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Wisconsin football: projecting the 2021 defensive depth chart

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A way-too-early look at what the 2021 depth chart might look like for Wisconsin football.

Duke’s Mayo Bowl - Wake Forest v Wisconsin Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers now enter a crucial off-season in which they will need to find replacements for some notable upperclassmen heading off to future endeavors.

While there still remains a chance that some more seniors could opt to return due to an NCAA eligibility waiver exception for 2021, there are still some vacancies that will need to be filled.

The 2021 season is months away, but here is a way-too-early look at what the Badgers two-deep could look like entering spring practice.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Wisconsin at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensive end

  1. Matt Henningsen and Isaiah Mullens
  2. Cade McDonald and Boyd Dietzen

With both Isaiahh Loudermilk (confirmed) and Garrett Rand expected to move on to test the NFL waters, Matt Henningsen and Isaiah Mullens seem to be next in line for the starting spots at defensive end. Henningsen has been a consistent presence for the defensive line the past three seasons, but is also recovering from an injury that derailed most of 2020 for him. He was the most dynamic defensive end for the Badgers in 2019 statistically speaking, and Wisconsin could really use him to return to form quickly next season.

Mullens is a big bodied lineman that has shown flashes at times over the course of his career. He played fairly well as a reserve the past two seasons, and is one of the stronger players on the team.

Behind the two projected starters, there are a lot of question marks. Boyd Dietzen played in every game in 2019, but then was nowhere to found in 2020. He is one of the older players in the room, and will have a good chance to see rotational time if he is healthy and wasn’t already lapped on the depth chart by some of the younger options.

Cade McDonald played a lot as a true freshman, and has the frame to earn even more playing time if he earns it this off-season. Questions remain about what the future of Rodas Johnson and Gio Paez are after not seeing the field much this past season, but both of those players are players that could very well round out the two-deep if they make gains. Lastly, James Thompson Jr. played one snap as a true freshman last year and was injured for the remainder of the season. If completely healthy he could be a high ceiling option as well, especially considering he saw playing time as a freshman.

Whoever the new defensive line coach is will have their work cut out for them in determining how the rotation will look come fall at defensive end.

Wisconsin v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Nose tackle

  1. Keeanu Benton
  2. Bryson Williams

While there are questions aplenty at defensive end, the nose tackle spot is pretty well established.

Keeanu Benton should remain the starter, and he is one of the best players on the defense. Benton has proven to be disruptive as a run-stuffer, but has also been able to get to the quarterback at times as well.

Behind him, Bryson Williams is an experienced option that could see some playing time at defensive end as well depending on how the staff attempts to utilize him in 2020.

Gio Paez might be the No.3 option right now, but with two solid options in front of him, there aren’t a lot of available snaps at the position.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Outside linebacker

  1. Nick Herbig and CJ Goetz
  2. Spencer Lytle and Aaron Witt

Heading into 2021 I think Nick Herbig is the only sure fire starter at outside linebacker after having a standout freshman season. Herbig started every game this past season, and showed promise despite his youth. Expect him to take a nice step after a full off-season of improvement.

On the opposite side of him there will be a really fun competition to watch assuming that Noah Burks does not return for a sixth season. 6-foot-6 project Izayah Green-May just can’t seem to stay healthy, but he is another name that could shake up the depth chart if he is able to put it all together.

However, at this point I think the battle will likely be a three horse race between CJ Goetz, Spencer Lytle, and Aaron Witt unless another one of the freshmen outside linebackers like Kaden Johnson, T.J. Bollers or Darryl Peterson prove too good to keep on the sideline.

Goetz has bounced around position wise over the course of his career in Madison, but seems to have found a home at outside linebacker after a nice season in which he rotated in with Noah Burks and Herbig. Lytle came to Madison with a lot of fanfare as a recruit, and saw his playing time increase as last season progressed. Lytle is probably the best outside linebacker on the roster in coverage, and could see additional time if Burks moves on.

In terms of fitting the mold of an edge setting outside linebacker that can also get to the quarterback, 6-foot-6 and 240 pound freshman Aaron Witt might be the most intriguing player at the position. Like Lytle, Witt also saw his playing time increase later in the year, and he is a player that could pair nicely with a smaller player like Herbig on the other side. Keep an eye on Witt this off-season because he could be a breakout candidate.

Inside linebacker

  1. Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal
  2. Mike Maskalunas and Jordan Turner/Malik Reed

The Badgers have their core rotation at inside linebacker all returning after Jack Sanborn and Mike Maskalunas made it known that they would be back for another season in Madison. The two starters, Sanborn and Chenal, could be even better next season and give the Badgers a really strong duo in the middle of the defense.

