The Wisconsin Badgers are poised to have a strong defense once again in 2021, with impact players at each level of Jim Leonhard’s unit. However, entering fall camp, there were still lingering position battles that needed to be addressed. After taking in multiple practices and listening to what some of the players and staff had to say, we can piece together an educated guess as to what the depth chart might look like for the opening game against Penn State that is just over a week away.
Before diving into Wisconsin’s actual depth chart, I think it is important to note that Jim Leonhard loves to switch up his defensive fronts and does not simply stick to a base 3-4. In fact, for the majority of snaps last year, the Badgers only deployed two down linemen.
Here is a look at what the depth chart might look like for Wisconsin’s two primary defensive formations, starting with the 3-4 base defense.
Along the defensive line, Matt Henningsen and Keeanu Benton are both surefire starters. I think that Isaiah Mullens is the likely third starter alongside them, but on Saturday, Benton received some reps at defensive end with Bryson Williams at nose tackle. Regardless of who starts, I believe that those four players will be their top linemen in the rotation. Behind them, both Rodas Johnson and James Thompson Jr. should also play.
At inside linebacker, Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal are the unquestioned top two. Mike Maskalunas would probably be first up if either went down with an injury. Tate Grass was reinserted into the second group after getting back from injury last week, leading me to believe that he will round out the top-four at the position. I liked what I saw from Jordan Turner as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw time in a reserve role.
At outside linebacker, Nick Herbig and Noah Burks have taken most of the reps with the first team and should be the starters. I saw Spencer Lytle and CJ Goetz most frequently paired together with the second group, so I will guess that those two will receive plenty of playing time as the primary backups. Izayah Green-May and Darryl Peterson could also push for playing time in the rotation, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Aaron Witt jump into the top-four if he is back healthy soon.
At cornerback, the top two never changed. Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams give the Badgers a pair of reliable upperclassmen. Behind them Alexander Smith and Dean Engram were routinely the second group up, and also are the most likely candidates for the nickel role. Donte Burton, Deron Harrell and Semar Melvin are also vying for a spot in the depth chart.
Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder will be the starters at safety, but I also loved what I saw from John Torchio. Torchio and Travian Blaylock have the experience to see the field plenty this season, and I think they are a solid second wave at safety. If there is one player that could surprise and eventually leapfrog Blaylock, it is freshman Hunter Wohler. He rotated in with the second group quite a bit and flashed at times.
The Badgers use their various nickel packages often. Because of that, I wanted to differentiate the starting groups given how much it shifts the complexion of the defense.
Benton and Henningsen will most likely be the two defensive linemen in their 2-4-5 personnel, but Mullens, Williams, and most notably Johnson are also players that could be used in pass-rushing situations. Benton’s inclusion in the nickel package is a shift from last year, and I think he his primed for a big season.
The inside linebacker group is unchanged, as is the outside linebacker group. I think Green-May or Peterson could be used more often in this package because of their pass-rushing capabilities, but overall little changes for the linebackers.
In the secondary, I believe that Alexander Smith will be the third cornerback. Dean Engram should also see some playing time as the nickel at times. When Smith came in with nickel personnel in the practices I saw, he would shift Hicks down to the slot most of the time, allowing him to float or follow a top receiver. This is a change from last season, and I could see the Badgers matching Hicks up more often with some of the better receivers in the Big Ten.
There are times when Jim Leonhard has used three safeties too. I think Torchio is the player that would be up first in these situations.
We will have depth chart projections for the offense and special teams later in the week.