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Wisconsin football preview: Badgers’ defensive line brings heralded reputation into 2016

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The play of Wisconsin’s defensive line will be a major factor for the outlook of the entire unit under Justin Wilcox.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

As the Wisconsin Badgers enter Year 4 of their 3-4 base alignment on defense, most would say it’s been a success from a pure numbers perspective, and also from an overall wins perspective. However, the defensive scheme will be cut loose this season from the one who birthed it, nurtured it and gave it its wings – former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who made the high-profile and high-paying move to LSU this offseason.

Justin Wilcox, the new, well-traveled and well-respected coordinator, has given no indication that he will change the base formations and bedrock principles (aggression against ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, disguised and otherwise), but he does not bring Aranda’s “mad professor” vibe with him to the Badgers.

The defensive line, as in most odd-man fronts (to the extent Wisconsin has used such alignments on a down-in, down-out basis during Aranda’s tenure), has as its primary role the occupation of blockers at the point of attack, which has the intended effect of freeing tacklers — linebackers, defensive backs — to angle in on ball carriers and snuff out plays before they can get started or before they can do much damage. Helping the 2015 defense to top 10 national ranks in rushing yards/game (95.5; fifth), yards/play (4.41; fourth), total defense (268.5; second) and, maybe most notably, points/game (13.7; first), last season’s line was rightly praised in doing whatever was asked of it.

If the Badgers’ defensive line lacked in anything statistically, it’d be sacks, but again, rushing the passer is almost a fortunate happenstance from 3-4 defensive linemen. Never mind, however, because the strength of last year’s line was its depth. Although Aranda’s subpackages also kept linemen fresh, there was rarely a significant a drop-off when a starter stepped off for a breather. For 2016, the main questions will be whether the depth will be as solid as last year’s, what this year’s subpackages will look like and just what can be expected of Wilcox’s leadership of this defense. The latter is even more critical considering head coach Paul Chryst’s career-long offensive bent and relative lack of success on defense in his previous job.

Leaders at the position (2015 stats)

  • Chikwe Obasih: 41 tackles, 4 tackles for loss
  • Connor Sheehy: 31 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks
  • Alec James: 17 tackles, 2 tackles for loss
  • Arthur Goldberg: 17 tackles, 0 tackles for loss (played just 8 games)

Departures

  • Arthur Goldberg
  • Jake Keefer (graduation)

Returning players

Nose tackle:
  • Olive Sagapolu (So.)
  • Jeremy Patterson (RS So.)
  • Gunnar Roberge (RS Fr.)
End:
  • Connor Sheehy (Jr.)
  • Chikwe Obasih (Jr.)
  • Alec James (Jr.)
  • Billy Hirschfeld (RS So.)
  • Zander Neuville (RS So.)
  • Kraig Howe (RS Fr.)
  • David Pfaff (RS Fr.)
  • Kelly Thomas (RS Fr.)

Newcomers

  • Garrett Rand (Phoenix, Ariz.)
  • Isiahh Loudermilk (Kansas City, Kan.)
  • Keldric Preston (Tampa, Fla. — may play outside linebacker as well)
  • Tyler Biadasz (Amherst, Wis. — listed variously as offensive lineman)

X-Factors: Jeremy Patterson at nose, Garrett Rand at end or nose

Patterson, who suited up in Houston his freshman year to remain on the sideline even after Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski were lost to injuries — against LSU in 2014’s opener, has yet to log significant time on the field after three years in the program. Seemingly a prototypical major-conference nose, Patterson has battled weight problems and has never lived up to what once appeared to vast potential. Looking to spell rising sophomore Sagapolu, will this be the year for 2014’s Defensive Scout Team player of the year?

On the other hand, Rand comes to Wisconsin with even higher prospects than Patterson in 2013. The erstwhile crown jewel of this Badgers’ recruiting class, he turned down offers from nearly every Pac-12 power and a few other blueblood programs to come to Wisconsin (where he did have some family ties). It may be tough for him to log significant minutes, especially along this line, but given the wont of this system for rotational depth, he could be a prime candidate for a stripped redshirt — especially if injuries strike.

Likely starters: Connor Sheehy, Chikwe Obasih (Ends), Olive Sagapolu (Nose)

Obasih has all-league skills and the physique to match. Although he never takes over games like the best 3-4 ends can, he rarely disappoints and beats his blocks more often than not. Sheehy has the flexibility and size to work at end or provide bulk up the middle; his upfield skills have improved every year he’s been in the program. Sagapolu was something of a revelation in 2015, proving himself in an early surprise and firmly ensconcing himself as the Badgers’ top nose man by the season’s midpoint.

Rotationally, however, Patterson or Rand — or Sheehy — could spell Sagapolu, and in the best-case scenario, the drop-off wouldn’t be too precipitous. At end, Alec James, almost as highly touted as Obasih when they came into the program together, flashes on a somewhat regular basis. If the flash becomes the norm, James will be an even more valuable piece.

Hirschfeld, who is connected in the minds of many with Sheehy as, by analogy, James is to Obasih (both in-state, same class, similar expectations out of high school), could well come into his own this year with more snaps. Meanwhile, former walk-on Neuville earned a scholarship prior to the 2015 season by continuous improvement and consistently adding bulk without compromising his speed and athleticism. A multi-sport star from Waupaca, Wis., he’s pitched in on the end rotation but has done his most standout work in Aranda’s “peso” package (two down linemen, four linebackers and five d-backs).

In short, the top five d-linemen are solid, if not spectacular (in maybe Obasih’s or Sagapolu’s case) — pretty much what d-linemen in this style of defense should be. Injuries, as always, will test the depth but with Howe, Pfaff (and Rand and Loudermilk) beginning what could be great careers in this defense, the cupboard won’t be too bare, even if the youngsters are quite unproven.

As with most of this Badgers squad, we’ll know a lot more after this group has taken on the quality lines (some extremely high-quality) featured by nearly every Wisconsin opponent until after Halloween.