The Wisconsin Badgers have been through a hectic past nine months, marred by significant coaching changes, roster turnover, and a new sense of identity with the program.
One of those big changes: the loss of defensive tackle Keeanu Benton, who was drafted with the 49th pick in the second round of the 2022 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, leaving the Badgers without their top option in the middle of their defensive line.
Benton was one of the more underappreciated Badgers last season, as his impact wouldn’t always show up on the stat sheet, but that clearly didn’t impact how NFL teams valued his skillset, as the Badgers’ defensive lineman was the second-highest draft player from last year’s team.
With him off to the draft, the Badgers now face a void at nose tackle, where they’ve rotated several different players back in the spring.
Speaking to reporters about the position after Monday’s practice, head coach Luke Fickell highlighted the importance of the position, which he especially knows, as he played the position back in college.
“I’m never satisfied with the nose guard if you’re not strong down the middle in everything that you do,” Fickell said. “So, that’s the nose guard, that’s the middle linebacker, and that’s the middle field safety. A lot of situations the same thing offensive. You’re not strong down the middle with your center and your quarterback and that tailback, you have no place to go.”
However, despite the loss of Benton, Fickell believes there’s solid depth at the position for the Badgers in 2023.
“So I believe we’ve got some depth there. It hurts us that we don’t have Curt [Neal] here for maybe a few weeks, but that’s the challenge to those guys, to Gio [Paez] and [Isaiah] Mullens and anybody else that we kind of put in those situations. You guys got to be the strength of what it is we’ve done,” Fickell said.
Neal was seen out on crutches, which Fickell said would cause the defensive tackle to be sidelined for a few weeks.
Overall, as the team doesn't have that “rock” in the center, Fickell shared that the Badgers may look to operate more in a committee, while adding that his goal is to continue challenging all the players to keep competing.
“And obviously, I think that if you looked at one thing, what are you missing from last year is that rock in the center and not saying we don’t have it, but I think that we may have it a little bit more by committee. But I like to challenge those guys a lot.”
The Badgers added several key transfers this offseason, including the likes of defensive end Darian Varner and outside linebacker Jeff Pietrowski, but are relying on players from last year’s team for the nose tackle spot, with Mullens getting the first crack back during the spring.
Still, Fickell remains confident in the unit, while noting the likelihood of a committee from the position in 2023.