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Wisconsin football recruiting since 1990: top class of defensive linemen

Our position-by-position look at the best group of players signed in a single class in recent Wisconsin football history continues today with a glance at the defensive line.

Arkansas Razorbacks v Wisconsin Badgers Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers football program has seen an amazing wave of success since Barry Alvarez took over as head coach in 1990. His tenure in the athletic department shifted perception of Wisconsin athletics and paved the way for current success.

While the landscape of college football has significantly change since 1990, the lifeblood of winning hasn’t.

Recruiting and development are king.

The Badgers have seen tremendous results in developing talent since Alvarez took the reins and laid the blueprint, but recruiting has had areas of prosperity such as offensive line, running back, and linebacker. On the flipside, however, there have also been pockets of the roster that have been more challenging to recruit for.

Within each position though there has been moments of realized potential that create a source of strength on the roster based on the fruits of a singular recruiting class.

For example, in the 2021 recruiting class the Badgers currently have two four-star offensive lineman, and are heavily involved with five-star offensive lineman Nolan Rucci as well. If all three prospects were to sign with Wisconsin that could potentially be a major moment in the trajectory of the position, and ultimately alter the complexion of the offense as a whole.

With that as a launching off point, I began to wonder which classes in the past 30 years had the best collection of players in a singular position group.

Today we feature the defensive line.

Outback Bowl - Georgia vs Wisconsin - January 1, 2005
Erasmus James rushing the passer at the 2005 Outback Bowl.
Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Top group: 2000 recruiting class

The Badgers have had some tremendous defensive lineman since 1990. Guys like Tom Burke, J.J. Watt, and Wendell Bryant have all etched their names in Wisconsin lore.

However, the 2000 recruiting class brought in three players that went on to be drafted, including a first round pick that, when healthy, was one of the most disruptive defenders in program history.

The defensive line class of Erasmus James, Jonathan Welsh, Jason Jefferson and Traison Lewis was a really good haul.

Eventual first round pick James was an absolute monster for the Badgers. Nicknamed “The Eraser,” James was a national first-team All-American as a senior, and was a first-team B1G selection as well.

For his career the 6-foot-4, 266 pound pass rusher accumulated 18 sacks, seven forced fumbles and six pass deflections in three seasons on the field.

After missing the previous season with a freak hip injury, James was nearly unblockable his senior campaign until an illegal chop block by a Purdue offensive lineman in the middle of the 2004 season sidelined him for multiple games and held him back for the remainder of the season. He still took home Defensive Player of the Year honors in his final season, but the torrid pace he was on to begin the season had him poised for insane production.

Welsh tackles Jordan
Jonathan Welsh makes a tackle against Northwestern.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/ Getty Images

On the opposite side of the defensive line was his running mate Jonathan Welsh, an eventual fifth round selection by the Indianapolis Colts. While he did not have the flair for the dramatic, or the statistical output of James, he was a consistent playmaker for the Badgers throughout his career.

Along the interior of the defensive line, Jason Jefferson was a stout run defender. At 6-foot-1 and around 300 pounds he was an eventual sixth round pick in the NFL Draft. He an Anttaj Hawthorne were a tremendous pairing at defensive tackle in the Wisconsin 4-3 defense

While Traison Lewis would not go on to make the same impact as the others, Darius Jones, who was originally brought in as a linebacker out of Beloit, also was a strong contributor along the defensive line for the Badgers during his career. Jones also dealt with injuries over the course of his career, but was another good player to come out of the recruiting class that came to campus in 2000.

Capital One Bowl: Arkansas v Wisconsin
O’Brien Schofield celebrates the Capitol Bowl win over Arkansas.
Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images

Honorable Mention: 2005 recruiting class

Another top class from the 2000’s, the 2005 class was also historically strong.

The duo of O’Brien Schofield and Matt Shaughnessy, in particular, were stellar.

Schofield spent some of his career at linebacker, but his time at defensive end was most memorable. A standout pass rusher, Schofield had 17 sacks, 33 tackles for a loss, and four forced fumbles over the course of his career. His senior season was by far his best, with 12 sacks and a whopping 24.5 tackles for loss.

Despite being undersized for the defensive end position, Schofield rose above the death of his sibling to become one of the best defensive ends in program history. An eventual fourth round pick of the Atlanta Falcons, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors his senior season, and he was the MVP of the East-West Shrine Game.

Schofield would go on to stick it out in the NFL for over six seasons, and won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks.

A much different athlete, Shaughnessy was a prototypical sized defensive end with burst at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds. He started 46 games during his career in Madison, and was a great against the run. He recorded 18.5 sacks, 41.5 tackles for loss, and batted down nine passes as well.

He was recognized with second team All-Big Ten honors in 2007, and was eventually picked in the third round by the Oakland Raiders.

While the those two were highly dynamic, the remaining crop of recruits from the 2005 class did not have the same level of impact. Terrance Jamison, was a reserve defensive lineman for his career at Wisconsin, but went into coaching after his playing days were cut short due to knee injuries.

Another member of the class, Jeff Stehle was a multi-year contributor along the defensive lineman. He was solid against the run, and was a hulking presence at 6-foot-6 at his strong-side defensive end position. He did not have the same level of accolades or fanfare as Schofield or Shaughnessy, but he was a reliably strong player for the Badgers his final three years on the team.

The final member of the class was Dan Cascone. Another unheralded team member, Cascone did not really see the field until his fifth year on campus as a rotational defensive tackle.

Overall, this group had a bevy of players that made a contribution, and two standouts, but it’s hard to argue with the three NFL picks from the 2000 class.