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Wisconsin football spring position preview: defensive line

With everyone back from last season, Wisconsin’s defensive line is deep, healthy and ready to dominate in 2020.

Returning players:

Nose Tackles

  • Bryson Williams, Junior, 6-foot-2, 300 lbs.
  • Keeanu Benton, Sophomore, 6-foot-4, 315 lbs.

Defensive Ends

  • Garrett Rand, Senior (RS), 6-foot-2, 279 lbs.
  • Isaiahh Loudermilk, Senior (RS), 6-foot-7, 293 lbs.
  • Matt Henningsen, Junior (RS), 6-foot-3, 286 lbs.
  • Boyd Dietzen, Sophomore (RS), 6-foot-3, 264 lbs.
  • C.J. Goetz, Sophomore (RS), 6-foot-3, 241 lbs.
  • Isaiah Mullens, Sophomore (RS), 6-foot-4, 283 lbs.
  • Rodas Johnson, Freshman (RS), 6-foot-2, 293 lbs.
  • Gio Paez, Freshman (RS), 6-foot-3, 305 lbs.
  • Michael Balistreri, Junior (RS), 6-foot-4, 288 lbs.

Departing players:

  • David Pfaff, graduation
  • Gunnar Roberge, graduation

Arriving players:

Position overview:

The Badgers return every significant contributor from last season’s defensive line group. In a season that saw defensive ends Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk finally stay healthy, starting nose tackle Bryson Williams played only six games due to knee injuries in 2019.

In Williams’ absence, true freshman Keeanu Benton came out of nowhere and filled in admirably, starting six games at nose tackle. Williams and Benton will form a formidable nose tackle tandem and will look to improve on last season’s No. 6 ranked rushing defense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 Big Ten Championship Game Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At defensive end, seniors Rand and Loudermilk return as the starters in defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s 3-4 scheme. Rand came back last season from an Achilles injury that forced him to miss all of 2018, and finished with 27 tackles, three tackles for loss, and a sack. Loudermilk, with his massive 6-foot-7 frame, was stout against the run last season but also showed a knack for getting to the quarterback, finishing with three sacks. Both players will be relied upon heavily as senior leaders and contributors for Leonhard’s defensive unit.

Redshirt junior Matt Henningsen is also in the rotation heading into spring practice. The walk-on started multiple games as a redshirt freshmen in 2018 due to a rash of injuries, and followed that up with an impressive sophomore campaign as the third defensive end in the rotation. Henningsen led all Wisconsin defensive linemen in sacks with four and was a steady, reliable option up front for the Badgers’ defense last season.

Who needs a big spring to crack the two-deep/who are you most excited to see in spring?

I’m most excited to see which of the underclassmen defensive ends can impress in spring practice and put themselves in a position to earn playing time in the fall. A trio of redshirt sophomores (Dietzen, Goetz, Mullens) along with redshirt freshmen Gio Paez and Rodas Johnson, will all be in the mix to get reps as the fourth defensive end behind Rand, Loudermilk and Henningsen.

Who has the potential to be an all-conference performer (no players who have already made an all-conference team)?

I think Isaiahh Loudermilk has the best chance to be an all-Big Ten performer this season. After missing four games due to injury in 2018, Loudermilk was healthy (12 games played) and a key piece of the Badgers’ defensive line this past season. He was named an honorable mention on the all-Big Ten defensive team a year ago and has the talent to take the next step and make the team in 2020.

Where will this position group improve from last season?

This position group will improve simply by having nose tackle Bryson Williams healthy and back from a knee injury that forced him to miss eight games in 2019. Meanwhile, Rand, Loudermilk, and Henningsen should all be improved after another offseason in the program. The x-factor is Benton. After being unexpectedly thrust into a starting role, the sophomore showed some serious potential last season. It will be interesting to see just how good he looks during spring practice, as he could really push Williams for that starting nose tackle job.

Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield has to feel good about the experience and depth of his position group as spring practice begins. Having five difference makers up front (Williams, Benton, Rand, Loudermilk, Henningsen), as well as a plethora of young, talented options behind them will pay dividends in keeping the line fresh throughout games.

Where will this position group be worse than last season?

With nearly the entire position group back from last season, it’s hard to imagine this defensive line unit being worse in 2020. This group does have a history of injuries which is always a concern at a position that is so physical. Rand, Williams, and to a lesser extent, Loudermilk have all missed multiple games in their careers due to injury. The good news is the Badgers finally have some depth at the position for the first time in awhile to combat any injuries that may pop up.