It may have seemed like just yesterday that the Wisconsin Badgers football team was celebrating their Las Vegas Bowl win over the Arizona State Sun Devils, but that was actually all the way back on Dec. 30. A bunch of stuff has happened since then! The Badgers have a new offensive coordinator and a number of other new assistants, the men’s basketball team won the Big Ten regular season title, and we all never got mad online about sports or anything!
Now, however, it is officially spring and the Badgers are getting ready to take the field on Tuesday morning for the first day of spring practice! Yesterday we took a look at the offense, and today we take a look at the pressing questions facing the Badger defense!
Who gets the first crack at inside linebacker?
Coming into last year Wisconsin football had the pleasure of lining up Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn at inside linebacker. Former inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad said he’d run those two together every snap if he could, and for the most part he did.
Now though, both have departed for the NFL and the Badgers have massive shoes to fill. Last year Chenal and Sanborn were first and second in tackles on the team, combining for 173 total tackles on the year. Additionally, Wisconsin will be without Mike Maskalunas who was the third inside linebacker most of last year.
New inside linebackers coach Bill Sheridan has a lot of production to replace at those spots and will look to do so with players that have not played a ton of game reps. One of the more promising prospects that saw the field last year is redshirt sophomore Jordan Turner. He played in six games and only tallied two tackles, but he did have two nice interceptions as well. Turner seems to be the odds on favorite to get a starter spot, but Wisconsin will need to find another as well.
Who that might be is a little more unclear. Jake Chaney, Maema Njongmeta, Tatum Grass, and Bryan Sanborn are all players that will likely be in the mix but who wins out will be a battle to watch all spring and into fall.
Who emerges as a candidate to start at cornerback?
Similar to inside linebackers, the Badgers have a lot to replace at cornerback. Both starters from last year’s team departed and Dean Engram switched to the offensive side of the ball meaning there are plenty of starter reps to go around.
Wisconsin got busy in the transfer portal this offseason nabbing Justin Clark (Toledo), Cedrick Dort (Kentucky) and Jay Shaw (UCLA). Each player started at their former school with Shaw being named to a second-team All PAC-12 team by the Associated Press.
With Wisconsin adding three talented corners that started at high-level programs it's fair to assume that they’ll come into Wisconsin with those same expectations. However, the Badgers still have some talent that will not lay down and lose out without some competition.
Alexander Smith gave Wisconsin some solid playing time a year ago, and UW has been heavily recruited for the cornerback position the last few recruiting cycles. Ricardo Hallman, Max Lofy, and Semar Melvin are all players that will battle as well. It has been a good competition the last few years at corner, and it’s fair to assume that won’t change this spring.
Who fills out the defensive line?
Coming into last year Wisconsin’s one question mark defensively seemed to be on the defensive line. Consensus would say that that group far exceed the preseason expectations they had. This year, Keeanu Benton is back at the nose tackle position and should once again be a dominating piece in the middle. On one end, Isaiah Mullens seems to be one of the starters, but there will be a big void to fill on the other side of Benton.
Matt Henningsen was a key piece last year and his departure will be a tough one to fill. Henningsen was a very underrated player and produced at a high level for Wisconsin for years. Competing for that spot will be a few different players, and it will be interesting to see how that competition unfolds.
Rodas Johnson is a name that has been in the mix for years, but has not gotten his shot as a starter just yet. Additionally, Wisconsin has a strong group of younger players like James Thompson Jr., Cade McDonald, and former Oregon transfer Isaac Townsend. Thompson Jr. is likely the leader in the clubhouse, but nothing is set in stone. It will be interesting to see if Thompson keeps that lead, or if another player narrows the gap at that spot and some sort of snap rotation emerges.