The explosion of J.J. Watt notwithstanding, Wisconsin has more of a legacy on the defensive line than people think. This program has a track record of sending talented and hard-working players to the next level, a tradition that was highlighted by the 2005 NFL Draft in which Wisconsin's entire four-man unit was selected. Though it may have reached a pinnacle in recent years with Watt and O'Brien Schofield, only twice during Bret Bielema's tenure -- once after his first season as head coach and again in 2012 -- did a Badger defensive lineman fail to be drafted into the the league.
This month, the 2013 NFL Draft will mark the third time. On the bright side, every single player from Wisconsin's defensive front last year returned for another season.
And yet, when talking about the line specifically, this year's group is suddenly missing two of its most effective pass rushers. Injury-riddled David Gilbert made the tough decision to sit out his final year, while sixth-year senior Brendan Kelly moves from a three-point stance in a 4-3 defense to the outside linebacker position in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 alignment. Roles, they are a changin' ...
Never fear though, because real American hero Beau Allen is back to anchor the new look. As a nose tackle in the 3-4 Allen's size (6-3, 333 lb) and tenacity will be a huge asset. The senior hopes to rejoin his teammates yet this spring after having ankle surgery in January to repair ligament damage. The coaching staff believes Allen can be the cornerstone of its new configuration.
"He'll be able to tie up two blockers, all of the while knocking guys back," Aranda said. "That's what you look for in that spot. He's a big part of the defense going forward."
Led by mostly the same front seven it will feature in 2013, the Badgers were solid on defense for the most part in 2012. Wisconsin ranked 16th in scoring defense (19.1 ppg), 17th in opponents' third down conversion rate (32.6%), and 25th in rushing defense (128.9 ypg), the latter two which can be attributed in large part to the defensive line.
But on the other hand, Wisconsin only forced 15 turnovers -- one of the lowest numbers in college football. That speaks to an insufficient pass rush and playmaking ability.
Meanwhile, Gary Andersen's Utah State team ranked seventh in the nation in scoring defense last year and 14th in total defense (322 yds/game). The Aggies also ranked sixth in sacks thanks to Aranda and a blitzing 3-4 defense. If Andersen and Aranda can produce the same production in the Big Ten during year one, Wisconsin will be well-positioned for another championship run.
Spring Depth Chart
DL - Ethan Hemer -- 6-foot-6, 296 pounds, RS senior
NT - Beau Allen -- 6-foot-3, 333 pounds, senior
DL - Pat Muldoon -- 6-foot-3, 258 pounds, RS senior
Bryce Gilbert -- 6-foot-1, 305 pounds, RS junior
Jake Keefer -- 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, RS sophomore
Arthur Goldberg -- 6-foot-3, 282 pounds, RS freshman
Logan Schmidt -- 6-foot-5, 273 pounds, RS freshman
You could argue this was a perfect season to switch the defensive scheme because of the experienced trio Wisconsin returns up front. Allen and Hemer each started all 14 games for the Badgers as juniors, while Muldoon started six. In all, these guys have 118 appearances under their belt. All three players are classic Badger grinders. The towering Hemer came to the program as a walk-on and finally received his scholarship a year ago.
They're intelligent too -- all of them having earned Academic All-Big Ten honors in their careers.
Considering their role in Aranda's defense, the collective attitude and smarts of the group will come in handy. By removing a fourth lineman, the onus is on these three to swallow up the offense's blockers to allow the linebacker corps to make plays.
Hailing from Minnetonka, Minnesota, with flowing Viking-like blond locks, Allen is one of the emotional leaders of the defense and the team as a whole. He's shown a capacity to play up in big games, notching TFLs against Michigan State, Ohio State and Stanford last year. Allen is the closest thing the Badgers have to an impact playmaker on the line this season.
Wisconsin has a few promising players backing up Allen, as both Herring and Bryce Gilbert got a handful of reps last year during Big Ten play. Maybe it's his basketball skills, but I think Herring has the makings of the next quality Badger lineman.
It is possible that Andersen may want to rotate a guy like Tyler Dippel, who is also transitioning to linebacker, back onto the line at times just to keep his best players on the field. Keep in mind that even though Wisconsin will primarily play a 3-4 this season, there will still be some 4-3 look mixed in. Dippel tied with Kelly for the team lead with five sacks in 2012.
Generating a pass rush from the line is the glaring concern on the defensive line heading into the season. Last season Allen, Hemer and Muldoon combined for only six sacks total, with Warren Herring chipping in a half-sack. Unlike the departed David Gilbert, none of the projected starters possess remarkable athleticism (though Allen gets kudos for blocking a punt against Purdue).
Luckily, the scheme change should lessen the impact of the problem. Technically, an extra rush end will be lining up at linebacker and the coaching staff has stressed how it wants to keep opponents guessing with different blitz packages.
A 3-4 scheme can generate more big plays because it is less predictable. However, some consider the strategy more difficult to pull off in college football because of the bigger bodies it requires on the defensive line. Beyond Allen, and perhaps Hemer, it remains to be seen how well a slightly undersized group holds up against the run over a full season. Since all the lineman were recruited by the old staff with a 4-3 system in mind, many of them aren't prototypical 3-4 ends or tackles.
Which leads to the topic of depth. Keeping fresh legs in the game will be important as the impact of one lineman being fatigued could be magnified by an opponent's powerful running game.