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What will Wisconsin’s 2018 defense look like?

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2017’s experienced, talented unit will need to be replaced.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 02 Big 10 Championship Game - Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Not even a week past the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers capping off a historic 13-win season with an Orange Bowl win, we’re already talking about what lies ahead next season.

To be fair, what Wisconsin and head coach Paul Chryst have accomplished the past two years only lends more excitement and speculation. Two appearances in the Big Ten Championship Game, two New Year’s Six bowl victories, along with an infusion of talent from both younger players and upperclassmen leads to a successful outlook.

So what does lie ahead for the 2018 Badgers, barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances?

Looking at Jim Leonhard’s defense, a lot will change—including who will help develop players at outside linebacker. Seven starters will depart (six seniors, one underclassman) and two other regular contributors are also leaving.

Through Jan. 2, this defense ranked among the top 10—in most categories, top five—in the following:

  • Second in total defense (262.1 yards per game) and team pass efficiency (96.39)
  • Tied for second in defensive touchdowns (six)
  • Third in scoring allowed (13.9 points per game) and rush defense (98.4 yards per game)
  • Sixth in third-down conversions allowed (29.1 percent).

Who the Badgers send onto the Camp Randall Stadium field when they face Western Kentucky on Aug. 31 will look very different from 2017’s unit.

Defensive line

Gone are defensive ends Conor Sheehy, Alec James, and Chikwe Obasih, who played in 157 games during their time in Madison.

One consistent will be senior-to-be nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, with defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk heading into his redshirt sophomore year and probably starting at one of the end positions.

Garrett Rand will contribute heavily next year, but at which position? Last spring, he worked at end before transitioning back to nose tackle for the 2017 season. With Sheehy, James, and Obasih gone, does that open up the opportunity for the freakishly strong Rand to bump outside?

At end, how will redshirt sophomore-to-be Keldric Preston, redshirt juniors-to-be David Pfaff, and Kraig Howe, or potentially redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal step up starting in winter conditioning and heading into spring practices? If Billy Hirschfeld returns for his fifth year after taking a leave of absence from the team earlier this season, he could provide some depth as well.

Behind Sagapolu at nose tackle technically on the depth chart is Rand, but if he does slip out to end, could early enrollee Bryson Williams step up? Like Rand did two seasons ago, Williams is coming in physically ready to play at 6’2, 295 pounds (he also benches 385, squats 535, and cleans 365 before UW strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej gets his hands on him).

Outside linebacker

Another year, another season where Wisconsin has to replace production at this position group. In 2018, however, Leonhard will also have to replace position coach Tim Tibesar, who left Madison after the Orange Bowl to become Oregon State’s defensive coordinator.

In his three years at Wisconsin, Tibesar tutored the likes of NFL linebackers Joe Schobert, T.J. Watt, and Vince Biegel, with outgoing redshirt seniors Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs now having a chance to join them in playing on Sundays.

Dooley (team-leading 7.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss) and Jacobs (3.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss, eight quarterback hurries, and two interceptions) developed into playmakers for Wisconsin this season under the tutelage of Tibesar.

Junior college tranfer Andrew Van Ginkel blossomed in his first year as a Badger, contributing 10 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks while contributing two interceptions in the last two games of the season: his pick-six against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game and his second-quarter pick against Miami that sparked 21 unanswered points by Bucky.

Though Van Ginkel is the most noteworthy name returning from this position group, walk-on Tyler Johnson also provided some spark when called upon with two forced fumbles, two tackles for loss and a sack.

As Leonhard told reporters last week:

“Tyler Johnson’s a kid that all he does, is when you put him on the field, is make plays and shows up.”

Johnson was the fourth outside linebacker in the group and played in all 14 games. He tallied two tackles for loss, a sack, and two forced fumbles. That included a strip-sack against Illinois.

After suffering a foot injury that cost him the 2017 season, Zack Baun should return for spring practices and be a contributor to the unit. Leonhard mentioned that the former state prep offensive player of the year was athletic but learning, and expected him to “take a big jump” before the injury.

Alabama transfer Christian Bell, who will be a redshirt sophomore, could figure into the mix. All were mentioned by Leonhard when he spoke with reporters last week:

“Some of those young outside linebackers, it’s going to be their time, and they got to have a big offseason in the weight room. They got to have a big offseason as far as learning football and being more confident.”

Inside linebacker

A big piece of the defense returns in redshirt junior T.J. Edwards (81 tackles, 11 for loss, four interceptions, one pick-six), after the All-American announced his return for his senior season on Tuesday. This group is the deepest on Wisconsin’s defense, with at least Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly returning. Edwards’s return only provides more leadership and talent to a younger defense.

