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Wisconsin football: 2022 defensive/special teams depth chart preview

The second part of our two part series takes a look at how the defense and special teams might line up in 2022.

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Wisconsin at Arizona State
Nick Herbig (No. 19) will be the veteran leader of the linebackers this year while Jordan Turner (No. 54) has big shoes to fill at inside backer.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 football season will be here before you know it, but before that we have to get through winter conditioning, spring football and fall camp. That doesn’t mean we can’t start speculating about what the depth chart will look like though! Belz, Owen and Tyler got together on a Google Doc and discussed their thoughts on how UW will lineup next season.

Next up we’ve got the defense and special teams. Here’s a link to the offensive preview from last week.

2022 Projected Defensive/Special Teams Depth Chart

Position Belz Owen Tyler
Position Belz Owen Tyler
DE Isaiah Mulles, James Thompson, Jr. Isaiah Mulles, James Thompson, Jr. Isaiah Mulles, James Thompson, Jr.
NT Keeanu Benton, Gio Paez/Curt Neal Keeanu Benton, Gio Paez Keeanu Benton, Gio Paez
DE Rodas Johnson, Isaac Townsend Rodas Johnson, Cade McDonald Rodas Johnson, Cade McDonald
OLB Nick Herbig, Spencer Lytle Nick Herbig, Darryl Peterson Nick Herbig, Spencer Lytle
ILB Jordan Turner, Jake Chaney Jordan Turner, Jake Chaney Jordan Turner, Maema Njongmeta
ILB Tate Grass, Maema Njongmeta Maema Njongmeta, Bryan Sanborn Jake Chaney, Tate Grass
OLB CJ Goetz, Aaron Witt Spencer Lytle, CJ Goetz CJ Goetz, Aaron Witt
CB Justin Clark, Alexander Smith Semar Melvin, Justin Clark Justin Clark, Dean Engram
FS John Torchio or Travian Blaylock John Torchio, Hunter Wohler John Torchio, Travian Blaylock
SS Hunter Wohler, Preston Zachman Travian Blaylock, Titus Toler Hunter Wohler, Titus Toler
CB Dean Engram, Semar Melvin Alexander Smith, Dean Engram Alexander Smith, Semar Melvin
K Collin Larsh, Vito Calvaruso Collin Larsh, Vito Calvaruso Collin Larsh, Vito Calvaruso
P Andy Vujnovich Andy Vujnovich Andy Vujnovich
KR Stephan Bracey Stephan Bracey Stephan Bracey
PR Dean Engram Dean Engram Dean Engram
LS Peter Bowden Peter Bowden Peter Bowden

There are going to be a LOT of new faces in the starting lineup on defense. Who are you most excited to see get more snaps?

Belz: Hunter Wohler. He saw playing time in all 13 games this past season as a true freshman, and considering his tremendous high school career that didn’t come as a surprise to anyone inside the state. Wohler is someone that should be in the mix for one of the starting safety spots, and I think he has the potential to be an All-Big Ten type player by the time his career is done.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

He is seemingly always around the ball, and his blend of speed/physicality give him a higher ceiling than most safety prospects that Wisconsin traditionally gets.

Owen: I’ll be curious to see where Titus Toler fits in with the safety group. He missed this entire season with injury, but Toler was a big win as a recruit from a powerhouse program in California. Safety is a crowded position with Travian Blaylock, Hunter Wohler and John Torchio all returning, but Toler could be a factor this season at strong safety.

Tyler: I am really excited to see Jordan Turner at inside linebacker. I was really impressed with him out of high school and thought he could develop into a really good player for Wisconsin. Trouble for him was getting on the field with Chenal and Sanborn in front of him. Now they’re both gone so not only will get a chance to be on the field, but he’ll have a chance to really step and hopefully step up as a top player for this Wisconsin defense next year.

Who will fill the linebacker role of “unsung hero who ends up making multiple game-changing plays” this year, taking over for Noah Burks?

Belz: I think Tate Grass and/or C.J. Goetz would make sense if you are looking for unsung heroes that could wind up contributing a ton next season. Grass could very well be one of the starting inside linebackers after joining the program as a former walk-on and making the two-deep all season long in 2021, while Goetz has been in the two-deep at outside linebacker the past two seasons. Neither has been overly flashy yet, but I think they bring a consistency that the coaching staff appreciates.

