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A look at Wisconsin’s defense through two weeks of fall camp

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We looked at the offense. Now it’s time for the defense.

Linebacker Chris Orr at Saturday’s practice.
Linebacker Chris Orr at Saturday’s practice.
Jake Kocorowski

The Wisconsin Badgers’ defense could be special again in 2017, even after a major injury that has already knocked one of its star players out for the season.

Experienced players litter each of the defensive levels for first-year coordinator Jim Leonhard, with talent apparent at each position group. There aren’t many glaring concerns on the first-team unit, though it should bear watching who steps up as the fourth inside linebacker, as well as who emerges as contributors at both nickel back and reserve outside linebacker.

After watching two weeks of fall camp, here’s B5Q’s look at the Badgers’ defense.

Projected Wisconsin Depth Chart — Defense

Position First Team Second Team
Position First Team Second Team
Defensive End Alec James/Chikwe Obasih Billy Hirschfeld
Nose Tackle Olive Sagapolu Garrett Rand
Defensive End Conor Sheehy Isaiahh Loudermilk
Outside Linebacker Garrett Dooley Andrew Van Ginkel
Inside Linebacker T.J. Edwards Arrington Farrar/Mike Maskalunas/Griffin Grady
Inside Linebacker Chris Orr Ryan Connelly
Outside Linebacker Leon Jacobs Zack Baun
Cornerback Nick Nelson Dontye Carriere-Williams
Free Safety Natrell Jamerson Patrick Johnson
Strong Safety D'Cota Dixon Joe Ferguson
Cornerback Derrick Tindal Lubern Figaro
Nickel Back Carriere-Williams/Figaro

Defensive line

The first-team defensive line is the most experienced position on the team and should be one that excels provided injuries don’t hamper playing time. This is a group of no-name players who deserve more credit than they receive, especially considering the success of Wisconsin’s linebackers over the course of the last few seasons.

Expect seniors Alec James, Chikwe Obasih, and team captain Conor Sheehy to stymie opposing offenses as they rotate onto the field. Obasih has worked his way back from a hip injury that kept him out for the spring, playing with the second-team line for the first week of camp before moving into the “starting” rotation with James this past week.

Junior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, though nearly 350 pounds, has the athletic ability to move around and still be the anchor inside against interior offensive linemen.

Behind Sagapolu, Garrett Rand looks to be the No. 2 nose tackle after moving back inside from end after spring practices. The 6’2, 272-pound, four-star product doesn’t have the size of Sagapolu, but his strength could be unmatched.

Rand’s move back inside means Billy Hirschfeld bumps back outside. The 6’6, 305-pound redshirt junior will provide depth along with redshirt freshman Isaiahh Loudermilk, a Kansas native who played eight-man football in high school. Loudermilk has bumped up his weight and flashed many times during spring practice before working with the second-team line during fall camp. Both players should be on the depth chart and have shots at breaking into the rotation this year.

Inside linebackers

Gone is team captain and former walk-on Jack Cichy for the 2017 season after he tore his ACL last week. His energy and presence on the field will be missed on the defensive side of the ball, but like last season when a torn pectoral muscle sidelined him for the final seven games, there are viable back-up options.

Returning to the first team in Cichy’s absence is Chris Orr. The inside linebacker can be vocal and has a leadership presence that should be similar to Cichy’s.

“I think his level of conditioning is getting better,” inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad said on Saturday. “He’s got to get used to that brace—we’re requiring him to wear a brace right now—so I think there’s a little bit of getting used to that. But some things that I’ve seen at that ‘Will’ position, he did some good things the other day just naturally that I really liked.”

It will be interesting to see when the media has availability with players this week if redshirt junior Ryan Connelly is back on the field after being out for the past week due to a left leg injury. Bostad mentioned on Saturday that he expected the former walk-on to return in two days.

Connelly took over last year when both Orr and Cichy went down, helping solidify a defense that was top-10 in several categories. Wisconsin needs Connelly to be that third inside linebacker in the rotation, especially considering Cichy’s absence.

Ryan Connelly has missed time in camp, but is expected back soon.
Ryan Connelly has missed time in camp, but is expected back soon.
Jake Kocorowski

Who steps up as the fourth inside linebacker should be the most interesting topic to monitor with this group when the official depth chart comes out the week of the Sept. 1 season opener.

“I think those are those windows of opportunity for those guys,” Chryst said on Thursday when asked about players that may be asked to do more. “Arrington Farrar, who kind of made the switch halfway through the spring, maybe a little bit past halfway, so he has a chance to get reps. We’ve liked the way Mikey Maskalunas has come in and worked, so there’s more work for him. It’d be good to get Griffin [Grady] back. He’s kind of missing that, so those are three guys that kind of come off the top of your head that that’s good work for them, so they got to take advantage of that.”

