Fifteen up and 15 down for the Wisconsin Badgers’ spring football season.
These practices weren’t expected to answer many of the questions lingering about a defensive unit losing seven starters and two major contributors, but there were some good performances that could translate to more definitive roles heading into fall camp.
Earlier, B5Q broke down which offensive players made splashes between mid-March and late April. Now, we turn to the other side of the ball for those Badgers attempting to anchor the defense.
Andrew Van Ginkel
Last season, he capped off his 2017 campaign with big games against the likes of Ohio State and Miami in December.
With Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs now making their way to the next level, Van Ginkel will be called upon as a leader and consistent playmaker for the outside linebackers.
“Being the senior now, I have to accept my leadership role now,” Van Ginkel told B5Q on March 22. “With them two gone—just great guys, good guys to be around—they came to practice with the work ethic to get better, and I’m going to approach it the same way. There’s always things to improve on, so just to come in and attack each day is what I’ve been focusing on.”
“He’s a weird dude,” Hornibrook said of Van Ginkel on April 10. “He makes some plays that you don’t expect him to make, and he sniffs some screens out that you don’t expect him to do, some things like that. He’s a really good player, and you can you tell out here when we’re practicing.”
Van Ginkel could be the next great Wisconsin outside linebacker, and it appears he has answered the call of the coaching staff.
“Obviously, Andrew, we’ve loved his approach this spring,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said on Thursday. “There were specific things we wanted him to get better at, and he’s done that throughout the course of spring.”
Now, we’ll see how the other outside linebackers—Zack Baun, Tyler Johnson and Co.—step up heading into fall camp (we’ll save our lingering questions post-spring camp for another article).
The battle for the cornerback spot starting opposite Dontye Carriere-Williams will be interesting come fall camp. Williams, Madison Cone, and Faion Hicks all worked interchangably with the “first-team” defensive unit this spring, with the corners seemingly switching off to be part of the ones with Carriere-Williams out or limited during a significant portion of the spring.
All three corners have been solid, in my opinion, but I do like what Williams has done this spring with pass break-ups, a couple of nice interceptions, and two blocked field goals.
Defensive backs will be beat from time to time (true freshman Taj Mustapha did so on a couple of receptions the past two Fridays), but Williams showed something this spring. The 6’0, 183-pound Texas native told B5Q on Thursday that he’s been working on his technique and his eyes as a corner.
“The main thing is just learning to get my body in certain positions to beat the receiver and not just my hands,” Williams said. “Putting my body in front of receivers to get in great positions and make plays. After the technique aspect is over, I also like to work with the track coach and work on my speed.”
I believe Wisconsin has found its two-deep of cornerbacks with the four aforementioned Badgers, maybe even three-deep with true freshman Donte Burton gaining some reps. Who steps up as a starter alongside Carriere-Williams will be sorted out before their Aug. 31 opener against Western Kentucky.
Now the lone senior leader on the defensive line following the departures of ends Alec James, Chikwe Obasih, and Conor Sheehy, Sagapolu will be counted upon as an anchor alongside redshirt sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand.
Sagapolu’s nomination largely comes from his leadership standpoint. Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield mentioned at the beginning of the spring that Sagapolu has become a sort of second coach who has been seen after practice working with other linemen and defensive player while also putting in time on the weekends with them and other members of the defense.
His experience and leadership will be needed for a mostly unproven defensive line heading into fall camp.
Sagapolu is also down to 338 pounds (from a listed 346 a year ago) and has taken true freshman Bryson Williams under his wing.
“He is a great player. He is a great defensive lineman,” Williams told B5Q earlier in April. “I haven’t seen anything like him in person as far as his technique and exactly he knows where every block is going, so if I could get to that level, I’d be straight like that.
“He’s a great player. That’s why I’m always watching his feet, his hand placement, and what he is thinking on certain blocks because I think he’s that great of a player and I think I can learn a tremendous amount from him. I really do.”
- Hicks and Cone: I really liked how both worked this spring. Cone in particular has a confident mindset on the field. He may be 5’9, 180 pounds, and he did give up a deep touchdown to Aron Cruickshank during the last spring practice, but he played physical and did not waver in confidence. For that matter, wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore called out Cone as a player who stood out in his eyes.
- Chris Orr: The inside linebacker appeared to receive plenty of reps this spring with T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly not taking part in many team reps. Pairing with Mike Maskalunas and later Griffin Grady with Arrington Farrar moving to outside linebacker, he made some plays in the last two scrimmages. Wisconsin is fortunate to have three starting-caliber inside linebackers, as the team has needed to utilize them over the past three seasons.
- Scott Nelson: I think the fact he stayed as one-half of the “first-team” safeties alongside Patrick Johnson is a positive development for the redshirt freshman, especially considering he hasn’t played a snap of college ball. D’Cota Dixon mentioned on Thursday that Nelson has leadership qualities, while quarterbacks coach Joe Budmayr and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph both praied his progression. He also laid a nice hit on tight end Luke Benzschawel during a March 22 practice.
- Kraig Howe: I still have questions about the depth of the defensive line behind the starters of Rand, Loudermilk, and Sagapolu, but I did like Howe in the last two scrimmages being involved in three sacks, including a strip-sack of Karé Lyles on April 13. Breckterfield mentioned at the start of spring camp that Howe needed to get stronger, so we’ll see how he takes the momentum into summer conditioning and fall camp.
- Aaron Vopal: The tall redshirt freshman earned recognition from Rudolph in that same UWBadgers.com article as a player who stood out and received reps with the “first team” with injuries to the projected starting line. Like Loudermilk a year before, a second-year player would be beneficial to the line without Obasih, James, and Sheehy.