MADISON - Charlie Partridge has always made it a point to mold his players at the defensive line position at least enough to feature a deep rotation. That way, particularly in the middle, players don't get worn out and they don't start giving up too much ground in the trenches.
When fall camp opens up in August, Partridge, also one of two new defensive coordinators, will have yet another healthy rotation at the position. To start, Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert are two relatively seasoned veterans at the end position returning with plenty of experience.
Neither will be able to completely replace the void left by J.J. Watt, but both proved to be making some gains as spring camp wore on. That is an encouraging sign, especially since each of them are reaching the latter years of their Badger career.
"I like what our guys have done," UW head coach Bret Bielema said near the end of spring camp. "I like our new coaches, the philosophy and some of the coaching that they've changed a little bit. I think up front, Louis Nzegwu, Brendan Kelly and David Gilbert are going to be three really good defensive ends."
Kelly, who returned to action after missing a large chunk of time with a severe groin injury over the past season, opened plenty of eyes throughout spring camp. He was active at the line of scrimmage, quick to make plays and seemed motivated to return to regular action.
Should he continue to stay healthy, at least based off his improvement during spring drills, Kelly will be a much-needed boost to the end position. If nothing else, he'll provide depth at a position that desperately needs to produce.
"If you guys remember, we played him as a true freshman because he's a really good player," Bielema said. "Because he hasn't played so long, he's got a lot of desire to get out there and he's a great kid. So it's great to finally see him back out there."
Kelly started spring camp buried on the depth chart but ended it firmly inside the two-deep. That, moving forward, is his goal.
"I'm finally out here and I want to stay out here," Kelly said early in spring camp. "I want to crack the two deep and just really progress and get my skills back on the defensive line because I've been out of the game for so long.
"And just really mature and solidify myself as a leader on the defense."
Pat Muldoon and Warren Herring also made strides throughout spring camp and seem to be another couple of guys that will add depth to the end position.
The defensive tackle position is equally as deep. Patrick Butrym, Jordan Kohout, Ethan Hemer and Beau Allen all return as guys who received plenty of reps throughout the course of last season. That should do nothing but benefit them entering 2011.
Butrym, as the position's only senior, will provide the leadership inside that has helped turn the UW defensive line into one of the better run stopping units in the Big Ten over the past couple of seasons. He's played in a bevy of games - essentially started as a sophomore - and returns with more experience than most everybody on the entire defensive line.
"He's giving great leadership," Bielema said in regards to Butrym. "I really believe we've got four or five guys inside now that are probably as solid a group inside the interior tackles since I've been here."
Add Kyle Costigan and Eriks Briedis to the mix at tackle, too. Though they are a little lower on the depth chart, they are still guys who will compete come fall camp and push the players above them. That, in short, is the sign of a strongly coached unit.
There will be one interesting development at the defensive line position when fall camp rolls around in a couple of months. Tyler Dippel, who missed all of spring drills, will likely be back and ready to compete for a spot in the two deep. Having come on strong a season ago, particularly late in the year, Dippel, like Kelly, will return with a strong motor.
He'll be hungry to contribute especially since he missed all 15 practices during the spring.
If there was one theme that rose to the forefront at the defensive line position, it's the fact that it may be the deepest it's been since Bielema became the head coach.
Then there are a couple of younger guys like Konrad Zagzebski, Jake Irwin and Bryce Gilbert that made strides throughout spring camp. Though they'll probably not crack the two deep this season, all three of those guys still play an integral role at their respective positions.
"It's nice to have those guys because you have an actual one, two and third line," Kelly said. "You don't have to worry about if you're a second stringer running with the threes. It's great to bring those guys along and see them develop. They can watch and learn from the older, more experienced guys and still get time to develop with the younger guys."
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART:
-Louis Nzegwu, SR -Brendan Kelly, JR -Tyler Dippel, SOPH
-David Gilbert, JR -Pat Muldoon, SOPH -Warren Herring, FR
-Patrick Butrym, SR -Ethan Hemer, SOPH -Eriks Briedis, JR