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Wisconsin football: healthy defensive line seeks improvement

Thoughts and updates on the defensive line after meeting with Bryson Williams and Garrett Rand.

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Akron at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Going into the 2018 season, Wisconsin had to replace three defensive lineman who were mainstays at the position in Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy. The Badgers seemed in a good spot with Isaiahh Loudermilk, Garrett Rand and Olive Sagapolu poised to take on heightened roles after coming in as highly touted recruits, and having played rotationally previously. But then an achilles injury in the summer sidelined Rand for the whole season. Wisconsin would later have injuries to Loudermilk allowing him to only play in nine games last season, and Sagapolu would miss the final five games of the season after being injured in the Northwestern game October 27th.

This bombardment of injuries caused defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield to turn to true freshman nose tackle Bryson Williams, walk-on freshman Matt Henningsen, and now sophomore offensive lineman Kayden Lyles to play along the line throughout the season.

One player Paul Chryst pinpointed as having an “unbelievable” summer was Henningsen, who was the first walk-on to start as a freshman since 1990 for UW. Henningsen was also one of the players who added the most weight, 15 pounds if you’re scoring at home, in the offseason conditioning program. Now standing at 286 pounds, the added bulk should help him be even better this year as one of the rotating players along the defensive line.

While speaking with Bryson Williams yesterday he feels as though the experience that he and Henningsen gained will pay dividends this season. Williams pointed out that he has a greater understanding for the intensity that is needed each play, and a better knowledge base of his role going into his sophomore season. He credited his relationship with Olive Sagapolu, who was recently signed by the Green Bay Packers, as someone that helped him grow a lot last season. For Williams, in terms of his goal for the upcoming season, “be dependable” and to “set the tone for the defense to open up gaps for Chris Orr to make plays.”

Williams acknowledged that having junior Garrett Rand back from injury would also be “huge” in helping the defensive line be better this year. While speaking with Rand yesterday he said that he “can’t wait to play football again”, and he is finally feeling 100%. He noted that he feels stronger, setting personal lifting records in both the bench press at 455 pounds and in the power clean at 320 pounds. For context, his bench press max would have landed him as the third highest bench press by a defensive lineman, and the 6th highest bench press in the entire NFL combine from last season regardless of position at roughly 33 reps of 225 pounds.

He feels as though with his added strength and a healthy offseason he can help the defensive line get back to business. During fall camp he hopes to home in on getting better at the defensive end position, while also enjoying playing football by “just having fun” out on the field again, something he hasn’t been able to do for a while now.

Wisconsin also bolstered the depth along the defensive line for this year in the 2019 recruiting class, bringing in a trio of talented freshman. Keeanu Benton, out of Janesville, and Gio Paez, out of Cornelius North Carolina, appear to be in a battle for the backup nose tackle position behind Williams with senior walk-on Gunnar Roberge. The other incoming freshman, Rodas Johnson, a talented defensive end out of Columbus, will also seeks to carve out a niche along the defensive front.

Both Williams and Rand acknowledged the incoming freshman defensive lineman and like what they have seen and heard about the young group in off-season conditioning. Rand said that the group has been “putting up some good weights” and that they are supposed to be a good group coming in. Williams is excited see what the group can do on the field in fall camp, and says that they just need to “keep maturing” and “keep wanting it” in order to give themselves the best chance to be ready for the rigors of the Big Ten season.

Bucky’s 5th Quarter will continue to have more information, reactions, and interviews coming from Wisconsin football media day.