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Projecting Wisconsin’s defensive two-deep heading into fall camp

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We looked at the offense already. Let’s check out the defense.

Jake Kocorowski

The Wisconsin Badgers concluded spring camp late Friday afternoon on the grass fields outside of Camp Randall Stadium.

Fifteen practices started in late March. Fifteen practices completed in late April.

Wisconsin allowed media in for eight of those sessions and B5Q was in attendance for seven. By all indications, spring camp performances usually springboard players into fall camp reps. Who precisely lines up with the respective “ones,” “twos,” and reserves to start those practices will be officially seen in late summer.

For now, B5Q predicts the potential depth chart for fall camp, along with giving thoughts on each position group. We looked at the offense on Monday. Now it is time to project the defensive two-deep:

Wisconsin defensive two-deep heading into fall camp

Positions First-team Second-team
Positions First-team Second-team
Defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk David Pfaff/Isaiahh Mullens
Nose tackle Bryson WIlliams Gunnar Roberge
Defensive end Garrett Rand Matt Henningsen
Outside linebacker Zack Baun Izayah Green-May
Inside linebacker Chris Orr Mike Maskalunas
Inside linebacker Jack Sanborn Leo Chenal
Outside linebacker Noah Burks Tyler Johnson/Christian Bell
Cornerback Caesar Williams Rachad Wildgoose/Donte Burton
Strong safety Eric Burrell Reggie Pearson
Free safety Scott Nelson Collin Wilder
Cornerback Faion Hicks Deron Harrell

Defensive line

The front three on the first-team feels pretty set with Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand at the end spots and sophomore Bryson Williams anchoring the nose tackle spot.

Behind the two ends, David Pfaff enters his final season at UW with a chance to be a contributor alongside redshirt sophomore Matt Henningsen. The latter emerged as a second-year player last season, playing in all 13 games. Mullens, I feel, has the strength and ability to get into the two-deep after a redshirt year.

I wonder if C.J. Goetz, another redshirt freshman like Mullens, could work himself into the rotation. In one of the eight open practices to the media, the Waukesha Catholic Memorial product recorded a sack and a tackle for loss during one scrimmage.

The biggest question on the line, in my opinion, lies at the backup nose tackle spot. Gunnar Roberge worked with the second-team during the spring, and the redshirt senior shined during the final practice with sacks on consecutive plays. Can he lock down that spot and be a suitable replacement if Williams misses time this year? Can 2019 signees Rodas Johnson, Gio Paez or Keeanu Benton sneak their way in by the end of fall camp?

Inside linebackers

Chris Orr and Jack Sanborn received first-team reps in the spring, and I do not see that changing much heading into the late summer practices. The position group loses a lot of productivity and leadership with the NFL-bound Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards, but Orr and Sanborn have the ability—and with the former, definitely the experience—to help the room not skip a beat this season.

Behind them, and maybe the surprise of the camp, lies true freshman mid-year enrollee Leo Chenal who appeared to receive mostly second-team work alongside walk-on Mike Maskalunas.

The kid is ready physically at 6’2 and 239 pounds and Orr boasted about Chenal’s strength in the second week of spring practices. By the end of the week B5Q will have a feature up on the early enrollee, but in the practices open to the media he intercepted two Graham Mertz passes.

“Leo physically, is very impressive. The strength the speed, the way he moves,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said on April 16. “I’ve been most impressed with how he’s picked up the defense. He has mistakes but that’s when the physicality sometimes comes into play. Him being here this spring is very big for his development, so it’s awesome to get him reps and really push him. He’s embraced the work, he’s embraced the meetings, doing extra. He’s a kid that wants more all the time, so it’s really fun to get him in the program early and we’re excited about seeing where he can get come the fall.”

Seth Currens continued his transition to the position this spring as well, and I think his coverage experience could help him down the road.

Outside linebackers

In mid-April, Leonhard was asked if he has playmakers—particularly the inside and outside linebackers—to get more pressure on opposing offenses if the defensive line is healthier. He believes so with players gaining experience and having more depth.

“I think both the ‘d-line’ and the outside linebacker groups have taken a big jump forward,” Leonhard said. “There’s some guys that maybe haven’t played a lot of snaps yet that are ready, or getting ready. They don’t have to be game ready today, but you’re seeing, fundamentally more consistency. You’re seeing a little bit more urgency out of some guys because they see the competition, and they realize there are big roles to be won, and that’s fun as a coach. Now you just got to develop that and continue to push.”

The question posed at the beginning of spring was who would work opposite of Zack Baun. Heading into fall camp, it appears we may have at least two or three names vying for reps.

Redshirt junior Noah Burks emerged as the player receiving the most time alongside Baun, predominantly in the base 3-4 scheme. After Wisconsin’s open practice on April 13, Baun mentioned Burks gained some strength in the offseason and is holding up more on his own.

“He’s gotten a lot stronger. He’s not getting pushed around as much,” Baun said. “He’s doing a good job developing, knowing the playbook and being where he needs to be and that’s just working on the minor things.”

