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Wisconsin football 2015 preview: Way-too-early look at the defensive line

The Badgers will have to replace two-thirds of their starting defensive line.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Paul Chryst era is now in full swing at Wisconsin. As we're only a month away from spring football, B5Q dives deep to preview each position. We've covered all the offensive positions; now let's take a look at the defensive side of the ball and what defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will bring back in 2015.

Wisconsin's defensive line was in a constant state of patchwork in 2014. The opening day starters—Warren HerringArthur Goldberg and Konrad Zagzebski—only started one more game together the rest of the way, the regular season finale against Minnesota. Both Herring and Zagzebski were knocked out in the opener against LSU, and though Zagzebski would return in time for the Western Illinois game, Herring would proceed to miss five games before returning against Maryland.

While many anticipated Herring to plug the middle at nose guard and Zagzebski to play on the edge, the two flip-flopped when Herring returned at the halfway point. Compensating for Herring's absence and the youth of Chikwe Obasih and Alec James, along with getting more speed on the field against spread-type offenses, the Badgers began employing a 2-4-5 nickel defense instead of its normal base 3-4 scheme.

More early previews: QB RB WR TE OL LB DB

The Badgers' defensive line constantly shifted inside and outside. To show the line shifts and changes, consider the fact there were three starting nose guards in the 2014 season, as seen below:

  • Zagzebski -- 11 games started (seven at nose guard)
  • Obasih -- seven games started (one at nose guard)
  • Herring -- six games started (zero at nose guard when many expected him to start there going into season)
  • Goldberg -- six games started (all at nose guard)

With Herring and Zagzebski now graduated, Wisconsin will need greater, consistent impact from both Obasih and James and a handful of unknown players to fill crucial backup roles, especially if injuries force the line into another state of patchwork.

Leaders (2014 stats)

Goldberg: 25 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks

Obasih: 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks

Zagzebski: 18 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack

Herring: 17 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss

Returning players

Goldberg (RS JR), Obasih (RS SO), James (RS SO), Jake Keefer (RS SR), Conor Sheehy (SO), James Adeyanju (RS SR), Garret Dooley (RS SO), Brady Kelliher (RS SO), Ash Fonjungo (RS SO), Billy Hirschfield (RS FR) and Jeremy Patterson (RS FR)

Departing players

Zagzebski and Herring


Olive Sagapolu (Mater Dei, Santa Ana, Calif.), Kraig Howe (Archbishop Alter, Dayton, Ohio) and David Pfaff (Homestead, Thiensville, Wis.)

X-Factors: Obasih and James

These two were both major recruits for the Badgers in the 2013 class. Depending on what publication you look at, both were labeled as either four-star or three-star players. According to 247Sports, these were two of the top three players in the state of Wisconsin when they came out of high school.

After solid play last year as redshirt freshmen, Obasih and James are both poised for breakout years. While the Badgers did lose their sack leader in linebacker Derek Landisch, they do return dynamic edge rusher Vince Biegel. If Obasih and James can get provide an above-average pass rush, Wisconsin could wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks next season.

Early predictions for starters: Obasih, Goldberg and James

It's rather safe to pencil in Goldberg and Obasih as two of the starters. They were the two leading tacklers on the defensive line and Obasih led the unit in sacks. Obasih added 23 pounds to his frame between 2013 and 2014 to weighin at 268 pounds, and though Obasih only officially started seven games, he was a crucial component of the defensive line rotation. He will start on the end in 2015.

Goldberg filled in at nose guard and didn't miss a beat despite the injuries around him. Though his role diminished somewhat when Herring returned, Goldberg still filled in admirably during his absence. It's worth noting that he became such an important part of the line without ever having played in a collegiate game before the LSU opener.

Like Obasih, James, the redshirt sophomore, also made gains in the weight room between 2013 and 2014 and came in at 259 pounds last season. While James was by no means spectacular last year, his former big-time recruiting status could finally parlay into a huge season. Though James' starting position might be the one most up for debate, expect the Brookfield, Wis. native to play over veteran Jake Keefer or relatively inexperienced player like Conor Sheehy. That being said, watch for Keefer and Sheehy to play key backup roles this fall.