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Wisconsin football: Previewing the 2016 Badgers' defense

A look at the future of Wisconsin's defense heading into next season.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

This season's defense has kept the Wisconsin Badgers in, or put them in position to win, all but the first game of the season. One of the better statistical groups in the country -- first in scoring defense (13.1 points per game), third in total defense (267.1 yards per game allowed), among other statistics -- defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is in his third season in the 3-4 defense, and the players are flourishing. In what will be the third recruiting class for this defensive scheme, UW hopes to continue to build off of success seen recently.

The big question mark revolves around the status of Aranda himself, as though many coaching positions have closed up, the "mad scientist" may still be poached from UW by a school or NFL team looking to reclaim former glory. With that in mind and assuming Aranda stays, let's take a quick look at what the Badgers' stop unit will look like in 2016.

Defensive Line

Chikwe Obasih, 6'3, 268, RS JR
Connor Sheehy, 6'4, 272, JR
Arthur Goldberg, 6'3, 296, RS SR
Alec James, 6'3, 264, RS JR
Olive Sagapolu, 6'2, 332, SO
Zander Neuville, 6'5, 255, RS SO
Billy Hirschfeld, 6'6, 287, RS SO
Jeremy Patteron, 6'3, 335, RS SO
Kraig Howe, 6'3, 241, RS FR
Andrew Ruzek, 6'6, 258, RS FR
Gunnar Roberge, 6'4, 299, RS FR
David Pfaff, 6'2, 257, RS FR
Kelly Thomas, 6'6, 246, RS FR

Much different than the original defensive line employed by Aranda when he arrived in Madison, he prefers to utilize a little less size up front, and more athleticism. Obasih and Sheehy exhibit this, as they both play at around 275 pounds. Alec James is a good nickel package rusher, and Sagapolu has looked really good two-gapping in his true freshman year. Another position where the Badgers don't lose much, just senior Jake Keefer, a rotational defensive lineman. Expect this to be one of Wisconsin's top units on the team next season.

Projected Starters for 2016: Chikwe Obasih, Connor Sheehy, Arthur Goldberg

Inside Linebackers

T.J. Edwards, 6'1, 238, RS SO
Leon Jacobs, 6'2, 233, RS JR/SR
Chris Orr, 6'0, 228, SO
Ryan Connelly, 6'3, 233, RS SO
Keelon Brookins, 5'11, 213, RS JR
Nick Thomas, 6'2, 224, RS FR
Ty DeForest, 6'0, 220, RS FR

Arguably one of the more impressive positions on the team in 2015, inexperience hasn't slowed down the electric athletes in the middle of the defense. It's apparent that Aranda coaches this position. Edwards goes a million miles an hour all of the time. Jacobs is a freak athlete who's constantly hurt, but is a difference maker when healthy. Orr has stepped in admirably. Thomas should be a good player moving forward also. Also, I don't know if Jacobs will be awarded an injury hardship waiver, but either way Jacobs may have lost his starting spot to sheer performance by Orr this season. He'll likely still rotate in.

Projected Starters in 2016: TJ Edwards, Chris Orr/Leon Jacobs

Outside Linebackers

Vince Biegel, 6'4, 246, RS SR
Jack Cichy, 6'2, 223, RS JR
T.J. Watt, 6'5, 244, RS JR
Garrett Dooley, 6'3, 234, RS JR
Jake Whalen, 6'1, 229, RS FR
Zack Baun, 6'3, 221, RS FR
Tyler Johnson, 6'3, 234, RS FR
Max Praschak, 6'2, 198, RS FR

Losing Joe "The Show" Schobert hurts, but Biegel could likely be back for his fifth season in Madison, which may lessen the blow a bit. Biegel will explore his NFL prospects, however. Jack Cichy has been a bit of a utilitarian back up this season, but has thrived in any situation he's been placed. He'll replace Schobert at outside linebacker, which could be the only starter needing a replacement in the front seven, a good position for any team to be in.

It'll be interesting to see what the rest of the position will provide; Baun and Johnson were prep quarterbacks moved to linebacker -- sound familiar? Dooley has gone through a few position changes, but he'll provide depth behind the top three next season. [Ed. note: Watt has shined in the final couple of games in certain subpackages -- and he's still learning the position. Watch out for the youngest son of the Watt clan.]

Projected Starters in 2016: Vince Biegel (if he returns), Jack Cichy


Sojourn Shelton, 5'9, 176, SR
Derrick Tindal, 5'11, 176, JR
Natrell Jamerson, 6'0, 191, JR
Titus Booker, 5'11, 187, RS FR
Lubern Figaro, 6'0, 181, SO
Elijah Strong, 6'0, 170, RS FR
Caleb Kinlaw, 5'10, 190, RS SO

A position of strength in 2015 will take a major hit in 2016, losing starter Darius Hillary. Hillary is the best cover corner UW has right now, and he'll be playing on Sundays next season. Two of the three departures are pretty inconsequential for the on-field product, but depth will be lacking. Shelton had a fantastic true freshman season, he'll look to have a strong ending to his career before also going to play in the NFL. Tindal will finally be asked to play on the outside, something that's still to be seen. Jamerson's stepped in admirably when Tindal's been injured this season.

The rest are mostly unknowns, although Booker was pretty highly touted out of high school and was the defensive scout team player of the year in 2015, he should step into a prominent role next season. Figaro and Kinlaw were moved to corner in 2015. It's unknown if Figaro will be moved back to safety, but Kinlaw has struggled to find his way in a crowded backfield. He'll likely stay at corner.

Projected Starters in 2016: Sojourn Shelton, Derrick Tindal


Leo Musso, 5'10, 186, RS SR
D'Cota Dixon, 5'10, 203, JR
Joe Ferguson, 6'1, 195, RS JR
Arrington Farrar, 6'2, 215, SO
Evan Bondoc, 6'1, 201, RS SO
Bret Verstegen, 5'11, 182, RS FR

With the departing superman in Michael Caputo and athletic freakshow in Tanner McEvoy, two starting spots are re-opened. When I went over the corners, I don't know if they would move Figaro, who started games at safety as a true freshman, back to safety or not. Either way, Musso has been waiting in the wings, and even had two interceptions versus Miami (Ohio). He'll be a steady player in the backfield. Dixon is a project, but he has potential. Ferguson has played well in limited time this season, not unexpected for a grandson of the Godfather of the program in Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez. Farrar was a late-in-the-day National Signing Day kid and has played well on special teams and has played sparingly in certain defensive subpackages. He'll have the opportunity to crack the safety rotation.

Projected Starters in 2016: Leo Musso/Lubern Fiagro, D'Cota Dixon

The defense shouldn't skip much of a beat in 2016. Pending Aranda stays in Madison, Wisconsin should still be in good shape on their stop unit. The front seven especially will be solid and wreaking havoc on opposing offenses, but it'll be up to the secondary to match their play. Either way, the Wisconsin defense shouldn't be anything to worry about for Badger fans.