Burks believes that added strength translated to the field, but he also points to the mental aspect of the game in his development with the help of outside linebackers coach Bobby April.

“I think my football IQ has gotten better, so I’ve been able to recognize blocks a lot faster,” Burks said. “Coach April does a great job at tweaking our brains in the film room and getting us little pre-snap indicators that can help us out, and I think I’ve done a good job of taking advantage of those which has helped me set blocks.

“I felt good out here, like I feel pretty confident in myself and my abilities. I think the spring was awesome. I’m excited to keep working. We can never stop. Everyone’s competing, so we’re all fighting for a job.”

In a nickel look, however, redshirt sophomore Izayah Green-May stepped in alongside Baun as the first duo up, especially towards the latter half of these open practices.

“He’s in the stage where he knows what to do, and it’s more just executing,” Baun said of Green-May on April 13. “Coach April has realized that he’s earned those reps, and I’m glad he’s getting them.”

Green-May told B5Q he wants to gain five to six more pounds before fall camp. If he can do that and get to the 230-pound range with his 6’6 frame, his presence could loom large for the position group. In one spring session open to the media, he recorded a sack and also deflected a pass.

“Izayah’s a long guy that can bend,” Burks said. “I’ve noticed that he’s gotten a lot stronger, and that’s definitely what’s shown up on the field the most. He’s a good pass rusher, and he’s continued to be consistent with that.”

For Baun, Leonhard wants to continue to expand his knowledge of the the game and his comfort in particular situations.

“He’s got the experience now. He’s not rusty. He’s healthy, so just to continue to push,” Leonhard said. “Last year, you were dealing with a significant amount of time that he was off the field, so you knocked a lot of rust off, and obviously he just gained a tremendous amount of experience and confidence last year. You’re pushing him, but you’re just pushing him in a different way this spring.”

Don’t forget former walk-on Tyler Johnson as well, who Burks referred to as the smartest player in the position room. The redshirt senior worked primarily in the second group in the base scheme with Green-May and has game time experience at the position the last two seasons. Christian Bell is still rehabbing from a bowl prep injury and did not practice from what we saw in spring ball, but he could also provide a presence in April’s room.

I also saw some flashes from Jaylan Franklin and true freshman Spencer Lytle who, based on this spring and the reps, I would place as the “third-team” ‘backers.

Cornerbacks

This may be the toughest position group to pick out starters on the entire team. Six players started last season, and as Leonhard mentioned in mid-April (where all of our quotes from the former All-American walk-on come from), it is an “on-going competition.”

“Last year, and I’ve hit it with the group, there was a lot of guys that just wanted to play,” Leonhard said. “They hadn’t been on the field. They knew there were opportunities for snaps and big roles, and with experience, they realized there was a big difference between playing and playing well. A little bit of getting humbled at times, struggling.

Leonhard explained the group’s focus and understanding is higher as well.

“The urgency is higher, so I think it is a great competition right now,” Leonhard said in mid-April. “We’re rolling a lot of guys in and trying to put them in the slot, playing nickel. Put them to the boundary, put them to the field, and come the fall, we’ll get those roles a little bit tighter. But in the spring, we’re trying to see who can learn what and who can take the experience from last year and take that next step.”

Leonhard noted his corners are “significantly better in most areas” compared to last year, but also said there was some inconsistency.

“We’ve made more plays. I think there’s a lot of things, you kind of got to step back sometimes,” Leonhard said. “We’re so much better in a lot of areas, it just makes some of the other things frustrating that it has been inconsistent.”

As B5Q detailed during our practice recaps, there was a lot of mixing and matching in the secondary between first and second teams. For now, I’ll pencil in Hicks and Williams for the first duo up, with Harrell, Wildgoose and Burton all vying for spots as well.

Who assumes the third cornerback designation and in the slot for nickel packages is another question that will need to be answered. On the last practice on Friday, Burton appeared to come in during that subpackage; however, redshirt freshman Alexander Smith also received reps there in one spring practice with the first group.

It should also bear watching where junior Madison Cone plays, as he did not participate in most of the practices open to the media. During the one session that he worked in, he appeared to be with the safeties—though that position group’s numbers dwindled to six this spring.

Safeties

The two-deep seems set for fall camp with redshirt junior Eric Burrell and redshirt sophomore Scott Nelson as the first tandem, then sophomore Reggie Pearson and Houston transfer Collin Wilder behind them.

“I think the safeties have done a great job of competing and making plays this spring,” Leonhard said. “We’ve taken a big jump forward.”

I called it out earlier in fall camp, but I like the apparent depth of this position group. In my opinion, all played well during the spring and made plays at certain points.

“We’re just all competing,” Burrell said on April 13. “It doesn’t even matter if you’re first string, second string. I think everybody’s just going out there, having fun. I’m excited what we can bring to the table. A lot of people are going to be doubting us, but I’m excited and I’m just ready to work.”

Behind these four, walk-ons John Torchio and Tyler Mais were the next duo up in the spring, and 2019 signee Titus Toler comes to Madison for summer conditioning and fall camp.