENSIVE LINE|
|DE Konrad Zagzebski||RS SR||6'3||277||30/4||Weston, Wis.|
|NG Warren Herring||RS SR||6'3||294||35/1||Fairview Heights, Ill.|
|DE Chikwe Obasih||RS FR||6'2||268||0/0||Brookfield, Wis.|
|Key reserves: RS JR Jake Keefer, RS SO Arthur Goldberg, RS FR Alec James|
|The rest: RS JR James Adeyanju, RS FR Garret Dooley, FR Billy Hirschfield, FR Jeremy Patterson, FR Conor Sheehy|
Most to prove
Warren Herring had a breakout season in 2013. His role as the fourth lineman allowed him to come off the bench with energy and make plays. He paced the line with six tackles for losses and four sacks, also ranking among the team leaders in each statistic.
Herring will be asked to anchor the line this year and his ability to do so is imperative. Beau Allen was able to disrupt an offense with his size and strength alone. About 30 pounds lighter, Herring will have to impact the middle of the field in a different way. That way was the defensive theme coming out of the spring: speed.
The versatile Herring will also be tasked with playing some end this year if personnel permits it. His stability across the line is necessary as he is surrounded by an inexperienced group. Without the benefit of spelling other members along the line, the onus is completely on Herring to maintain his playmaking ability. The defensive line should make more plays than last year if he is able to do that. It could be in a lot of trouble if he cannot.
The emergence of Chikwe Obasih is the main reason why this defensive line could be more noticeable in the backfield. Obasih started the spring as just a name in a wide-open race to start opposite of Zagzebski. He established his place at the top of the totem pole by the end of it.
Obasih took full advantage of his redshirt season and offseason, growing familiar with the rigors of Big Ten blocking and putting on much-needed weight. Coming from Brookfield as a 4-3 end, Obasih has since added around 30 pounds to his frame in order to handle the duties of a 3-4 end.
Obasih is still lighter than any of the major contributors on the line last year despite that added weight. Hopefully for the Badgers, this means he will be able to provide more of a pass rush than his bulkier predecessors. That would be a major boost for a unit that struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks last year.
Obasih still has a ways to go before he cements himself in the lineup, though. He will need to parlay his impressive spring into an equally strong fall. If he can do that, he will be a welcomed infusion up front.
Rest of the position group
While Herring inherits most of the expectations, Zagzebski enters his senior season with the bulk of the previous starts between the two. His seasoning makes him a likely starter, but Obasih's classmate Alec James is nipping at the heels of the projected starters.
"I have no problem throwing (expectations) out there to Chikwe and Alec," head coach Gary Andersen said at Wisconsin's fall camp media day Friday. "They appear physically ready to play. I like where they're at. Tough-minded men."
Also from Brookfield, though a different high school than Obasih, James looks primed for a role in passing-down situations. Spending time at outside linebacker last year, James has added weight and transitioned well back to end, where he was initially recruited to play.
Arthur Goldberg is expected to spell Herring at the nose when needed, and could give Herring the opportunity to play on the ends if Goldberg proves capable. Jake Keefer enters the mix after a knee injury cost him his 2013 season.
Conor Sheehy has the early leg up on his freshmen competition, projecting as the third-string nose guard thanks to the conditioning program he was afforded in high school.
"We're stout; we're going to be stout. That's just what Wisconsin thrives on - being tough at the point of attack - and that starts with the defensive line" -- Warren Herring at last week's Big Ten media days in Chicago