J.J. Watt's impact on the football field (and off) will be sorely missed this season as the Badgers try to move on without their unquestioned leader. It's hard to replace the type of work ethic, drive and leadership the All-American played with, but as always, it looks as though the UW coaching staff has done a solid job solidifying the defensive line.
Three-fourths of the starting defensive line from a season ago is returning, and after having solid production throughout the season, seems to be in good hands.
Patrick Butrym and Jordan Kohout are back and will man the middle of the line. Butrym, a player that has been receiving consistent playing time since he was a sophomore, seemed to progress during his junior year.
"Pat is definitely an accountable and dependable guy," former defensive coordinator Dave Doeren told reporters leading into UW's Rose Bowl tilt. "Three of the words we talk about all the time on defense is smart, tough and dependable. If we're those three things then we've got a chance. Pat is one of those guys. He works, he's a technician.
"He's not a flashy guy, he's not overly productive, but at the same time he's always in the right place, he's doing things the way he's coached to do and he does them consistently."
Kohout, like Butrym, is a guy that received plenty of playing time early in his career. Entering his sophomore season, Kohout has an opportunity to really establish himself as a recognizable player throughout the Big Ten this spring.
Though guys like David Gilbert, Louis Nzegwu and Pat Muldoon seem to be capable ends, it wouldn't be surprising if most of the pass rush from the defensive line stems from the pass rush in the middle.
Kohout, with his strength and motor combined with Butrym's experience and skill, could be the strongest area of the line.
"We didn't question ourselves," Kohout told BadgerBlitz.com last September when asked about the defensive tackles. "The outside world definitely did. That was the same thing that happened with the group of seniors last year. We try not to pay attention so much to the outside world. We knew that we really worked our tails off during the summer and we know what we had to get done this fall (camp) to have a great team."
While Watt was the most visible player on the defensive line simply because he was the most disruptive for opposing offensive lines, guys like Butrym and Kohout really solidified the middle of the line and halted opponents rushing attack.
Expect similar results this time around during spring camp.
Moving to the defensive end position, it seems as though the time is now or never for veterans such as Gilbert and Nzegwu to step up and elevate their play to a level similar to what Watt and O'Brien Schofield have been able to reach.
Nzegwu, who had moments of brilliance at various junctures a season ago, needs to find more consistency on a down by down basis. He seems to have all the physical tools needed to succeed and his work ethic seems to be up to par. It's just a matter of putting everything together on the field. Spring practice is a great time for that momentum to begin.
Gilbert, who is still relatively young age-wise though he'll be entering his junior year, is in much the same boat as Nzegwu. He's been receiving plenty of reps throughout his career so his experience shouldn't be an issue. It's just a matter of finding that same consistency that had been plaguing that side of the ball throughout the year.
Both Gilbert and Nzegwu have all the tools needed to be successful defensive ends. They're powerful, explosive and experienced. It's just a matter of fine-tuning the little things - their technique, footwork and spacing - that will help them potentially make that jump at the end position that Badger fans have been accustomed to seeing over the past couple years.
An intriguing prospect to replace Watt on that side of the line is Pat Muldoon. The redshirt sophomore is entering spring camp healthy for really the first time in his career and he has a chance to really build off some solid success he endured down the stretch of the 2010 season.
Having recovered from his torn ACL, Muldoon worked his way into the two deep and even received a number of meaningful reps during UW's Rose Bowl loss to TCU. Muldoon, like the guys listed above, has all the physical tools in the world. If he continues to progress in the manner he did prior to the Rose Bowl, he'll be a very, very solid defensive end throughout the final three years of his Badger career.
Like Muldoon, another young player that really rose to the occasion a season ago is Tyler Dippel. It's just unfortunate he'll have to miss the entirety of spring camp recovering from off-season shoulder surgery.
Knowing Dippel will be out, expect a guy like Warren Herring, entering his second spring camp, to step up and continue to progress at the defensive end position. As his redshirt season progressed it seemed as though Herring started feeling more comfortable at the position.
Sometimes as a young player it's hard to break into that comfort zone where confidence can really take form. But for Herring that didn't seem to be an issue.
"Warren has changed his body physically," head coach Bret Bielema said during bowl prep. "I think he's really going to be able to help us next year."
Moving back inside there are a bevy of players waiting in the wings at the defensive tackle behind Butrym and Kohout. Look for Beau Allen, an absolute ox, to make the most of his first spring on campus. As a freshman Allen broke into the rotation and proved his brute strength is something opposing lines will need to worry about in the future.
If he was able to hit his first winter conditioning period with a head of steam and remake his body, he will be in line to become a force as a sophomore.
Like Allen, Kyle Costigan is one of the strongest players on the roster. If he's fully adjusted to the defensive tackle position after coming into the program as kind of a positional unknown, he will also have an opportunity to break into the rotation.
Finally, rounding out players in the two-deep, expect a solid positional battle between Ethan Hemer and Eriks Briedis. Briedis, who has a long history of injuries, will enter camp with a clean bill of health. It seemed as the season progressed that Briedis was gaining momentum. Will he be able to build off that success this spring?
As far as young players go, spring camp is essential because it gives players valuable repetitions that they may not get during fall camp. So for players like Bryce Gilbert, Jake Irwin, Joseph McNamara and Jacob Ninneman spring will be vital for their development.
Konrad Zagzebski (shoulder) will be extremely limited throughout spring camp.
Brendan Kelly, who's had a long list of injuries throughout his career, will enter spring camp seemingly healthy. Hopefully for him he'll be able to use that to his benefit and make a run at the two deep.
SPRING CAMP PREDICTION:
Up front it seems as though the starting four is close to being set. Inside Butrym and Kohout will anchor the unit. At one end position, both Nzegwu and Gilbert will likely rotate yet again. Otherwise guys like Muldoon and Herring will battle for a regular spot in the rotation at the other defensive end position.
Beyond the starters there will be plenty guys fighting for spots inside the two-deep. I'm curious to see how guys that generated some sort of momentum last season parlay that into the spring season. You would have to imagine a guy like Allen and Muldoon would be pretty high up on the depth chart assuming they can stay healthy.
But guys like Irwin, Briedis, Hemer, Kelly, Herring and Costigan will have an opportunity to break into the rotation. What they do with that opportunity is completely up to them. That is the beauty of spring practice. Regardless of who works their way into the two deep it's obvious there will be plenty of depth at the defensive line position.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART:
PAT MULDOON - R-SOPH
WARREN HERRING - R-FR
PATRICK BUTRYM - SR
ETHAN HEMER - R-SOPH
ERIKS BRIEDIS - R-JR
JORDAN KOHOUT - R-SOPH
BEAU ALLEN - SOPH
KYLE COSTIGAN - R-SOPH
LOUIS NZEGWU - SR
DAVID GILBERT - JR
JAKE IRWIN - R-FR
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