CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The strength of the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense, through two games this season, has been its line. The Badgers have already produced eight sacks, the most of any team in the Big Ten, and six of those came from UW’s front four.
On a largely young, inexperienced line, UW’s top producer thus far has been sophomore Kurt Ware, who a year ago was still a tight end. But in that time Ware has gone from scout team offense to spot player on defense to a key facet of defensive line coach John Palermo’s rotation. Ware, the Badgers’ top reserve defensive lineman, has three sacks, including two last week against Temple.
“If you follow my plan, as far as how the kids are supposed to play fundamentally, you’ll have a chance to make plays,” Palermo said. “I think in Kurt’s case he’s made the plays he’s had a chance to make, instead of missing them. We’ve had some guys that have been in position to make plays that have missed them. So the guys that make the plays are the ones that get the recognition.”
Ware is still learning to play the position, but his size and strength combination has made him a valuable contributor.
“I think he has great athleticism for a kid that’s 280 pounds,” Palermo said. “Again, it’s just a matter with him of staying focused, taking care of his responsibility first. And then turn it loose and play him.”
Ware is typically a reserve defensive end but he will play tackle at times in UW’s nickel defense. In that role last week, he and true freshman defensive end Matt Shaughnessy executed a nearly flawless stunt that produced a sack.
Early in the third quarter versus Temple, Shaughnessy and Ware lined up on the left side of UW’s defensive line. On the snap, Shaughnessy dipped to the inside as Ware swooped underneath, replacing him as the edge rusher. Shaughnessy came completely free, but Ware got to quarterback Mike McGann first, combining with linebacker LaMarr Watkins for the sack.
“We call that a terror,” Palermo said of the stunt.
“That’s probably as good as you could execute it,” Palermo said. “And that’s what I told them. If you draw it up on paper that’s how they did it the other day. The only thing is Matt was in shock that he came free. If Matt hadn’t, if he hadn’t just hesitated for a second, he might have got the sack before Kurt did because he came wide open but he just kind of (looked) like, ‘Nobody blocked me. What’s going on?’”
Plays like that are a good sign for a line that is still getting its feet wet.
“We’ll find out a lot more about these kids when we play a good team on the road in North Carolina,” Palermo said.
Suited for the interior
Wisconsin will likely play most of this season without starting defensive tackle Justin Ostrowski, who Palermo hopes can return for the later third of the schedule. Ostrowski was injured early in fall training camp.
The Badgers are also missing junior defensive tackle Mark Gorman, who broke his foot in the offseason.
In their absence, redshirt freshman Mike Newkirk, a converted defensive end, has emerged as the No. 3 tackle. He has six tackles and a sack in two games. Though Newkirk weighs 260 pounds, light for a tackle, Palermo said he would have moved him inside even if Ostrowski and Gorman had remained healthy.
“(Newkirk’s) much better suited to play inside with his personality,” Palermo said. “Our ends have to be really, really disciplined in everything that we do. And Mike’s more of a just get out there and play and raise hell kind of guy. He’s a guy that can give you a spark. And I think he was probably the guy that gave us a spark against Bowling Green when we played.”
Palermo does not know when Gorman will return.
“I assume he’ll be back probably middle of the season,” he said. “But I don’t (know).
“It’s kind of funny that you lose — Right from the get-go you lose your first and second team tackles. But we’ve been able to overcome it and hopefully we’ll continue to do so.”