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Violent and Aggressive: The new identity of the Badgers defensive line

The Badgers are looking to change things up under defensive line coach Greg Scruggs.

The Wisconsin Badgers defensive line was one of the groups facing the most turnover from a season ago, as star edge rusher Nick Herbig and defensive tackle Keeanu Benton both departed for the NFL draft, leaving significant production on the table for the team to replace in 2023.

In addition, the members of the defensive line are undergoing another coaching change, as new head coach Luke Fickell hired former New York Jets assistant defensive line coach Greg Scruggs to fill the position, while former coach Ross Kolodziej followed Bobby April to Stanford.

The Badgers also have a new defensive coordinator, Mike Tressel, whose unique defensive alignments have the Badgers’ defensive line fulfilling different roles in 2023, while having to learn new terminology for similar concepts under the new staff.

However, with the changes, there’s a clear identity that the Badgers are trying to create with their defensive line: being aggressive and violent.

From the initial look at Wisconsin’s previous film, Scruggs acknowledged the goal of being more aggressive, which is currently the main goal for the group.

“I think we have to be a little bit more aggressive than what they might have been accustomed to in the past. Now, full transparency, I didn't completely study every single rep of every game last year, but I think we have to be just a tad bit more aggressive,” Scruggs said.

How exactly does Scruggs envision his group executing that strategy in 2022?

“So, getting these guys to understand that I want to make you a football player. I want to make you a guy that attacks the rock, goes and gets after the QB, plays the run violently and aggressively,” Scruggs said. “I think that is kind of just a switch of mentality because of the structure of the defense, not because of the coach. So, that’s probably the biggest push right now.”

The message has certainly resonated with defensive lineman James Thompson Jr., who shared that his trigger word is “violent”.

“[My mindset is] just be violent. That’s when I had to be violent. Be violent. Shake your fingers, might touch the ground, might pick your feet up. But overall, just be violent and do those last six games and everything that was in my mind, just be violent. Do what you got to do,” Thompson said. Shed the blocker, get vertical, press the blocker back, get a good rush. And [in] everything you do, be violent and have attention to it. That’s what my mindset was.”

With the new style, the goal for the defensive end is to ensure that all reps are done with full energy, even if technique mistakes are involved.

[Even if] you did the wrong technique, make sure you go all out,” Thompson said. “I just try to make sure I run to the ball and chase down the line and do everything fast, because when you second guess yourself, that’s how you get yourself in trouble and just fall off right there. So I think my question, just play fast [and] play physical.”

That level of energy has clearly been seen in practice with players showcasing emotions and the elevated tempos that coaches run with.

The mindset has even reciprocated off the field as Rodas Johnson shared how his pre-practice music has diverted from audiobooks with Keeanu Benton to drill music to prepare his mindset.

“I was on that intellectual stuff last year, but now I’m going to take it off. So I’m on anything that’s violent, I’m listening to that. I love the DMX in the morning, the Waka Flocka in the morning, Chief Keef, all that,” Johnson said. “I need that drill music in my body.”

Now, the energy needs to be translated to the field and must be met with the proper discipline and technique, which Scruggs acknowledged. But, it’s the first step in a transitional period for the Badgers that will ultimately define the identity of their defensive line in 2023.

You can listen to Greg Scruggs’s full interview here.

You can listen to James Thompson Jr.’s full interview here.

You can listen to Rodas Johnson’s full interview here.