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Wisconsin 2017 spring football preview: Reliable defensive line returns major contributors

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A deep, experienced line will be needed this season.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Wisconsin Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

With the Wisconsin Badgers beginning spring practices this week, it’s time to continue overviewing each position group heading into the 2017 season.

All six players on the two-deep of Wisconsin’s defensive line return. Despite an arm injury last season to nose tackle Olive Sagapolu that cost the sophomore five games, position coach Inoke Breckterfield and then-defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox inserted Conor Sheehy into the middle of the line, and the defensive play did not miss a beat.

This is one of, if not the most experienced position groups on the team in terms of contributions and games played. This season, the line will need to be counted upon even more to open up gaps for the Badgers’ linebackers (especially the intriguing but unproven outside linebackers) and also to make plays themselves.

Wisconsin’s 2017 Defensive Line

Lineman Position 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Lineman Position 2017 Year Height Weight Hometown
Chikwe Obasih DE R-SR 6'3 267 Brookfield, Wis.
Alec James DE R-SR 6'3 270 Brookfield, Wis.
Conor Sheehy DE SR 6'4 290 Milwaukee, Wis.
Billy Hirschfeld DE R-JR 6'6 300 Okauchee, Wis.
David Pfaff DE R-SO 6'2 267 Mequon, Wis.
Isaiahh Loudermilk DE R-FR 6'7 296 Howard, Kan.
Kraig Howe DE R-SO 6'3 272 Dayton, Ohio
Kelly Thomas DE R-SO 6'6 261 Racine, Wis.
Hegeman Tiedt DE R-FR 6'4 237 Burlington, Wis.
Michael Balistreri DE FR 6'4 280 Grafton, Wis.
Matt Henningsen DE FR 6'4 260 Menomonee Falls, Wis.
Olive Sagapolu NT JR 6'2 348 Huntington Beach, Calif.
Garrett Rand DE/NT SO 6'2 269 Chandler, Ariz.
Jeremy Patterson NT R-JR 6'3 352 Screven, Ga.
Gunner Roberge NT R-SO 6'4 292 Seymour, Wis.

Note: Rand is listed as defensive end on the 2017 spring roster but was in the two deep of the depth chart at nose tackle last year.

2016 Leaders

Conor Sheehy: 27 tackles, four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks

Alec James: 23 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks

Chikwe Obasih: 22 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks

Key Departures

None

Key Additions

Michael Balistreri, Matt Henningsen (walk-ons)

Position Overview

There are no real, big questions for this group this year in terms of position battles. The line mostly has opened up opportunities for the linebackers and secondary to make plays, thus not necessarily producing eye-popping statistics individually. That probably won’t change heading into 2017, but it should be interesting to see how each lineman takes the next step and if they can cause more disruption in opposing backfields if the combination of scheme, potential and assignments allow.

The trio of Obasih, James and Sheehy will return and continues to be a solid rotation at defensive end. The three have combined to play in 121 games, including 62 starts (Obasih 31, Sheehy 19—some at nose tackle in 2016—James 12).

If Wisconsin plays 14 games this year with conference title and bowl appearances (and barring injuries), Obasih could actually break the school’s all-time record for games played. UWBadgers.com’s Andy Baggot reported on Monday that the defensive end will be out for the spring with a hip injury.

James, like Obasih a Brookfield native (Alec played at Brookfield East, Chikwe at Brookfield Central), emerged nicely in 2016 at end with 3.5 sacks. His pass-rushing prowess will be needed without the production of outgoing outside linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt.

With Sagapolu’s injury costing the California native a good chunk of the season, Sheehy showed his versatility by playing both at end and anchoring the middle of the line at nose tackle.

Hirschfeld is one of the tallest ends at 6’6 and has the big frame you want with a player at that position. The Hartland Arrowhead native has played in 16 games so far and as a would-be redshirt junior, his progression will be beneficial for the seniors ahead of him as well as himself going into the 2018 campaign with James, Obasih and Sheehy all exhausting eligibility.

Behind those four, those looking to gain more experience include the likes of David Pfaff, Kraig Howe and Isaiahh Loudermilk, the latter a redshirt freshman who intrigued many as a tight end in eight-man football in Kansas. Their development will be key if injuries arise.

At nose tackle, Sagapolu may be 348 pounds but the would-be junior is one of the most athletic players on this roster. Note the impressive toe touch and splits from mid-February during a Wisconsin men’s basketball game.

Garrett Rand found playing time last year in all 14 contests and it will be interesting to see how he progresses weight-wise heading into 2017. He’s listed at 269 pounds, but his freakish strength and ability to adjust quickly to the college level—like Sagapolu before him—helped Wisconsin’s defensive line. It should be intriguing where they place him on the line, as he’s listed as an end currently.

Behind Sagapolu and Rand, where Jeremy Patterson fits into the defense as a redshirt junior will be something to watch this spring and into the fall. The Georgia native and former three-star recruit has played in four games in his career but was surpassed on the depth chart by Rand in 2016.