We are less than a month away from the Wisconsin Badgers starting up fall camp, and the 2018 edition of this team could continue to make its presence known not just in the Big Ten Conference but also in the College Football Playoff conversation.
As we count down the days until the pads and helmets are back on, this series is dedicated to the players fans should keep an eye out for that may or may not be household names based on positional needs.
One of the biggest questions for Wisconsin leading into the season turned into a more concerning priority when it was reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus that defensive ends Garrett Rand (Achilles) and Isaiahh Loudermilk (surgery) could be on the shelf for extended periods of time. As noted by defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield last week, Rand is out for the year, while Loudermilk could miss some games during the season.
Loudermilk broke through the ranks last year as a redshirt freshman to play in 11 games in becoming part of the rotation with one of the most under appreciated lines in recent Wisconsin memory that included the departed Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy.
Now, another redshirt freshman, Aaron Vopal, will be called upon to step up to fill the void of Rand and potentially Loudermilk in stabilizing Wisconsin’s defensive line.
Aaron Vopal Measurables
|6'6||299||R-FR||De Pere, Wis.|
Why Aaron Vopal is worth watching in 2018
With Rand out for the year and Loudermilk’s timetable for return unclear, the need for someone on the defensive line outside of senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu to emerge as a consistent and reliable player is a necessity [writer’s note: perhaps this is a bit of an understatement].
“First off, it 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 told ESPN Wisconsin’s Tony Cartagena last week. “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.”
When speaking with B5Q after Wiscosnin’s second spring practice in March, Breckterfield noted Vopal’s progression from when he first got to Madison last season to now.
“It’s night and day from when he first got here,” Breckterfield said. “When he first got here, he had two left feet. He’s actually looks like he got some stuff to him now. It was good for him to go on scout team and keep learning. Look at Isaiah 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 the keep growing him and honing in on the details and playing smart football. I like where he’s at.”
When asked about Vopal in particular after a spring practice in late March, Sagapolu said that the 6’6, nearly 300-pound lineman was slowing getting better while still needing to learn how to “come out of his feet.”
At times during those spring practices, when injuries hit the line, Vopal filled in at one of the end positions. B5Q named the in-state product as one of the standouts on defense after spring practice.
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph called out the redshirt freshman’s development in a UWBadgers.com article this spring, along with fellow second-year player Scott Nelson and outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel:
“Vopal, I think he’s proven he can be a big factor next year in the (defensive) line.”
Vopal himself must not only be a big factor this season, but Howe, Pfaff and Preston—with those latter three all having spent more time here at Wisconsin—will be called upon as well to build off of their spring performances. Can true freshman Isaiah Mullens, whose name was mentioned in Potrykus’s report of Rand and Loudermilk, pick up enough of the technique and fundamentals as a first-year player that did not enroll early to make an impact?
There’s always a chance we could see an “outside the box” approach from the coaching staff in ramping up the ranks at defensive line, but that will be confirmed once fall camp rolls around.
Regardless, Vopal’s presence will be needed to solidify a significant position group.