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Wisconsin football 2020 fall practice position preview: defensive line

Today we break down the front line of the Wisconsin defense.

Big Ten Football Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Look, we don’t know if there is going to be college football this fall but until we know for sure that there isn’t, we are going to treat this off-season like any other and get you prepared for the 2020 season. Here are our thoughts on each position group before spring practice started and then, uh, got canceled to get you fully up to speed.

Since, to be quite honest, not a whole lot has changed since we wrote the spring previews we’ll be adding a couple of different elements to these previews. We’ll take our best guesses at how the depth chart for each position group will look this fall and we’ll also take a look at a potential breakout player for the 2021 season (in case you haven’t had your Graham Mertz fix in a few months).

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Returning players:

  • Isaiahh Loudermilk, defensive end, 6-foot-7, 297 pounds, redshirt senior
  • Garrett Rand, defensive end, 6-foot-2, 285 pounds, redshirt senior
  • Matt Henningsen, defensive end, 6-foot-3, 285 pounds, redshirt junior
  • Michael Balistreri, defensive end, 6-foot-4, 287 pounds, redshirt junior
  • Isaiah Mullens, defensive end, 6-foot-4, 291 pounds, redshirt sophomore
  • Boyd Dietzen, defensive end, 6-foot-3, 263 pounds, redshirt sophomore
  • Rodas Johnson, defensive end, 6-foot-2, 291 pounds, redshirt freshman
  • Bryson Williams, nose tackle, 6-foot-2, 299 pounds, junior
  • Keeanu Benton, nose tackle, 6-foot-4, 319 pounds, sophomore
  • Gio Paez, nose tackle, 6-foot-3, 303 pounds, redshirt freshman

Departing players:

  • David Pfaff, defensive end, 6-foot-2, 288 pounds, graduated
  • Gunnar Roberge, nose tackle, 6-foot-4, 292 pounds, graduated

Incoming players:

  • Cade McDonald, defensive end, 6-foot-6, 254 pounds, freshman
  • James Thompson, defensive end, 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, freshman

Project Depth Chart: Defensive line

Role Player Position Year Games played
Role Player Position Year Games played
Starter Garrett Rand Defensive end Redshirt senior 41 games played, nine starts
Backup Matt Henningsen Defensive end Redshirt junior 27 games played, 15 starts
Starter Keeanu Benton Nose tackle Sophomore 13 games played, seven starts
Backup Bryson Williams Nose tackle Junior 19 games played, three starts
Starter Isaiahh Loudermilk Defensive end Redshirt senior 34 games played, 20 starts
Backup Isaiah Mullens Defensive end Redshirt sophomore 13 games played

Position breakdown and depth chart: The Wisconsin defensive line is as deep as it has been in some time. Not only do the Badgers return all of their starters from a year ago, but they should enter the season healthier. Last season Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk came into the year recovering from injuries, while Bryson Williams missed the latter half of the 2019 season after a season-ending leg injury. Assuming Williams is healthy, the defensive line should be primed for a big season.

The defensive line was much improved in 2019, and that trajectory should only continue into the 2020 season, with the emergence of a capable backup in Isaiah Mullens and a stud nose tackle in Keeanu Benton.

The trio of Garrett Rand, Isaiahh Loudermilk, and Matt Henningsen bring a ton of experience to the defensive end rotation, and all three have shown the ability to be stout against the run and also get after the quarterback as well. I anticipate this group to have a really big year.

At the nose tackle position, Benton has the makings of an all-conference performer given his rare traits. He was very good last season as a true freshman, relying heavily on pure strength and quickness. Add a full year to fine tune hand placement and continue to work on his body, he could continue to elevate his game.

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Behind him, Bryson Williams should be working back from injury, but he has played a lot of football for the Badgers. More of a run stuffer, Williams should allow the interior of the defensive line to stay fresh and be a productive playmaker at the same time.

Farther down on the depth chart, Boyd Dietzen and Isaiah Mullens have been waiting in the wings for a larger share of snaps. Both players saw game action in 13 or more games last season, and they are a big reason for potentially the best depth along the defensive line that the Badgers have had under Paul Chryst. Neither player is likely a starter in 2020, but they should see expanded roles down the line.

Redshirt freshman Gio Paez and Rodas Johnson are a couple of other faces to keep an eye on in a deep group. Paez in particular could be a player that has the talent to shake up the depth chart if he demonstrates the ability to play both nose and end at around 300 pounds.

Both incoming freshmen Cade McDonald and James Thompson are likely redshirt candidates, which in all honesty is perfect for their overall developments moving forward.

Potential breakout player for 2021: I really liked what I saw out of Isaiah Mullens last year. He saw playing time in some big moments and played well. The visual of him throwing 400-pound offensive tackle Daniel Faalele to the ground in a short yardage situation and taking down the ball carrier for a short gain against Minnesota was a thing of beauty.

He he has prototypical size for a 3-4 defensive end at 6-foot-4 and 290 some odd pounds, but he has been stuck behind some tremendous players such as Rand and Loudermilk. When those two players graduate, a starting spot should be up for grabs to pair with Matt Henningsen. He seems like the most likely candidate right now, and he could really surprise people with his size and athleticism.