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Wisconsin needs to reload on the defensive line

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The development of the d-line could be one of the most critical factors in 2018.

Maryland v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Not to beat a dead horse, but the Wisconsin Badgers defensive line has been one of the most underrated position groups over the past few years. A solid stable of linemen have clogged gaps and made critical plays on some of the best defenses displayed in school history.

Now, ends Chikwe Obasih, Alec James, and Conor Sheehy are gone—the latter two are attempting to make NFL rosters with the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers, respectively—and 156 games of college football experience go with them.

Senior Olive Sagapolu returns to anchor the line at nose tackle, but with some injuries surfacing this summer, an unproven group will have to step up.

“I think we found some guys [on the defensive line] that are going to be in that rotation, and we need to find more,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said in mid-April. “That has been a big-time strength of this defense. You take the depth that we’ve had and we’ve needed—gonna have injuries up there, gonna get banged up—we’ve done such a great job of stopping the run and making teams one-dimensional. They are a huge part of that process with what we ask those guys to do, so I think we’ve targeted some guys that we think or we know are going to be in that rotation, and now it’s once again, trying to accelerate that process with them and get them as much experience as possible.”

Another challenge? The ever-changing offenses of college football.

“We don’t see many offenses that look like ours anymore in season, so we still got to accelerate that process for them of understanding of how does it change versus spread-type offenses.”

Wisconsin’s 2018 Defensive Ends

Name Height Weight Year Hometown High School
Name Height Weight Year Hometown High School
Kraig Howe 6'3 277 R-JR Dayton, Ohio Archbishop Alter
David Pfaff 6'2 277 R-JR Mequon, Wis. Homestead
Garrett Rand 6'2 278 JR Chandler, Ariz. Hamilton
Isaiahh Loudermilk 6'7 297 R-SO Howard, Ks. West Elk
Keldric Preston 6'4 299 R-SO Tampa, Fla. Robinson
Michael Balistreri 6'4 272 R-FR Grafton, Wis. University School of Milwaukee
Matt Henningsen 6'3 271 R-FR Menomonee Falls, Wis. Menomonee Falls
Aaron Vopal 6'6 299 R-FR De Pere, Wis. De Pere
Boyd Dietzen 6'4 245 FR Combined Locks, Wis. Kimberly
Isaiah Mullens 6'6 280 FR Columbus, Ohio Harvest Prep
Measurements are taken from Wisconsin’s spring roster with the exceptions of Dietzen and Mullens, whose are from Wisconsin’s National Signing Day page. Rand is reportedly out for the season with an Achilles injury.

The big offseason news for this position group came with a report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus in June: junior Garrett Rand suffered an Achilles injury and redshirt sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk underwent surgery that makes his timeline for returning uncertain.

Defensive line coach Inoke Breckerfield spoke with ESPN Madison’s Tony Cartagena at a Mendota Gridiron Club golf event in late June about their statuses:

“First off, it’s starts off with Olive [Sagapolu] being there as the leader, kind of leading the group—like I said Isaiahh, depending upon how he comes back—Garrett is done for the year, but the next group will be Aaron Vopal, Kraig Howe, David Pfaff, Keldric Preston,” Breckerfield said. “Those are the guys that have been around for a couple of years already so they had a good spring and then they just got to make sure they maximize this summer, and then obviously in fall camp, it’s going to be an open competition and it’s my job to play the best guys.

“So they understand that part and they’re battling, they’re working, and they’re all fighting for playing time.”

Rand bumped out to end this spring from nose tackle (he also played some end last spring as well) and his apparent loss for the year will be felt with his talent, strength, and to the depth of this line.

Loudermilk emerged last season as a relied-upon rotational player on the defensive line, playing in 11 games and recording 1.5 sacks. As of last month, a precise return date was unknown.

“They said he’d be back maybe the first or second week, but I’m not sure. He’s ahead of schedule,” Breckterfield told ESPN Madison. “I know that, so we’ll just kind of see how it plays out and kind of where he’s at come August and kind of go from there, but I know he’s obviously, it’s going to be a long one.”

As Breckterfield mentioned during that interview, Vopal, Howe, Pfaff, and Preston now have even greater opportunities to make impacts come August. Vopal stood out as the key rotational player during the spring, even working in some first-team reps with the defense. B5Q pegged the redshirt freshman as one of our players to watch for the 2018 season, and Wisconsin offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph called him out as one of the players that stood out defensively. Now, his development this season will be under a larger microscope.

