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“Way-too-early” expectations for Wisconsin’s defensive line in 2019

A unit decimated by injuries and a lack of depth last season looks to return to form.

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NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Wisconsin vs Miami Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It would be tough to find a position that was in more dire straights last season than the Wisconsin defensive line.

For a significant parts of the season, Wisconsin’s defense line featured a former walk-on redshirt freshman, a true freshman nose tackle, and a converted offensive lineman (who was also a redshirt freshman).

As I mentioned in an article recently, when you’re in a 3-4 alignment, you only have three defensive linemen on the field at once, so they have got to be good.

Isaiahh Loudermilk played in nine of 13 games due to injury, but did not play up to the expectations that were placed on him after his impressive redshirt freshman season. Garrett Rand, a former four-star recruit, reportedly tore his Achilles during the summer and forced the conversion of second-year player Kayden Lyles from interior offensive line to defensive tackle.

However, the efforts of Loudermilk, Lyles, Olive Sagapolu, Matt Henningsen, Bryson Williams and David Pfaff should not go unseen or unappreciated. They all seemingly played either hurt, before they should have been asked to play, or before they were ready—and did enough to help Wisconsin win eight football games.

2018 Statistical Leaders

  • Redshirt freshman defensive end Matt Henningsen: 32 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack
  • Senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu: 23 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks
  • Redshirt sophomore defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk: 15 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack

Expectation No. 1: Defensive line should return to form when healthy

A starting lineup of Loudermilk and Rand at end and Williams at nose tackle should be a fairly significant upgrade as a whole over the starting lineup that Wisconsin featured for most of the season.

Loudermilk gives the Badgers a unique dynamic along the defensive line. UW lists him at 6’7, and that length is not seen often along the defensive line. Williams being a rising true sophomore will also bode well for the Badgers, just as was the case between Sagapolu’s first and second seasons. He gained some footing last season, playing in all 13 games (three starts), registering 12 tackles, a pass break-up and a quarterback hurry.

Rand will finally be playing the position he probably should have been playing since he got to Madison—at end. For his first two seasons, he was forced to play in a reserve nose tackle role out of necessity behind Sagapolu, and now he has two more years of eligibility.

Expectation No. 2: Depth will be back in 2019

Henningsen and rising redshirt senior David Pfaff both received a significant number of snaps last season, 573 and 150, respectively, according to Pro Football Focus. Neither of them probably should have seen starting-level reps on a Power 5 Division 1 football team that strives to win conference championships and contend for the College Football Playoff.

Luckily, as long as things stay the status quo, Wisconsin can get contributions from depth players like Henningsen, Pfaff, Isaiah Mullens, Aaron Vopal, and Kraig Howe—along with any of the incoming freshmen (Rodas Johnson, Gio Paez, Keeanu Benton), provided they are ready to go. That’s an eight-deep of potential players that Wisconsin simply did not have the luxury of rolling out in 2018, and you saw the fruits.