Spring Football Preview: Defense

Warren Herring (USA Today Sports)

With Wisconsin set to begin its 15 spring practice slate on Wednesday, BadgerNation previews the Badgers on the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive Line

The slate has virtually been wiped clean on the defensive line, as the Badgers front has been badly hit by graduation. Beau Allen, Tyler Dippel, Ethan Hemer and Pat Muldoon played in 207 career games for Wisconsin on the line, and all leave big gaps that defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a will try to start filling in the spring.

The first part is building leaders, and Kauha'aha'a feels he has two pretty good leaders in seniors Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski. Herring has the potential to be a run stuffer with his 294-pound frame and is athletic, quick and versatile. He played in all 13 games as Allen's primary backup and finished with six tackles for loss and four sacks, finally finding his spot in UW's defense.

Zagzebski is the only other senior with considerable experience (30 career games) and had significant progress last season after finally playing a full healthy season.

"If you talk to the weight room staff right now, they are probably the most impressive group in there," Kauha'aha'a said about his unit. "They have a lot of energy. (Herring and Zagzebski) have taken over the leadership responsibilities of the defense. I think these guys up front are taking (the leadership) into their own hands to make the defense theirs. That's a huge plus."

While both of those players appear to have their positions secured, Jake Keefer and James Adeyanju are the two leading candidates for considerable snaps in the rotation on the outside. Keefer converted from linebacker to defensive end last spring, but had his development at the position stalled after suffering a lateral meniscus tear back in fall camp. He didn't start practicing again until bowl preparation.

Adeyanju is incredibly talented physically but has only played in six career games with the upperclassmen in front of him.

"He's an athlete," quipped Kauha'aha'a.

But the player Kauha'aha'a is really excited to work with is redshirt freshmen Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. Obasih brings some momentum with him after being named scout team defensive player of the year last year, while James was originally recruited to play defensive end by the old staff, wanted to and was given an opportunity by coach Gary Andersen to play outside linebacker last season and has moved back to end. Both have estimated putting on over 25 pounds during their redshirt season.

"We're excited about Chikwe," Kauha'aha'a said. "If you talk to the offense coaches, they have nothing but positives to say about him. Alec James we're excited to have. He recognized he could help us earlier at the defensive end spot."

With Herring moving into the starting rotation, Wisconsin will need Bryce Gilbert or Arthur Goldberg to have an increased role in the defense. Gilbert had played in 25 games in his career while Goldberg has really popped during workouts.

"The surprise guy for me will be Arthur Goldberg," said Kauha'aha'a. "He's had a good redshirt freshman year. He showed us a lot of good things during bowl prep and is doing a nice job in the weight room and winter conditioning. I am fired up about my group."

Linebackers

Welcome to the remaking of the Wisconsin defense – part two. Much like the defensive line, Wisconsin defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Dave Aranda must find young bodies to fill in the leadership and playing void left behind by Ethan Armstrong, Chris Borland and Conor O'Neill. Luckily the Badgers do have some experience on the inside of the unit and some young, athletic talent on the outside.

Borland's leadership and play-making ability was off the charts, but his ability to make the right calls and get everybody focused was uncanny. It's a role senior Marcus Trotter experienced for seven quarters last season when Borland was out with a hamstring injury. Trotter made nine tackles against Illinois and Iowa, and has some confidence in his back pocket that his hard work paid off.

Next to Trotter figures to be Derek Landisch, who enters his senior season after registering a career-high 33 tackles in only 10 games.

"I feel comfortable anywhere," Landisch said last season. "I just want to play football. Wherever the coaches want me to weight or wherever they want to put me, that's how much I want to play."

Behind Landisch and Trotter figure to be Garret Dooley, who redshirted last season after hurting his knee in fall camp, and Joe Schobert, who the Badgers moved from outside to inside to inject some more speed and athleticism into the position. Schobert finished last season with 24 tackles and three passes defended last season, and will likely battle Trotter for playing time.

At the outside linebacker position is arguably the Badgers more skilled linebacker in Vince Biegel, who made his presence felt in passing situations where he usually subbed in for Brendan Kelly. Biegel's role was limited last season, but he still finished with 25 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks.