There are a ton of young players with high upside in the ILB/OLB rooms, but I think upperclassmen like Grass and Goetz are players that could bridge the gap to the younger group next season if they play well this spring. Don’t sleep on Maema Njongmeta either, I think the battle between him, Jake Chaney, Grass and Jake Ratzlaff will be fun to watch.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Wisconsin
C.J. Goetz (No. 98) should have a larger role on defense this year.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Owen: C.J. Goetz feels like the “guy who has waited his turn and will make the most of his opportunity” guys Wisconsin has had at the position for a while (Garret Dooley, Zach Baun, Noah Burks), but Belz already used him, so let’s get weird and say Darryl Peterson. He played well in the bowl game, and Peterson picked Wisconsin over Alabama, which tells me he could be ready to contribute earlier than we think.

Tyler: I think that Nick Herbig is going to be “thee” guy next year. I think he played some of his best football in the Las Vegas Bowl and I believe he’s primed for a big season. He’ll get more attention from opposing offensive game plans but I am not sure it will really matter. The kid seems to be in right place at the right time always which leads to making those type of plays.

Who will lead this defense in passes defended next year? There are a lot of new faces seeing the field in the defensive backfield and not really a No. 1, shutdown guy to be avoided, so opposing QBs may be throwing the ball to either side of the field.

Belz: I will go with Justin Clark. The Toledo transfer brings a wealth of experience to the cornerback room, and I don’t think he is transferring from a place with definite playing time to sit on the bench next season. Clark, Engram, and Alexander Smith are probably the most likely cornerbacks to see the field next season, but I believe that Clark is a player that could surprise folks next season. There is a reason that Hank Poteat is bringing him in. I don’t envision him being a breakout superstar or anything, but I do think he will be one of the team’s top cornerbacks in his final season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Eastern Michigan at Wisconsin
John Torchio is always in the right spot on the field.
Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Owen: I don’t have strong feelings or an abundance of confidence at the moment in the cornerback room, so I’m gonna go with John Torchio - who ALWAYS seems to be in the right spot and make things happen. Dean Engram will be on the field a lot in the slot, and Semar Melvin has showed flashes, but this defense seems to feature safeties to shine in spots, and Torchio has a knack for making plays when they’re there.

Tyler: I’ll go with Alexander Smith at cornerback. I liked what I saw from him and he’ll be one of the two new corners getting run consistently. After that, it’s a bit of crapshoot to see who will be the guy that steps up in the other spot. There are a lot of names, but I can’t sit here with any sort of confidence in who might be the number one type of guy. Smith got a good amount of run last year and I do think he’s got skills to take over and be one of the top guys in this group looking to prove themselves.

While compiling your depth charts, did you see anyone who you think might transfer OUT due to playing time?

Belz: I think the transfer of Izayah Green-May helped alleviate the log jam at outside linebacker a little bit, but the competitions at outside linebacker and inside linebacker could push someone out if they don’t like their standing after the spring. I don’t immediately see a name to worry about, but with COVID waivers and a ton of talented young players in those position rooms you never know.

Owen: The linebacker rooms are so loaded, someone like Aaron Witt or Maema Njongmeta, if they get passed up (Bollers or Peterson for Witt, Sanborn for Njongmeta), I wouldn’t blame them if they sought greener pastures and more available playing time, but obviously this is all speculative and I’m sure I’ll look like a bozo when these don’t come to fruition.

Tyler: My first thought was Travian Blaylock at safety. He’s a kid that’s been on the field some but people have always thought he should be out there more yet for whatever reason he has not been. I am sure he feels the same way. Collin Wilder and Scott Nelson are out of there now, but John Torchio is a solid player and Hunter Wohler is certainly in the mix to be a starter next year. Someone in that safety room is going to be the odd man out. Maybe you can rotate or maybe it works itself out but there are only two spots for three solid players.

Will Arkansas transfer K Vito Calvaruso win the place kicking job, along with his job as kickoff specialist? You’d have to imagine that he was at least offered a shot at competing for field goal duties, or else why transfer?

Belz: He will have every chance to win it, but I could see Collin Larsh handling short range field goals and Calvaruso kicking longer attempts in addition to his kickoff duties. I thought Larsh kicked the ball well last season for the most part, so it will be an interesting battle to watch with Calvaruso coming aboard. Either way I think Calvaruso will be the name to know at kicker beyond the 2022 season considering he has multiple years of eligibility remaining.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Purdue
Collin Larsh (No. 19) could have some competition for the placekicking job this season.
Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Owen: Belz, once again, has taken my answer, but this time I will not offer an alternative, because frankly you can’t make me. So there.

Tyler: Gotta give him a shot, no doubt. Collin Larsh was solid for most of the year but you certainly can go after other players and create some competition there. If Calvaruso thinks he can kick it through the uprights consistently then why not give him a shot at it. Hell, I don’t care who kicks it as long as it goes through. If Johnny Davis can kick it through consistently then get him on the team. If Drew Hamm can kick it through consistently then let’s see if we can get that eligibility back baby!