From Leonhard’s talk last week:

“Inside linebacker to me is the one that you need Chris Orr to continue to grow and develop. He’s made big plays for us. He’s a communicator, he’s a leader for us. Just gotta take the next step with him, Ryan Connelly the same way. You saw from last year him having the ability to make plays and then this year just the consistency with which he’s made plays, you hope he takes that to the next step and just continues to gain confidence.”

Connelly, a former walk-on, led the team in tackles (88) and was tied for second in tackles for loss (11). Orr played in 12 games this season after returning from a right knee injury that cost him his 2016 campaign, registering 36 tackles (three for loss) plus a 78-yard pick-six against Nebraska.

Behind them, Arrington Farrar rotated in at times this season in his first season at inside linebacker. Can he, Griffin Grady, and Mike Maskalunas work their way into snaps on the field? The latter two both received a lot of reps last spring with Jack Cichy, Edwards, Orr, and Connelly all out. In same interview, Leonhard mentioned Farrar and Grady.

Cornerback

Leonhard will need to replace three starters and a key contributing reserve in the secondary—a pressing challenge, though there is talent currently at and coming into Madison at the cornerback and safety positions.

Like at defensive end, two members of the secondary will become new starters at corner. Nick Nelson declared for the NFL Draft after earning consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors and leading the nation in pass break-ups (21), while Derrick Tindal finished his four-year Badger career with a win near his hometown in the Orange Bowl. Back-up Lubern Figaro, like Tindal, also exhausted his eligibility.

Dontye Carriere-Williams, the team’s third cornerback in the nickel package who recorded 30 tackles, six pass break-ups, and an interception, will take on one of those spots barring injury. The other slot appears to be open with some younger, relatively unproven players ready to take on added responsibilities.

Madison Cone played in nine games this season as a tru freshman and recorded a pass break-up against Miami in the Orange Bowl. There is also Caesar Williams, who will be entering his third season. Faion Hicks enrolled early like Cone, but despite being injured for a portion of his first year in Madison, seemed to impress Leonhard based on his comments last week.

Can early enrollee Donte Burton or other incoming freshmen like Travian Blaylock or Alexander Smith make a push for early playing time like Cone and predecessors Tindal and Sojourn Shelton?

Some more quotes from Leonhard last week on these cornerbacks:

On Carriere-Williams:

“Secondary-wise, obviously Dontye Carriere-Williams has had a great year for us as our third guy [cornerback], and now he’s got to take the next step and become a leader in that room and really on and off the room.”

On Cone:

“Madison Cone is a guy that’s impressed me all year just with his approach to the game. He’s a very mature kid that understands football and wants to get better. Anytime you have that, it’s great.”

On Hicks:

“Faion Hicks, loved what he’s done once he’s been able to get healthy. He’s extremely athletic and he’s hungry. He had some injury issues early where he’s just fighting back, and just his approach, I think he’s got a chance to be very good in this program.”

On Williams:

“Caesar, I think has figured out who he is on the field and he needs a big offseason to physically get where he needs to be to really help this team, but I think he’s close.”

Safety

Both seniors Natrell Jamerson and Joe Ferguson depart, leaving team captain D’Cota Dixon as the lone starter returning to the secondary.

Jamerson transitioned well to free safety after being at cornerback (and wide receiver before that), recording 51 tackles, two interceptions and 10 pass break-ups this season. Ferguson, the [insert Bingo space here] former walk-on and grandson of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, became a playmaker while tying Edwards for the team lead in interceptions (four) when Dixon was injured for a portion of the season.

Dixon, who according to an article in The Athletic ($) published earlier this week will undergo shoulder surgery, will continue to be one of the defense’s leaders after recording 55 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks, and a safety despite being injured for a substantial portion of the year.

Who bumps up to free safety will be interesting. Redshirt sophomore-to-be (if his medical hardship waiver is approved) Patrick Johnson only played in four games this season before a right arm injury sidelined him. He was in the two-deep behind Jamerson before the injury.

Eric Burrell then moved up in the depth chart and saw playing time in some three-safety packages in the middle of the season. Seth Currens and defensive scout team player of the year Scott Nelson—who stayed after practices with Dixon for mentorship—could be other players to watch in an unproven but potentially deep position group.

Leonhard’s remarks on the position:

“You got Pat Johnson. You got Eric Burrell. Scott Nelson—loved his approach. Seth Currens. All guys that have contributed on special teams—outside of Scott—guys that have contributed on teams and know the speed of the game, and now it’s time to go push. It’s time to push, and that to me is the number one thing.”

“Just all positions, it’s time for guys to go compete, and opportunities are going to be there. Roles are going to be there to be won, and I think the approach that our guys handle this offseason on and off the field is extremely important.”