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Wisconsin football: six young players to watch on the defense for 2022

A look at six players on the Wisconsin defense with freshman or sophomore eligibility next year that could take on a larger role.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Rutgers
Young linebacker Jordan Turner had two interceptions in limited action this past season.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 season may have just ended last week for the Wisconsin Badgers, but it is never too early to take a look at what the future could hold. After finishing with a 9-4 record behind an experienced defense, the Badgers are primed to replace a number of significant contributors this spring.

Here is a way-too-early look at six players with either freshmen or sophomore eligibility in 2022 that could be tasked with larger roles next season on the defense.

Hunter Wohler - Sophomore in 2022

Wisconsin is widely regarded as a developmental program. Players traditionally redshirt during their first season on campus and then gradually become contributors over the following seasons. However, when the staff utilizes true freshmen right away, it is usually a strong indicator that the player is ahead of schedule and is being groomed to be a starter in year two.

Safety Hunter Wohler is that type of player. This past season, Wohler appeared in 14 games and made an immediate impact on multiple special team units.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin
Hunter Wohler (No. 24) was a four-star prospect and Gatorade Player of the Year at Muskego High School.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound safety, came to campus as one of the highest-rated defensive backs in recent memory, and Jim Leonhard has shown a willingness to play him early in his career. Possessing ideal size and tremendous athletic ability, Wohler is one of the top candidates to earn a starting safety spot next year after recording 17 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, and a pass breakup in 2021.

A very good hitter, Wohler might possess the most raw talent in the safety group, and given Jim Leonhard’s recent history with starting second-year players (Scott Nelson and Reggie Pearson both earned starting spots), I think Wohler is a player that could be an absolute difference maker as he gains experience.

The Badgers will be replacing both starting safeties next season. I would be surprised if Wohler wasn’t in the mix for one of the starting spots. Travian Blaylock and John Torchio are both more experienced options at safety, but Wohler might be too good to keep off the field.

Jordan Turner - RS Sophomore in 2022

The Badgers will have to replace both starting inside linebackers next season with Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal off to the next level. One player that put together a strong argument to be a favorite to fill the vacancy is Jordan Turner.

Wisconsin v Rutgers
Linebacker Jordan Turner (No. 54) recorded two interceptions this season as a reserve.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Turner redshirted in 2020 after joining the Badgers as a 3-star prospect out of Farmington, Mich. The 6-foot-1 redshirt freshman then put together a strong fall camp, working primarily with the second-team defense behind the duo of Sanborn and Chenal. While playing time was limited because of the talent level in front of him, Turner did flash when given opportunities. Playing in six games this season he managed six tackles, one tackle for loss, and two interceptions.

At 228 pounds, Turner still has some mass to add to his frame, be he moves really well for a player his size and displayed some nice ball skills in coverage this past season. His biggest competition for a starting spot will be Tatum Grass and Maema Njongmeta, though I also would not discount Jake Chaney as a guy that could wind up snagging a starting spot after burning his redshirt this season.

Regardless, Turner is a player that looks the part of a great inside linebacker in Wisconsin’s scheme, and he is a player to monitor when spring practices open up in a couple of months.

Darryl Peterson - RS Freshman in 2022

The play of Darryl Peterson was one of the top stories of fall camp. The former 3-star outside linebacker earned reps with the second team defense frequently in the practices open to the media, and made some nice plays as a pass rusher. Peterson only wound up playing in two games during the season, but the fact that he saw early playing time in the bowl game was interesting to see.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl - Wisconsin v Arizona State
OLB Darryl Peterson (No. 17) will compete for a role in Bobby April’s position room this spring.
Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A former 4-3 defensive end, Peterson is sill working on technique and dropping into coverage, but he is an extremely strong player that is adept at bull rushing. Peterson actually provided some pressure off the edge on John Torchio’s interception early in the game. At 247 pounds, Peterson is already at a weight that can succeed as an outside linebacker, and I think he is a guy in Bobby April’s room that could be a difference maker with added opportunities.

