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Wisconsin football: defensive midpoint status update for spring practice

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A position-by-position look at the news and notes of spring practice so far.

Kelli Steffes; UW Athletics Communications

With Wisconsin Badgers football team reaching the the halfway mark in their spring practice schedule, we here at B5Q thought it was a good time to recap all the goings on from camp thus far. A status check if you will.

With over 40 players going through their first round of spring practices, there is plenty of intrigue and development that has, and surely will continue, to happen before camp wraps up at the end of the month.

Without further ado, here is a position-by-position look at what has stood from the first few weeks of practice. Here is the defensive update. The offensive post was on Thursday.

Matt Henningsen (#92), Isaiah Mullens (#99), and Bryson Williams (#91) should all see playing time along the defensive line next season.
Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics

Defensive line

Under the direction of new defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej, the Wisconsin front seven will look a bit different than a year ago. There are at least two open spots in the defensive line rotation following the losses of Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand.

According to Kolodziej, redshirt sophomore Rodas Johnson has been “unbelievable” in camp and is a player that could see a bigger role come fall. Johnson was a big get on the recruiting trail in the 2019 class, and he is taking advantage of more reps this off-season.

Matt Henningsen, Keeanu Benton and Bryson Williams are all back, and have a wealth of experience as multi-year contributors. Henningsen and Williams missed a large part of last season due to injuries, but should both be significant players next year. Henningsen is fully recovered from injuries last year, while Williams shed a large amount of weight and has been limited this spring. Benton has also missed multiple practices with an injury as well.

Isaiah Mullens and Gio Paez have seen an increased workload this spring as well, Mullens at defensive end and Paez at nose tackle with Benton and Williams sporadically held out of practices. Mullens came into the spring a projected starter come fall, but the emergence of Johnson will make the battle for playing time more interesting at end.

Redshirt freshmen Cade McDonald and James Thompson, Jr. have been out with injuries this spring, giving true freshman Mike Jarvis and converted offensive lineman Ben Barten a chance for playing time. Barten was a jumbo athlete brought in last season that has the size and athleticism to help out on the defensive line if he stays on that side of the ball.

Redshirt junior CJ Goetz (#98) is in line for a role at outside linebacker next season.
Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics

Outside linebackers

The outside linebacker position has been one of the highly publicized groups this fall. Just about every major outlet has put together some sort of article about increasing QB pressures from the outside linebacker spot based on Bobby April’s interview from last Friday.

Luckily for April there are plenty of options to turn to.

Sixth-year senior Noah Burks recently got back onto the practice field recently after being held out due to COVID-19 protocols, but he is the elder statesman of the group. April brought up that Burks needs to be better in pass rush situations, and making a greater impact when he is on the field.

On the other side of the front seven, Nick Herbig is the other likely starter after playing well as a true freshman last season. Like Burks, Herbig mentioned that he wants to be more impactful next season while meeting with media members on April 9. Herbig is probably the most dynamic outside ‘backer on the roster and has proved it this spring.

Beyond the two returning starters, there is plenty of young depth fighting for roles as well. CJ Goetz has been running with the 1’s for most of the spring with Burks away, but Spencer Lytle has been mentioned by multiple players and coaches so far. Lytle saw more time late last year, and he is one of the best linebackers in coverage. Finally healthy, Lytle is a wildcard that could shake up the depth chart come fall.

Aaron Witt is another young player that saw time in the latter half of last season. He is a physical playmaker that has the ability to get after the quarterback and set the edge with his 6-foot-6, 248 pound frame. He has flashed at times this spring and is mature beyond his age.

Two other freshman, Kaden Johnson and T.J. Bollers are finding their footing this spring. Johnson missed the first few practices with a hamstring injury, but is now back and oozes potential. Bollers is a high profile early enrollee that looks the part physically. Both players are probably a bit farther down on the depth chart currently, but they are players to monitor moving forward given their high level of talent.

Senior Izayah Green-May is once again dealing with an injury and has not been practicing. The 6-foot-6 athlete can’t catch a break.

Maema Njongmeta (#55) nearly had to give up football last year, but he is battling for a rotational spot in 2021.
Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics

Inside linebackers

Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal are the definite starters, but with veteran linebacker Mike Maskalunas out with an injury there have been more reps for other inside linebackers.

Maema Njongmeta has been mentioned occasionally this spring for his play, and that is a positive sign for the future of the inside linebacker room. Njongmeta battled multiple injuries and health scares last season, but he is making some waves so far in camp.

Walk-on Tatum Grass has also been seeing plenty of reps, and he could have a career arc that mirrors that of Maskalunas. Jordan Turner and Malik Reed (both redshirt freshmen) have been in and out of practices with injuries according to inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad.

Alexander Smith (#11) has received reps with the first team this spring at cornerback.
Kelli Steffes

Cornerbacks

We have not yet had the opportunity to speak with new cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat or his position group, but starting cornerback Faion Hicks has been limited this spring. Deron Harrell and Semar Melvin have also been out for most of the spring.

Caesar Williams, who like Hicks opted to come back for another season, has been healthy and has once again been one of the better cornerbacks on the roster.

With Hicks (and others) in and out of the lineup though, Alexander Smith has had more opportunities with the first team. A former three-star recruit out of California, Smith has played sparingly in previous seasons, but he has played well in the first handful of practices.

Donte Burton and Dean Engram have also seen an uptick in reps this spring with the injuries, and should benefit from the opportunities. Burton saw a good amount of playing time the past two seasons, while Engram earned the staffs trust as a punt returner. Both players are potential fits in the slot, a role vacated with Rachad Wildgoose off to the NFL.

True freshman Al Ashford has also seen some early time on the field with the second and third teams, and his length makes him someone to watch in the coming years.

John Torchio (#15) and Travian Blaylock (#26) are a pair of younger safeties that could fill out Jim Leonhard’s two-deep.
Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics

Safeties

Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder have been the two primary safeties this spring, but the battle for playing time behind them has been fun.

Walk-on John Torchio has made some nice strides since last season, and he played well as a redshirt freshman in 2019. Torchio had a big interception off Danny Vanden Boom and is a solid player that could be in the safety rotation. Travian Blaylock has made a few plays as well.

The surprise at safety though has been Preston Zachman. Brought in as an athlete in the 2020 class, Zachman began his career in Madison as an inside linebacker. This spring he made the shift to safety and has been great so far. Titus Toler’s name has not been brought up much so far, but he is another player competing for the spots behind Nelson and Wilder.

Devin Chandler (#86) is the front runner for kickoff return duties again next year.
Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics

Special teams

In the spring punt return and kickoff return roles are usually spread out to a wide array of players, but at this time Devin Chandler (kickoff return) and Dean Engram (punt return) still appear poised to maintain their roles from the end of last season.

The larger point of conversation this spring, at least brought up by Paul Chryst, is the kicking game. Chryst made no mention of kickoffs or punting, but he was not happy with the place kicking, early in the spring. The head man said “I’ve liked their approach but they’ve got to be better than they were today” in terms of field goal work. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.