Behind them, walk-on Mike Maskalunas was the only player listed on the depth chart last season, leaving room for any number of the young linebackers to step up and see spotty playing time.

The best bet to step up would be either Maema Njongmeta, Malik Reed, or Jordan Turner. All three have ability, and could really benefit from a full spring practice schedule.

Also keep an eye on some of the incoming freshmen. I am extremely high on Jake Ratzlaff and Jake Chaney in particular as players that could come in and see time on special teams, and Bryan Sanborn could enter camp ahead of the curve after learning and working out with his brother.

Cornerback

  1. Faion Hicks and Donte Burton (or Caesar Williams if he returns)
  2. Semar Melvin and Dean Engram

The Badgers have been fortunate to have a lot of depth at cornerback the past few seasons, but the early loss of Rachad Wildgoose and potential loss of Caesar Williams could shake thing up for Jim Leonhard in 2021.

Faion Hicks choice to return was big news for the secondary, as he is a multi-year starter that the team can lean on and trust. If Caesar Williams were to come back that would also be significant and give the defense two quality cornerbacks with a lot of experience.

Outside of those two corners, Donte Burton has seen the most playing time the past two seasons and has played fairly well. Semar Melvin did some good things as a true freshman, but he missed all of 2020 with an injury. Melvin is a really talented young defensive back that would probably be the odds on favorite to start at nickel if he is back to full health.

Dean Engram and Alexander Smith are a pair of other defensive backs that could be in line for more playing time as well depending on how things shake out this spring and in the summer.

With how much Jim Leonhard likes to rotate his cornerbacks, each of the players listed above should be expected to see the field in some capacity next year. Freshmen Max Lofy, Al Ashford, and Ricardo Hallman are up-and-comers at the position.

Wisconsin v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Safety

  1. Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder (or Reggie Pearson if back)
  2. Titus Toler and John Torchio

While the loss of Eric Burrell is notable, having both Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder back should ease the transition. Both Nelson and Wilder have been on the field a lot, and Nelson will likely take over as the vocal leader of the group.

The wildcard of the group is definitely Reggie Pearson. After not being medically cleared to play last season, Pearson did not participate with the Badgers after starting at strong safety as a redshirt freshman. If Pearson is back he will likely vault back into his role at strong safety and allow Wilder to continue to be a standout reserve at each position.

After the core group of potential starters, Titus Toler showed promise in the first two games before missing the remainder of the season with an injury, while John Torchio has seen the field in various capacities the past two years.

True freshmen Hunter Wohler and Braelon Allen are also players to watch, as they could both be physically ready to help out in 2021 as well.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl - Oregon v Wisconsin Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Kicker

  1. Collin Larsh
  2. Jack Van Dyke

Like last year, Collin Larsh should continue to assume the place kicking duties while Jack Van Dyke handles kickoffs. Wisconsin is still in the market for another kicker in the 2021 class that could add to the group, but for now there isn’t expected to be any changes.

Punter

  1. Andy Vujnovich
  2. Connor Schlichting

After transferring in last summer, Andy Vujnovich has really given the special teams unit a nice lift. He did a great job as the starting punter in 2020 and should once again carry that title into next season. Connor Schlichting earned some punts, mostly in short yardage situations, and will probably maintain his role as No. 2.

Long snapper

  1. Peter Bowden

Right now Peter Bowden is the only long snapper listed on the 2020 roster that is set to return unless Josh Bernhagen opts to return for a sixth season. Bowden was listed as the backup to Adam Bay all season long last year and should take over for the four year starter.

Duke’s Mayo Bowl - Wake Forest v Wisconsin Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Kick returner

  1. Devin Chandler
  2. Stephan Bracey

The kick return duties should be interesting to watch this spring as well. Stephan Bracey started off the year in that role, but missed the latter half of the season due to an injury. Devin Chandler stepped up and did a good job in his place, including a 50+ yard return in the bowl game. Chandler seemed to do a better job while back there, but Bracey did win the job out of camp for a reason. Expect a competition between Chandler and Bracey for the spot.

NCAA Football: Duke’s Mayo Bowl-Wake Forest vs Wisconsin Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Punt returner

  1. Dean Engram
  2. Jack Dunn or Danny Davis (if they return)

After consecutive seasons as the punt returner, Jack Dunn relinquished his punt return duties to Dean Engram this season. Engram was a fantastic punt return man in high school, and seems most likely to keep that job next season. Engram did not do anything to wow fans last season while catching punts, but he has the play-making ability to do so if given the chance.