If Biegel is UW's most skilled linebacker, Michael Caputo might be UW's most versatile player. Caputo played five different positions last season – field ‘F' linebacker, nickel, dime, strong safety and free safety – and his ability to play different positions allowed UW to mix and match safety combinations as the year progressed. Caputo was so effective at his role that things fell apart when he was removed from the lineup (see the Penn State game as an example). His 63 tackles were second best on the team behind Borland, and his numbers will likely see a sharp increase this season now that he'll be at linebacker the majority of the time.

In the mix for backup outside linebackers roles are a pair of transplanted seniors in Sherard Cadogan (he's played fullback and tight end) and Josh Harrison (defensive line) along with Jesse Hayes and Leon Jacobs. Hayes has wowed every coach he's played for and Jacobs played in every game last season, mostly on special teams. Jacobs wowed the coaching staff in fall camp with his abilities, and is his position to see a lot of snaps this season.

Also expect to see Chasen Andersen and Matt Austin, two freshman walk-ons enrolled for spring, get some reps in certain positions.

Secondary

After being the weaknesses of the defense for many years, Wisconsin's secondary is looking like it might be a strength heading into 2014, and it has to be considering the amount of youth that will make up the front seven.

The secondary was beaten badly the final two games of last season (660 yards and eight touchdowns the last two games of the season) and didn't fair all that well went going up against above-average quarterbacks throughout the season. UW has put an emphasis on rebuilding parts of the unit, especially the safety spot.

With Caputo at linebacker, Tanner McEvoy back at the quarterback spot (for now) and Dezmen Southward graduated, the Badgers are back to looking for a pair of starting safeties. Leo Musso – from just up the road in Waunakee – and Nate Hammon – from just down the road in Milton – are the likely contributors after competing with the top units last season.

Both played in all 13 games and steadily improved as the year went on, especially Hammon, who became a component in UW's man-to-man defense during the final two months of the season. A former high school quarterback, Hammon was first assigned by safeties coach Bill Busch to cover the opposing team's tight end against spread offenses, as well as occasionally spy the tailback.

The move put Hammon in his niche. He held Chris Coyle — one of the top tight ends in the Pacific-12 Conference — to three catches for 33 yards, and played around 50 plays, at Arizona State. From that point on, Hammon continued to add responsibilities both in pass coverage and at the line of scrimmage.

"You all know, we were searching for kids to come over that have athleticism, that could play safety," Andersen said in the fall. "Really, the first thing we were looking for was athleticism. (Hammon) has that. He's worked so hard on tackling. I credit coach Busch, I credit Nate."

Like his teammates, Hammon admits he has to get a lot better. He pointed to two missed tackles in the 31-24 loss to Penn State that resulted in big hits and another crucial miss against South Carolina in the red zone during the Capital One Bowl, a 34-24 loss on New Year's Day.

"Tackling has obviously got to get better, but it's also improved since the fall and spring," said Hammon. "I just have to get better overall … It's going to be really important for me to come back and contribute again, and maybe even more. It's going to be big for everyone. Everyone has to get better and push everyone."

Spring will also gives most their first real glimpse at Austin Hudson, an athletic prospect who impressed the coaching staff to earn an offer during UW's high school summer camp. Hudson finished his senior season with 90 tackles, three tackles for loss, 12 pass breakups, three interceptions and two forced fumbles, and is one of four prospect safeties in UW's 2014 signing class.

While the safety position has a lot to figure out, Wisconsin appears set with its starting cornerbacks in Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary. Shelton's four interceptions, four passes defended and 30 tackles in a true freshman season speak to his level of ability, and show how much better he can become with more coaching, learning and doing. Hillary equaled Shelton's tackles and broke up two more passes, but still has a lot of growing to do at the position.

Depth beyond the starting two becomes a little more muddled. Terrance Floyd hasn't produced on the defense going into his redshirt junior season, Devin Gaulden – another redshirt junior – was hurt all of last year, junior T.J. Reynard was also hurt most of last season and Hugs Etienne is entering his second spring after redshirting last year.

Peniel Jean opened the season as one of the team's starting cornerbacks, but was outplayed by Hillary and others for playing time as the season went along. Jean registered only 13 tackles last season. UW will need at least two of the above players to improve enough to be counted on to run the type of schemes the Badgers are hoping to execute.

The player to watch out of this group, however, is A.J. Jordan, who converted from wide receiver to cornerback during bowl practices. Jordan played on special teams all last season and UW felt that his abilities could be better utilized on the back end of the defense. Whether that move pays off will be seen through the next 15 practices.

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