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Wisconsin football 2015 preview: Who will start on the defensive line?

The loss of two key seniors means a handful of young players will need to step up again to solidify the defensive line in 2015.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest question marks heading into the 2015 season for the Wisconsin Badgers is the defensive line, where the Badgers have to replace two-thirds of their starters up front. Despite injuries to starters Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski, the Badgers were strong against the run in 2014, ranking 17th in the country in rushing yards allowed. The injury to Herring -- which made him miss eight games -- gave younger players like then-redshirt freshmen Alec James and Chikwe Obasih valuable playing time. At season's end, four players (Zagzebski, Obasih, Herring, and now-junior Arthur Goldberg) had started at least six games. The experience Obasih and James received last season will prove to be crucial this fall, as they are both have a chance to start at the defensive end positions as sophomores.

Goldberg is still listed currently at nose guard on Wisconsin's website. He started six games at nose guard for the injured Herring a year ago and looked impressive in games against LSU and Iowa. He did miss the spring game with an ankle injury, but should be ready by fall camp.

Goldberg very well could see time at defensive end in running downs in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 scheme, if Aranda elects to go bigger up front and use sophomore Conor Sheehy over center. Sheehy saw a lot of time at nose guard during spring practice and worked his way onto the first-team, along with recording three tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a half sack in the spring game. Whether Goldberg sees more time at defensive end or nose guard remains to be seen, but he will certainly play an enormous role in solidifying the Badgers' defensive line unit.

Along with Goldberg and Sheehy, Obasih and James are expected to play a significant amount of snaps, especially in nickel packages. Obasih has the best shot to secure a starting defensive end position, as he showed flashes last fall. The Brookfield native, who played in all 14 games last season with seven starts, finished second among defensive linemen in tackles with 21 and led the unit in tackles for loss with 2.5.

James will more than likely see time exclusively during passing situations where his athleticism can cause problems for opposing quarterbacks. Coupling Obasih and James with outside linebacker and edge rusher Vince Biegel will give the Badgers enough athleticism to get after the quarterback and create turnovers.

Another linemen likely to get some playing time in the defensive line rotation is senior Jake Keefer, who will provide this unit with depth and veteran leadership. Also keep an eye out on mammoth nose guard Jeremy Patterson, who was big time get for Gary Andersen back in 2014 out of Georgia. At 6'3 and 326 pounds, Patterson is by far the biggest body Aranda has up front. Could we see Patterson earn some playing time if the redshirt freshman continues to make progress and the Badgers start to give up large chunks of yards on the ground?

This is a unit that Aranda will likely shuffle around a number of times this season depending on the opposing offense and particular situation. We will learn a lot more about this unit come Sept. 5, when they go up against Alabama's potent rushing attack led by Heisman contender Derrick Henry.

Leaders (2014 stats)

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

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

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

Warren Herring: 17 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss

Returning players

Goldberg (RS JR), Obasih (RS SO), James (RS SO), Keefer (RS SR), Sheehy (SO), James Adeyanju (RS SR), Zander Neuville (RS FR), Garret Dooley (RS SO), Billy Hirschfield (RS FR) and Patterson (RS FR)

Departing players

Herring and Zagzebski

Additions to position

Olive Sagapolu (Mater Dei, Santa Ana, CA), Kelly Thomas (St. Catherine's, Racine, WI), Kraig Howe (Archbishop Alter, Dayton, OH), Gunnar Roberge (Seymour, Seymour, WI) and David Pfaff (Homestead, Thiensville, WI)

X-Factor: Chikwe Obasih

Obasih has the best chance of anybody to blossom into the next great defensive linemen for Wisconsin. A big time recruit in 2013 out of Brookfield Central, Obasih has the athleticism to rush the passer but also looked good enough in running downs last season to be a starter in the team's first game versus Alabama. If Obasih can turn into an every down, impact defensive end, it should lessen concerns about the uncertainty and youth the Badgers have up front.