Spring preview: Defensive line

Jason Chapman (UW Athletics)

Injury-laden 2005 left loads of talent in its wake, and plenty of questions as to how the pieces fit

Starters returning: Junior end Jamal Cooper (3 starts in 3 games before tearing ACL; 7 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack), senior end Joe Monty (10 starts in 13 games; 30-4.5-3.5), sophomore end Matt Shaughnessy (7 starts in 11 games before tearing ACL; 39-7.5-2.5), junior tackles Nick Hayden (13 starts in 13 games; 56-9-5.5) and Justin Ostrowski (1 start in 5 games; missed most of the season due to injury; 3-0-0) and sophomore tackle/end Jason Chapman (7 starts at tackle, 1 at end in 12 games; 27-1-0.5).

Other key returnees: junior end/tackle Kurt Ware (3 starts in 12 games; 25-5.5-3.5), sophomore tackle Mike Newkirk (4 starts in 13 games; 23-5-3), sophomore tackle Gino Cruse (10 games; 8-1-1), senior tackle/end Mark Gorman (injured nearly the entire season),

Starters departed: None

Other key departures: None

2005 position coach: John Palermo

2006 position coach: Randall McCray

Spring storylines

Despite an incredible accumulation of injuries, the Badgers' defensive line was very productive in 2005. More remarkably, there was not a single senior on the line last season, and really only one junior, since Gorman, who appeared to be a top reserve last spring, was injured for almost the entire season.

The only defections from the defensive line that will take the field in 2006 thus far are from position changes. Sophomore Travis Beckum, who began last season as a strong-side linebacker before moving down to defensive end, has since converted to tight end. Jeff Stehle, who redshirted as a freshman last season, has moved from defensive tackle to the offensive line.

The 2006 Wisconsin defensive line has the potential to be a dominant group, perhaps as good or better than the one that ravaged opponents in 2004 and started four players selected in the 2005 NFL Draft.

The talent is certainly in place, but there are several big ifs heading into spring.

The most important question, of course, is health. Eight of the team's top 11 linemen missed time due to injury last season. How strong will they be once back to full strength? And can they stay healthy?

Do not let Cooper's mere one sack in three non-conference games fool you. He was playing at an extremely high level last season prior to the injury and likely would have been one of the Big Ten's best pass rushers had he remained healthy. In helping fill the void left by Cooper's absence, Shaughnessy played at a remarkable level for a true freshman and was awarded freshman All-American acclaim. His season, too, was cut short by a major knee injury and both players are unlikely to see much, if any, work this spring, but they should be 100 percent in plenty of time for the start of fall training camp.

Even with talents like Cooper and Shaughnessy on the mend, the knee injury that robbed Ostrowski of most of his sophomore season may have been the most detrimental to UW. Ostrowski was the Badgers' best defensive tackle last spring and losing the 300-pounder forced a shuffling across the line. UW no longer had the luxury of playing Chapman at end and tackle, having to rely on the then-redshirt freshman to start and carry a heavy load at tackle.

Chapman, who also missed some time due to injuries, played well, but is probably best suited for end. He started the Capital One Bowl at end when Ostrowski returned to the starting lineup at tackle.

The silver lining in the front-four injury woes was that a plethora of Badgers received significant playing time, giving the team an abundance of proven depth heading into 2006—if only they can stay healthy this time around.

The question for new defensive line coach Randall McCray, then, is how to best use all of the options before him?

The Badgers have four legitimate starters at end: Cooper, Chapman, Monty and Shaughnessy are all very deserving. How that rotation will play out, though, is more a concern for fall camp.

At tackle, Hayden was the glue that kept the Badgers' line running at a productive level last season and he could emerge as a star this year. Ostrowski's ceiling is just as high, giving UW an impressive starting tandem.

There is plenty of flexibility as well. Chapman could shine at end or tackle—or both. Had Ostrowski remained healthy last year, Chapman would have opened the season rotating at end with Cooper and Monty, and sliding down to tackle in pass-rush situations.

Monty was a steady performer last year who displayed more playmaking ability than expected. He could also slide down to tackle in some situations.

Ware has also shown the ability to be a productive player at end or tackle and will be a top reserve.

Gorman has played sparingly in his UW career, but likely would have been a second-team tackle last season if not for his injury. He has also played end and could flex between the two positions this season if he can move up the depth chart.

Newkirk converted from end to tackle last season and filled in nicely as a top reserve, and a starter when Chapman was injured.

Cruse gives the team another big body to fill in at tackle, if he can be more consistent.

Then there is redshirt freshman Terrance Jamison, the reigning scout team defensive player of the year. Jamison was an end in his redshirt year, but he could add weight and play tackle in the future.

Also in the mix are junior end Brandon Kelly, who had four tackles and a sack in eight games last season; redshirt freshman tackle Dan Cascone, a developmental player heading into his first spring; and junior end Adam Purcell, a walk-on who has long seemed on the fringe of playing time and, at the very least, has been a good practice player for the team.

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