After a tough eight win season, which is subpar for recent Wisconsin standards, the Badgers football team looks to bounce back entering 2019. A big reason reason for that decline was in part to a rash of injuries, and youth, on the defensive side of the ball. The Wisconsin defense fell from 2nd in total defense in 2017, to 29th in 2018. The defense surrendered a full yard more per play, and gave up an extra 82 yards per game. While these statistics are not the end all be all, they do highlight the drop in production that the defense suffered a season ago.
Flash forward to a new season and Wisconsin has now completed the portion of fall camp that is available to the media. After seeing seven practices Bucky’s 5th Quarter has a breakdown of the sights and sounds of camp, as well as what to possibly expect when the team heads down to open the season against South Florida on August 30th.
A big reason for Wisconsin’s drastic drop in production was due to injuries along the defensive line. Now back to full health, Garrett Rand appears ready to help improve a defensive line that did not hold up well enough against the run, and was unable to pressure the quarterback on a consistent basis.
While speaking with Rand at Media Day he acknowledged that he is excited to be back, and so far in fall camp he has been a big addition to the front line, especially against the run with how strong he is.
Garrett Rand confirmed that sitting out today was just a veteran rest day of sorts. #Badgers trying to keep him fresh and not trying to rush things it appears as he works his way back from Achilles injury.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 8, 2019
Rand isn’t the only player back and ready for a big role. Sophomore Bryson Williams ended up playing a lot of snaps last season in place of Olive Sagapolu, and looks ready to anchor the defensive line as the starting nose tackle. Also back is junior Isaiahh Loudermilk. The 6-foot-7 defensive end is a specimen, and he can be an impact player when healthy.
While those three have taken the starting snaps when all together and healthy, there are some players who gained valuable experience last year who will have a role on this year’s defensive line, most notably Matt Henningsen and David Pfaff.
I thought that Henningsen has had a great camp so far, looking much stronger and more dynamic in his play after an up and down freshman season. Pfaff, a senior this year, will likely figure in to the defensive end rotation behind Rand, Loudermilk, and Henningsen.
From Monday, freshman NT @keeanu_benton (#95) looks the part of a guy who could help the #badgers this fall. At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, the high school wrestling standout is battling for the backup job behind sophomore Bryson Williams. pic.twitter.com/YhpsUNjvoq— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 7, 2019
Some younger players may also see time this year as well after solid fall camps to this point. Keeanu Benton, a massive freshman from Janesville, has put himself in a position to be the back up nose tackle behind Williams, and he drew the praise of defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard in an interview last week. After a redshirt season Isaiah Mullens has done some nice things in practice as well and would likely be the next defensive end behind Pfaff and Henningsen.
Lastly, I would not be surprised to see Rodas Johnson play in up to four games to gain some experience while preserving his redshirt. The true freshman out of Columbus has made some big plays this past week.
One position of strength for the defense this season is the inside linebacker group. The posse is fronted by the vocal leader of the defense, senior Chris Orr. After shedding weight and getting into the best shape of his life, Orr is looking to have a big season after being stuck behind Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards, both of whom are on NFL rosters, the past couple seasons.
Next to Orr will likely be Jack Sanborn. The sophomore played in 11 games last season, mostly in a special teams role, but was a four-star recruit coming out of high school and has demonstrated the ability to make plays in the backfield in fall camp. While neither player brings the star power of Connelly and Edwards, they should continue a strong tradition on the inside.
Jack Sanborn with another big practice. The sophomore had a couple sacks, a forced fumble, and showed good closing speed all over the field with the first team defense. He looks like he could breakout this year.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 12, 2019
Behind Orr and Sanborn, Mike Maskalunas and Leo Chenal have gotten the majority of reps with the second team defense. Maskalunas is a former walk-on who is consistent, and will also receive a lot of work in special teams. Chenal is a true freshman early enrollee who was the toast of spring practice, making play after play. He has continued that momentum into fall camp. He is physically ready for the rigors of Big Ten play, and has a knack for making big plays and laying huge hits. He is the true freshman that I am most certain will not be redshirting this season barring injury.
A new name to continue to monitor is Maema Njongmeta. The freshman is very fast and flies downhill. He has shown so far in fall camp that he is not afraid to stick his nose in the action, and in the scrimmage last Monday he was constantly making tackles with the backups. While I still think he redshirts, he will likely play in four games this season and is a name to know for the future of the position.
Quick video of the ILB’s working with coach Bob Bostad on play action pass defense pic.twitter.com/oZuovCst9z— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 15, 2019
Maybe the most important position for Wisconsin to improve upon is outside linebacker. For multiple years the Badgers were able to plug and play people at the position and they would end up being NFL caliber players. Gone from last year is Andrew Van Ginkel, the only player on the roster with more than three sacks last season. Zack Baun returns stronger and healthier with the hopes to build on last years action, and so far in camp he has shown improvement.
More team work today for the #badgers today. Outside of a couple of plays the defense dominated the day. I thought Zack Baun had a nice day with some nice plays in the backfield. Appears to be more healthy.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 15, 2019
Opposite Baun, sophomore Izayah Green-May has earned all of the first team reps, and he has shown flashes of playmaking ability. While he is on the lighter side at 221 pounds, his length of 6-foot-6 and quickness around the edge should help him get more pressure on the quarterback on a defense in desperate need of it. Green-May is phenomenally athletic, and has made some big gains from last season according to Jim Leonhard. While he is far from a finished product, he possesses elite potential and speed.
