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Badgers HC Luke Fickell didn’t expect 2023 breakout from James Thompson

The Badgers defensive lineman has started to breakout in 2023.

The Wisconsin Badgers have started the season strong with a 3-1 record, losing only to the Washington State Cougars in a close bout on the road in Week 2.

As the weeks have gone along, the Badgers’ defense has been inconsistent, but good enough to hold opponents to 17 points or less in three of the team’s four games.

A big part of that? Defensive end James Thompson Jr., who has quietly enjoyed a breakout season on a revamped defensive line that lost starters Keeanu Benton and Nick Herbig to the NFL Draft this offseason.

Through four games, Thompson has four sacks, 13 pressures, and 10 run stops while being a regular contributor on the defensive line for the Badgers.

The defensive end has already overtaken his sack total during the 2022 season in a breakout season while playing 48% of the defensive snaps this season.

Did head coach Luke Fickell envision a breakout season for his starting defensive end?

“I can’t say that I did for sure,” Fickell said in regards to a breakout season. “I mean, I think that you’ve always loved James and his ability with size and length and some things that he’s a little bit different than a lot of the other guys that we’ve got.”

“But just to see his production through the first four weeks, I think that’s not a surprise. But I think it’s been one of those things that’s been intriguing to me, been great to our defense in particular.”

Now, Fickell is looking for Thompson to potentially move from the 50% range to the 65-75% range for snap counts as the Badgers continue forward with their season.

“For a guy that really is only probably playing 50% of the snaps, maybe a little bit more,” Fickell said. “I think he maybe is averaging 40 some snaps a game is going to be a guy that we need to look as we continue to push forward to see is he more of a 65, 75% amount of snaps in there.”

“And not that that takes away from some others, but the things that he can handle, the things that he can do that will continue to push forward.”

Thompson’s flexibility as an inside-outside guy could aid in his additional snap count, which Fickell has enjoyed through the first four weeks.

“But he’s a guy that’s been [good with] flexibility,” Fickell said. “He can move around, he can play inside, he can play over the nose, he can play on the edge. I think he gives you some versatility for us defensively in a lot of different ways.”

Coming into the year, the Badgers were going to need someone to step up in their defensive line room after losing some key pieces, and the early returns have been mixed, with the pass rush struggling at times.

However, Thompson is slowly emerging as the potential go-to guy, becoming a solid pass rusher while also forcing a turnover this season.

If the Badgers can continue to see this level of production from Thompson, while also potentially getting an extra contributor to break out, their defensive line will be in good hands.