“It’s night and day from when he first got here,” Breckterfield told B5Q in March at the beginning of spring ball. “When he first got here, he had two left feet. He actually looks like he’s got some stuff to him now. It was good for him to go on scout team and keep learning. Look at Isaiahh last year, it took him all fall camp and all season to get to the point of where, OK, he’s now starting to do some things. Now, I think Vopal’s starting to make that turn. I think Isaiah’s curve was a little bit quicker than Vopal’s still, but from a year ago until now, different guy, so we just got to keep growing him and honing in on the details and playing smart football. I like where he’s at.”

Howe, a redshirt junior, shined in the final two scrimmages of the spring, showcasing an ability to sack quarterbacks. How he translates that performance into summer conditioning and fall camp will be something B5Q watches during practices.

Also a redshirt junior, Pfaff played in five games last season, and the more he grows his knowledge of the playbook, the better the chance he has at contributing this season.

Brecterfield told B5Q that Preston, a redshirt sophomore listed at 250 pounds during the spring, needed to gain another 15–20 pounds. Building that frame up can only help the Florida native earn more reps during camp and the season.

Entering the fold this year at end will be Isaiah Mullens and Boyd Dietzen. Mullens finished his high school career with 58 tackles for loss, while Boyd—cousin of offensive lineman Jon Dietzen—finished his senior campaign with 70 tackles (20 for loss) and 10 sacks. Dietzen received the Tim Krumrie Award, given to the state’s top senior defensive lineman, along with being named defensive player of the year by the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association.

Wisconsin’s 2018 Nose Tackles

Name Height Weight Year Hometown High School
Name Height Weight Year Hometown High School
Olive Sagapolu 6'2 338 SR Pago Pago, American Samoa Mater Dei (Calif.)
Gunnar Roberge 6'4 291 R-JR Seymour, Wis. Seymour
Kayden Lyles 6'3 323 R-FR Madison, Wis. Middleton
Bryson Williams 6'2 306 FR Lincoln, Neb. Southeast

Sagapolu is the leader of not just this position group, but the entire defensive line. In the spring, he approached it that way, asking players to come in during their off time to put in extra work.

“He’s been doing it with the other guys here,” Breckterfield said in March. “He was always helping the young guys out, getting their technique right. He’s already helping out [freshman Bryson Williams] in terms of all of our everyday drills and different skills we’re doing. He sees something, he’s kind of a second coach right now. He’s already been here three years and he knows what’s expected. He’s been given the reins, has taken over as the guy, the leader.

Breckterfield also told ESPN Madison last month that Sagapolu, listed at 338 pounds during the spring, would receive some reps in nickel subpackages. Fans and players alike have seen Sagapolu’s athleticism displayed on and off the field—his backflips in Hawaii earlier this summer spread like wildfire across College Football Twitter—and his presence as a three-down lineman will be even more valuable this year considering Rand’s injury.

Flips on Flips @connorallen4

A post shared by Olive Sagapolu (@osagapolu) on

“He is a great player. He is a great defensive lineman,” Williams told B5Q about Sagapolu 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.”

Speaking of Williams, the true-freshman early enrollee looked the part during the spring. Sagapolu mentioned that his protege is “strong as an ox” while teaching him the techniques of being a college nose tackle. With the injuries on the line, progression from Williams would provide the defensive front depth and flexibility.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big adjustment of him. He’s already an explosive kid. It’s really just honing in on the fundamentals and technique that’s expected of him,” Brecterfield told B5Q at the beginning of spring ball. “It ain’t about physically being ready about it, he’s ready physically. His mindset is where it needs to be—he’s a competitor—so for me, it’s just getting caught up with what’s expected of the nose and learning the technique and the fundamentals and working through that.”

Along with redshirt junior Gunnar Roberge, the nose tackle position will also now include redshirt freshman Kayden Lyles. His move was rumored throughout the summer (see our vague “outside the box” hint/comment in our Vopal “Player to Watch” post) and an article from UWBadgers.com’s Mike Lucas this week finally confirmed Lyles will switch over to defense. Also in that article, offensive lineman Michael Deiter praised Lyles’s work:

“When we were using him as a freshman for a defensive lineman, helping us get fits (in practice drills), he gave us the best look,” Deiter said of Lyles, who prepped his senior year in nearby Middleton.

”He’s smart enough to learn all the stuff (on the defensive line) by the start of camp. He’s good at bending and he’s athletic enough. He will definitely be able to help us out.”