Fortunately for the Badgers, Nick Herbig will be back for his junior season. He is a surefire starter on one side of the defense. The other side of the field which was previously roamed by Noah Burks the past two seasons is wide open though heading into spring. CJ Goetz and Spencer Lytle are probably the top two candidates to replace Burks, but Peterson has the talent to earn some playing time with a good off-season.

James Thompson Jr. - RS Sophomore in 2022

Defensive end Matt Henningsen is off to tackle the NFL. Given the way that Ross Kolodziej likes to rotate his players up front there should be more playing time available to a guy like James Thompson Jr. who has already seen the field the past two seasons. NT Keeanu Benton is back which is absolutely massive for the defensive line, and I fully expect that the tandem of Isaiah Mullens and Rodas Johnson to probably be the other starters along the line to open spring, but Thompson Jr. is a player that should factor into the rotation.

SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl - Wisconsin v Arizona State
James Thompson Jr. (No. 90) could see more time along the defensive line in 2022.
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

At 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds JTJ is one of the biggest defenders on the team, and he is someone that quickly earned reps on the defense as a freshmen before an injury against Michigan. This past season he played in 10 games with six tackles as a reserve, and also participated on the field goal team. I could envision a scenario where he pushes Johnson for a starting spot this spring if he puts together a strong showing given his length and athletic ability.

Jake Chaney - Sophomore in 2022

Another inside linebacker that made some nice strides this season was Jake Chaney. A bit undersized at 5-foot-11 and 222 pounds, Chaney enrolled early last spring to get a head start on his college career. The Florida native quickly earned the trust of the staff on special teams and wound up playing in nine games to forego his redshirt season.

As mentioned earlier with Wohler, it is usually a major indicator when the staff has a true freshmen exceed the four-game threshold, and Chaney was a surprise contributor this past year.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 Wisconsin at Purdue
Linebacker Jake Chaney (No. 36) was involved in special teams throughout the season.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

An extremely smart player with tremendous burst and an ability to get downhill quickly, Chaney is a wildcard in the inside linebacker room. With multiple starting roles open for competition, Chaney is a natural leader that has already earned the trust of his peers. Some older players such as Jordan Turner, Tatum Grass, and Maema Njongmeta are probably ahead of him on the depth chart heading into the spring, but I would not be surprised to see Chaney put together a big spring and become another impactful linebacker for the Badgers. Both Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal did not redshirt as freshmen, maybe Chaney follows in their footsteps and secures a starting spot in year two.

Aaron Witt - RS Sophomore in 2022

Narrowing this list to six was difficult because there are a lot of young talent on the defense. For example, TJ Bollers and Kaden Johnson are former 4-star prospects that could easily take a leap and become contributors. Additionally, I think cornerback Ricardo Hallman could push for a spot in the two-deep as a redshirt freshman.

However, I think Aaron Witt is a player with a higher potential ceiling next season. Matter of fact, he has the potential to be the most impactful player on this entire list if healthy.

After playing in five of the team’s seven games as a true freshmen, including a strip sack in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, Aaron Witt was a player with a ton of hype heading into last spring. A right leg injury completely derailed his entire 2021 season however. Now closer to full strength entering this spring, Witt is a darkhorse candidate to win a starting spot opposite Nick Herbig.

Witt is one of the most dynamic and hard-nosed outside linebackers on the roster, and at 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds he has intriguing size for the position. If it wasn’t for the injury this season I think Witt would have seen a good amount of playing time as a rotational player, so assuming he is able to get back to playing at a high level like he was at the end of the 2020 season, I think Witt has a chance to be a really good player for the Badgers.

He definitely jumped out on film a year ago, and I think his skill set sets him apart in the outside linebacker room. He will have plenty of competition for playing time, but I have been extremely high on what Witt could be as an outside linebacker in Wisconsin’s scheme after his freshman campaign.

Later in the week, Belz will look at some young offensive players who could make a difference for the Badgers next season.