Farrar and Maskalunas have worked with the second-team defense with Connelly injured and Orr moving up alongside Edwards with the starters. Grady has been slowed by an illness, but played in 12 games as a true freshman last season.

Bostad mentioned on Saturday that both Maskalunas—who received first-team reps with Grady during the spring due to injuries to the rest of the position group—and Farrar are in the “beginning stages,” saying, “they got a pretty good feel, but its not instinctual yet.”

Outside linebackers

Wisconsin has its two starters in redshirt seniors Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, both of whom have looked very sharp early on.

Jacobs is a physical specimen on the field and has more than held his own. Dooley has been more than solid off the edge. These two should lock down the spots at outside linebacker and not just contribute, but possibly become difference makers for Leonhard’s defense.

Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs will lead the Badgers at outside linebacker.
Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs will lead the Badgers at outside linebacker.
Jake Kocorowski

Redshirt junior Andrew Van Ginkel has received reps with the No. 2 defense and appears to be in a spot to rotate in when needed. He’s got the length at 6’4, 234 pounds, and flashed here and there in both spring and fall camps.

Behind them, there have been early injuries to two possible rotational players. Redshirt sophomore Zack Baun has been injured for part of camp and appeared to be back on the field on Saturday.

In Baun’s place last week, walk-on Tyler Johnson received reps with Van Ginkel after moving back to the position from inside linebacker in the spring. Alabama transfer Christian Bell has been injured a good part of camp.


Wisconsin’s starters will be special if they stay healthy. Senior Derrick Tindal and redshirt junior Nick Nelson could be the best tandem in the conference, and one of the best in the nation.

It seems like in every practice Nelson, a Hawaii transfer, has some form of a pass break-up or play being made to disrupt the offense. That includes an interception of quarterback Karé Lyles on Saturday in 7-on-7 skeleton drills. Leonhard mentioned how Nelson has the “knack” to be in a natural body position for a cornerback.

“Honestly, I think the ceiling is very, very high, because just you see him everyday he goes out there, just the confidence continues to rise and rise,” Leonhard said last Saturday. “He came in very good technically. He did a lot of things naturally that you got to spend a lot of time coaching, and in just over a year, you can just see how locked in he is everyday.

“His mentality—he makes receivers play up to his level or he’s going to embarrass him. That’s kind of his mentality, which is awesome for a corner. He works on the little subtleties of his game. It’s not just going in and putting in a day ever, which is fun. I’m excited to watch him play because he’s ready.”

Tindal has played well during camp against Wisconsin’s wide receivers. Often vocal on the field, the senior could be setting up for his best season yet.

Behind them, the competition for the nickel back spot appears to be between redshirt freshman Dontye Carriere-Williams and senior Lubern Figaro.

Carriere-Williams missed some time last week due to a back injury, but Leonhard didn’t confirm who was in the lead when speaking with reporters on Aug. 12.

“Really splitting reps, and obviously Dontye missed a couple days so that put him back a little bit, but trying to split reps because I want all of those guys to play different positions,” Leonhard said. “I want Derrick Tindal to play inside, I want him to be able to play outside. Same with Dontye, and those are really the two guys that need to get both, so just mixing and matching and making sure that I’m monitoring how many reps they’re getting at each.”

That lends to the notion that the depth chart is still up in the air, though Carriere-Williams’s capabilities at playing in the slot or outside could allow Leonhard to play to key matchups more.

“I think he’s doing well,” Leonhard said about Carriere-Williams’s progress. “I think there’s a better understanding of the defense. Physically, he’s ready to play and he’s ready to help us, and going into the slot, it’s a little bit different. I ask those guys to do a lot in this defense, and I think he’s handled it well, and like I said, there will be a mix and match between a number of guys probably throughout the season.”


D’Cota Dixon is the starting strong safety and appears positioned to be another heavy contributor to the defense after tying for fourth on the team in tackles (60) and second in interceptions (four) last season.

Senior Natrell Jamerson will be the first-team free safety. He might be the one piece of the secondary that’s the most inexperienced despite playing cornerback the past two seasons. He’s got the strength (see: 405-pound bench press and 555-pound squat) and the speed physically.

“The biggest difference for him is just learning how to see things from deep, whether he’s in the middle of the field or playing quarters where he’s 10 or 12 yards deep,” Leonhard said when asked about the adjustments Jamerson has had to make from cornerback. “Just he had never did that, so that was the biggest adjustment for him.

“I thought throughout the spring he made a lot of progress. You could just see the comfort level take the next step when he got into fall camp.”

The two-deep at safety seems set, as Dixon and Jamerson’s back-ups appeared to have had solid August practices as well. Redshirt senior Joe Ferguson has made pass break-ups and at least one interception during camp after being a ballhawk during the spring. I still feel the former walk-on could be in particular packages where Wisconsin brings in three safeties against multiple tight end sets.

Sophomore Patrick Johnson also picked off a pass on Saturday and has dropped considerable weight heading into his second season.