Though underappreciated most of the time, a strong defensive line can provide so much against opposing offenses. Plugging up holes in the run game to allow its linebacking corp to make plays, adding an extra pressure or two to keep the quarterback uneasy. Linemen are more often than not unsung heroes of a defense.
Once again, the Wisconsin Badgers will have that luxury this year.
UW’s defensive line could boast the deepest and most experienced position group currently on the roster, with a mix of entrenched veterans with years of starts under their belt and some young prospects who have the ability to fill the void after three seniors depart.
Wisconsin’s 2017 Defensive Linemen
|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.|
|Garrett Rand||DE||SO||6'2||269||Chandler, Ariz.|
|Isaiahh Loudermilk||DE||R-FR||6'7||296||Howard, Kan.|
|David Pfaff||DE||R-SO||6'2||267||Mequon, Wis.|
|Kraig Howe||DE||R-SO||6'3||272||Dayton, Ohio|
|Kelly Thomas||DE||R-SO||6'6||261||Racine, Wis.|
|Michael Balistreri||DE||FR||6'4||280||Grafton, Wis.|
|Matt Henningsen||DE||FR||6'4||260||Menomonee Falls, Wis.|
|Billy Hirschfeld||DE/NT||R-JR||6'6||300||Okauchee, Wis.|
|Olive Sagapolu||NT||JR||6'2||348||Huntington Beach, Calif.|
|Jeremy Patterson||NT||R-JR||6'3||352||Screven, Ga.|
|Gunner Roberge||NT||R-SO||6'4||292||Seymour, Wis.|
The top four of this group (the projected starters in the 3-4 scheme) feature three defensive ends and one nose guard. The ends—Chikwe Obasih, Alec James, and Conor Sheehy—are all seniors who will take up two of the starting positions on the line. They have played a combined 121 games with 62 starts.
Though Obasih did not practice this past spring due to a hip injury, the elder statesmen of the line and former Brookfield Central product should be in prime position to build upon his 2016 (22 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, four pass break-ups), when he was named a consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention.
James, another Brookfield native (from rival Brookfield East), led the line in sacks last season (3.5) and showed the ability to pressure the quarterback at times on his way to an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection by the coaches.
Sheehy also earned honors in 2016: third-team All-Big Ten by the conference’s coaches, honorable mention by the media. His versatility showed last year when Olive Sagapolu was forced out for six games due to a broken hand, forcing the Milwaukee native inside to nose guard.
Despite being nearly 350 pounds, Sagapolu is extremely athletic as a nose guard and will be counted upon to take on the interior linemen in Wisconsin’s base 3-4 scheme—though he did tell B5Q’s Owen Riese during the spring that there may be more activity along the line under first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. The California native already has experience playing in 22 games (nine starts) through two seasons.
Behind those projected starters, there’s a mix of players who have found time on the field, with one redshirt freshman making a case to receive reps this year.
Garrett Rand bumped out a couple of techniques from nose guard to end. The sophomore’s strength was most definitely apparent in 2016, but the move outside should allow him to flourish even further.
“We coach them all the same, it’s all the same technique. Garrett didn’t have the size, but he is very strong,” position coach Inoke Breckterfield told Riese in April. “You never really saw him get moved at nose, so his size wasn’t really a problem. I think he’ll fit in well at defensive end.”
The surprise of the spring was redshirt freshman Isaiahh Loudermilk. A former seven-man prep football standout in Kansas, he showed the ability to make plays during the 15 spring practices. With Obasih out and James and Sheehy both resting at times during sessions, he saw time with the first-team defense.
Loudermilk admitted he still has much to learn about the game, despite the success seen in March and April.
“My goal is just to work and be as good as I can be, and wherever I’m at, when that happens, I’m fine wherever I’m at,” Loudermilk said. “I hope to have a role in the season next year, but I’m just going to work and improve every aspect of it.”
Behind Sagapolu at nose guard, there are redshirt juniors Billy Hirschfeld and Jeremy Patterson. Hirschfeld is still listed as an end on UW’s spring roster, though a report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stated the Okauchee, Wis., product is now at nose tackle. At 6’6, 300 pounds, that’s a massive body to move around on the line of scrimmage.
Hading into his fourth season with the program, Patterson was passed by on the depth chart by Rand last season. Still around 350 pounds, he received some reps with what appeared to be the back-ups during the spring, but it will be interesting to see his progression this season.
Update: We’ve updated the table above to reflect Wednesday’s news that Jake Hescock is transferring from Wisconsin.