The University of Wisconsin’s senior-laden defensive line has been in the headlines all season. The group has anchored the nation’s best defense, propelling the Badgers to an 8-0 start and a No. 5 ranking in the Bowl Championship Series standings.
Three of the unit’s four starters, however, were considered far from headline material when they were being recruited.
“Defensive linemen seem to be hard to find,” Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said. “In many cases you have to project a high school player. Project his growth and then develop him.”
That was the case with a trio of fifth-year senior starters: tackle Jason Jefferson and ends Erasmus James and Jonathan Welsh. Jefferson was a very productive, but largely unheralded, 300-pound lineman from Chicago who had slipped beneath the recruiting radar. Welsh was a 200-pound end who had more experience as a cross country athlete than as a football player. James was 210 pounds and had played one year of high school football.
The Wisconsin football program does not possess the clout needed to recruit many prep All-Americans, particularly if they reside outside the Midwest. Defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne was an exception to that rule. The unit’s only fourth-year senior, Hawthorne was considered one of the top players in the country his senior year at Hamden High School in Connecticut.
“I wish we were, but we’re not able to go across the country and handpick the best players in the country,” defensive line coach John Palermo said. “We were able to do that with one simply because there was a good connection there with his high school coach and myself. Most of the other kids that come in here [as defensive linemen] are projects.”
So Wisconsin looks for tall, athletic players who can add weight, such as James and Welsh or big bodies who can move, such as Jefferson.
“Projecting is very hard and it’s dangerous,” Alvarez said. “You project too much and your percentages of success go down. But we’ve been very fortunate with three of those four starters.”
Wisconsin, quite frankly, hit the lottery on all three counts.
James, who is doubtful for Saturday (ankle), and Welsh have given the Badgers an elite pass rush off the edges. Jefferson has developed into a well-rounded tackle with the ability to occupy blockers and make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
“With Jon and with JJ it was simply they are very goal-oriented kids,” Palermo said. “First and foremost their goal was to graduate from college, which both of them are going to do in December. But they also are the type of kids that want to prove everybody wrong, which is good for us. Bad for the crowd they’ve got to play against but good for us.”
James’ case was different, Palermo said, because was already an elite athlete when he arrived in Madison.
“What he didn’t have was any kind of real football sense,” Palermo said. “He played a year of high school football. But yet grasped the game pretty quickly for a guy that hadn’t played…It was just a matter of teaching him fundamentals.”
The Badgers uncovered James by accident. Palermo and receivers coach Henry Mason had traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to recruit two other prospects, both of which signed elsewhere, when James caught Palermo’s eye.
“I said, ‘Henry, do you know who that is?’ He said, ‘well, yeah, I know who it is but I don’t know that much about him.’ I said, ‘well, we need to find out about him because he’s a really good player,’” Palermo said.
Welsh has added 30 pounds since high school but he could still pass for a wide receiver in some circles.
“When you looked at his frame you went ‘oh my God, will he ever be able to get big enough?’” Palermo said.
Jefferson was recruited by former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove.
“Cos and I went down and told Jason, ‘you know what, we’re going to give you a shot,’” Palermo said. “‘We think you can play at this level. We’re not sure but we’re going to give you a shot.’ And he said, ‘Coach that’s all I want is a shot.’ We’ve never been disappointed.”
Palermo, who has been a college coach for 24 years, will take part in another senior day celebration Saturday, the Badgers final home game this year.
“I don’t think there has been one where I didn’t have a tear in my eye,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is when I see a smile on their parents’ face. That’s when I really get emotional because I know what the parents have had to go through as well as the kids to get to this point.
“I’ve spent more time with these kids than I have with my own. You’ve got three fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year senior who I’m really close to. It’s going to be an emotional time.”