Izayah Green-May continues to look good at OLB. The sophomore has the type of length, speed, and bend that you look for in a great edge rusher. Had a couple of nice plays in the backfield and was a handful in pass rushing situations. #Badgers— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 9, 2019
Outside of those two starters, Junior Noah Burks and senior Tyler Johnson should also see snaps behind them. The two upperclassmen both have experience, but while Johnson has started two games in his career, Burks has had a stronger fall camp and was working with the first team in spring practice. I don’t see either of them overtaking Baun or Green-May, but both should be solid contributors.
Younger players to keep an eye on are a pair of redshirt freshman Jaylan Franklin, and C.J. Goetz. The duo have shown the ability to rush the passer, showcasing quickness and twitchiness. While both players are still adjusting to the position, they bring some great traits to the outside linebacker group. They may not see a lot of time except in mop up duty they are players whose futures are positive beyond 2019.
The only position on the defense that has a fair amount of intrigue still for the opener on the defense based on fall camp is the cornerback group. While the defense has a multitude of players who have the ability to play and potentially start, there are usually only two or three on the field at a time.
Sophomore Faion Hicks had an inconsistent redshirt freshman season last year, but was singled out by Paul Chryst at Media Day as a player who has improved a lot after starting 11 games. While he spent some time with the first unit so far during fall camp, the better part of the past week or two he has been out injured. In his place has been junior Caesar Williams, who has compiled multiple interceptions this fall camp, while growing from a season ago in which he started five games.
Deron Harrell had a nice interception in red zone drills off of Coan stopping a fade route. He continues a strong camp.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 16, 2019
Those two appear to be battling for the position opposite of Deron Harrell. While he only started five games last season, he possesses the best length of the group at 6-foot-2, and he has had a tremendous camp. Harrell has shown the ability to stick with receivers, swat away passes and has intercepted the ball on multiple occasions. He has been the most consistent of the three, and appears more comfortable at cornerback after moving from wide receiver a year and a half ago.
The cornerback who has shown the most upside, and who has taken the most reps as the nickel corner, is Rachad Wildgoose. He ended up foregoing his redshirt last season, playing in ten games with seven starts. Chris Orr noted that he has matured a lot during Big Ten Media Days, and he has played very well against the pass and the run from the nickel spot in fall camp. While other cornerbacks have made plays, Wildgoose has been the guy to pop out the most in spots. Behind Wildgoose in the slot position is Madison Cone. While he recently moved to safety, he continues to be the backup in the nickel, a position he started in two games last season.
Another player who popped today was Rachad Wildgoose. He played with the first team defense in the slot, and made some nice plays in coverage and in run support.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 15, 2019
Outside of the core four corners the other players to earn significant reps with the second team are Donte Burton and Semar Melvin. Burton played in four games last season before preserving his redshirt, but was a heralded recruit out of Georgia a season ago and has been a solid player in camp. Melvin, on the other hand, is a true freshman out of Florida who seemed to come on strong the past week, getting more reps with the second defense.
He is a player that will likely play, but I doubt he appears in more than four games. With a lot of young talent at the position ahead of him, he will likely not be needed yet to make a significant impact beyond special teams and mop up duty.
D’cota Dixon exhausted his eligibility last year after being a starter for three seasons at strong safety. Last season while he was injured Eric Burrell and Reggie Pearson each had starts in his place. Both players should see playing time at the position, but Pearson, a redshirt freshman, appears most likely to be the starter come kickoff against South Florida. He has taken all of the first team reps during fall camp, and he brings a strong physicality to the defense.
While he is still young, he believes the maturity and confidence he gained from last year will help him be a playmaker on the defense this season. Behind him, Burrell is an experienced junior who had a great game against Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl. He has been with the first team defense in Leonhard’s three safety package primarily used in short yardage and heavy run situations.
From Monday, redshirt freshman @reggiepearson21 (#2) appeared to be at one of the starting safety spots for the #badgers. He probably would have burned his redshirt if it wasn’t for injury. The hard hitting safety started against Michigan last season and forced a fumble. pic.twitter.com/MOUsUnDRwl— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) August 7, 2019
At free safety Scott Nelson opened last season as the starter, but was hampered by injuries, leading him to miss four games. He was still able to compile 41 tackles and an interception, and now that he’s healthy he seems ready to break out. Nelson is another vocal player, similar to Chris Orr, and he possesses the ability to cover a lot of real estate in the secondary with his combination of size and speed.
He has made a few interceptions this fall camp, and he told Bucky’s 5th Quarter that he has worked heavily on his tackling ability in the off-season. Another player who will help round out the two deep at the safety position is junior Collin Wilder. The Houston transfer sat out last season, but has worked alongside Burrell as the free safety with the second team defense.
With a sophomore and a redshirt freshman each projected in the starting group, the only other youngster to keep an eye on this fall is Titus Toler. Although he has rarely played in practice because of a recent injury, he is a player that the staff was excited to land out of California, and could play in four game this season while still holding on to his redshirt status.
The defense last year was not up to par with the standard that was built over the past handful of years since the switch to the 3-4. With a healthier outlook, and a bunch of players gaining experience last season the defense looks to be back to one of the better units in the conference.
While some of the eventual playmakers are not the household names that you may be used to like Edwards, Connelly, Dixon and Van Ginkel, they are talented and confident in what they will bring to an improved defense. The defensive line and secondary are deep and more experienced, while the linebackers bring a lot of speed and athleticism. While I don’t believe this defense will be one of the top two defenses like it was just two years ago, I don’t think it’s out of the question for the defense to crack back into the top 20 in total defense and show improvement from a year ago.