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Wisconsin Football: Defensive Line Position Preview

Led by nose tackle Keeanu Benton, Wisconsin’s defensive line should be a force this season.

Wisconsin football opens its season at Camp Randall on September 3rd where they’ll take on the Illinois State Redbirds. The Badgers are finishing up Fall camp and transitioning into game week, which means it’s time to get you prepped for what you should expect to see from each position group this Fall.

Next up, the defensive line!

Depth Chart Projection (projected starter in bold)

Defensive end: Isaiah Mullens, Isaac Townsend

Nose tackle: Keeanu Benton, Gio Paez

Defensive end: Rodas Johnson, James Thompson Jr.

Photo by Brad Fedie via 247Sports

2022 Position Preview

Nose Tackle

When talking about the Badgers’ defensive line for the upcoming season we have to start with nose tackle Keeanu Benton. The senior returns to Madison for one more season after flirting with entering the NFL draft last Spring. Benton has played in 33 games (24 starts) in his Wisconsin career and tallied 25 tackles and 2.5 sacks last year on his way to being named to the All-Big Ten second-team by the coaches.

Benton was a physical force in the middle at times last season and was a big reason why the Badgers ranked first nationally in rushing defense. Benton is a legitimate NFL prospect and will compete for another All-Big Ten selection if he stays healthy this year.

Backing up Benton will be redshirt junior Gio Paez, who played in 9 games for the Badgers last season. Freshman Curt Neal could also earn some playing time later in the year as he works his way back from an ACL tear he suffered during his senior year of high school. Neal enrolled early in January and could become Benton’s replacement in the coming years. Sophomore Ben Barten is also in the mix for backup snaps and saw playing time with the second-team defense in the spring.

Defensive End

Isaiah Mullens returns as a starter at defensive end to give the Badgers another experienced player up front. The senior started seven games in 2021 and has appeared in 33 games during his time in Madison. At 6’4’’, 303 lbs, Mullens isn’t a great threat to get after the quarterback, but he’s awesome against the run and should be able to make some plays with Benton commanding so much attention.

Rodas Johnson is slated to be the other starter at defensive end to begin the season. The junior played in 12 games and recorded seven tackles in 2021. Johnson is the smallest of the three starters on the defensive line and will look to bring a speed element up front for the Badgers.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Eastern Michigan at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There figures to be plenty of rotating at the two defensive end spots, and a handful of players will be in the mix for playing time. Redshirt sophomore James Thompson Jr. is likely to get the first crack as the third defensive end on the depth chart. Thompson played in all 13 games last season and could push Johnson for the starter role early in the year.

Not far behind is Isaac Townsend, a transfer from Oregon, who played in five games during his first season with the Badgers last year. Redshirt sophomore Cade McDonald and redshirt freshman Mike Jarvis are two other names to keep an eye on at defensive end if the injury bug bites the Badgers.

Season Expectations

With Benton and Mullens returning, this should be a really solid group up front for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. Benton could blossom into the best defensive tackle in the conference and Mullens is as solid as it gets in Leonhard’s 3-4 scheme.

I’m excited to see what Rodas Johnson can do with an increase in playing time. Johnson was a big get for the Badgers as a recruit and has spent the last three years bulking up and learning the system. He showed flashes last season in seven games played and had a memorable strip sack against Notre Dame. I think Wisconsin’s starters along the defensive line might be the third best in the conference behind only Ohio State and Michigan heading into the year.

Defensive line is a position group where depth is paramount. Thompson Jr., Townsend, and McDonald are all solid options that should see snaps up front as the Badgers shift from either three to two-man fronts. Keeping this unit healthy will be crucial though, as there isn’t much experience after you get past the two-deep. With the uncertainty at inside linebacker, you could argue that the defensive line will be Wisconsin’s best and most dominant defensive position group in 2022.