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Wisconsin’s defensive line development something to watch starting in spring

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B5Q previews the defensive linemen.

Tom Lynn

After a year filled with injuries, Wisconsin’s defensive line is finally healthy and ready to bounce back from an up and down 2018 season. At defensive end, Garrett Rand returns from what the Wisconsin State Journal’s Jason Galloway reported as a torn right Achilles, and fellow redshirt junior Isaiahh Loudermilk has had an offseason to get fully healthy after missing four games last year. The loss of nose tackle Olive Sagapolu stings, but rising true sophomore Bryson Williams has all the talent to have a huge 2019 season. After battling through injuries and youth last year, Wisconsin finally has depth up front and the defensive line should be a strength of Jim Leonhard’s defense heading into the spring and beyond.

After a 2018 season that saw a converted offensive lineman (Kayden Lyles), a walk-on (Matt Henningsen), and true freshman (Bryson Williams) all thrust into starting roles, the Badgers have a deeper and healthier defensive line group heading into spring practices.

Presumed 2019 spring roster for Wisconsin’s defensive linemen

Defensive Ends

  • Isaiahh Loudermilk, junior (seven games played); 15 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack
  • Garrett Rand, redshirt junior; missed all of 2018 with reported Achilles injury
  • Matt Henningsen, redshirt sophomore (13 games, 10 starts); 32 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack, three quarterback hurries
  • David Pfaff, redshirt senior (11 games); 11 tackles
  • Aaron Vopal, redshirt sophomore (eight games); two tackles
  • Kraig Howe, redshirt senior; did not play in 2018
  • Michael Balistreri, redshirt sophomore; did not play in 2018
  • Isaiah Mullens, redshirt freshman; did not play in 2018
  • Boyd Dietzen, redshirt freshman; did not play in 2018
  • C.J. Goetz, redshirt freshman; did not play in 2018

Nose tackles

  • Bryson Williams, sophomore (13 games, three starts); 12 total tackles; one pass breakup; one quarterback hurry
  • Gunnar Roberge, redshirt senior (five games)

*All stats from 2018 season

What to watch for this spring at defensive end

This spring will be an important time for the coaching staff to evaluate a relatively young defensive line. As it stands now, juniors Loudermilk and Rand will have every opportunity to earn starting roles at defensive end.

Head coach Paul Chryst noted on Monday that Rand is one of the Badgers “that is kind of limited” and does not know if his fourth-year end will be on a “pitch count.” Henningsen will likely see plenty of reps at defensive end with the first team in the spring. The redshirt sophomore and former walk-on emerged to play 13 games a season ago and will be vital to the depth of this defensive end unit. Entering his final year in the program, Pfaff may also be in the mix to see first team reps.

Vopal and a trio of redshirt freshman will use the spring to impress the coaching staff in hopes of cracking the two-deep in August. Vopal was expected to play more as a freshman and needs the spring to show the staff he is ready to consistently be in the rotation. After a full year in the weight room, redshirt freshmen in Mullens, Dietzen, and Goetz could add depth to a defensive end group that has a history of injuries.

What to expect this spring from the nose tackles

With the departure of nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, Williams will step in to start in the middle. Williams played in eight games as a true freshman and started the final five after Sagapolu was lost to injury. This nose tackle group is thin after Williams and he will be relied upon heavily to slow down the run in 2019.

A redshirt senior, Roberge is the only other nose tackle on the roster this spring, but three true freshman (Keeanu Benton, Rodas Johnson, Gio Paez) arrive in the fall to potentially give this group some depth depending upon where defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield place them.