August 6, 2010

Fall camp preview: Defensive line

When there are four given starters at a position and a team loses three of them to graduation, it becomes understandable why it is a unit filled with great inquiry.

For the Wisconsin defensive line, losing O'Brien Schofield, Dan Moore and Jeff Stehle has presented a position of unknowns entering the 2010 season. In BadgerBlitz.com's continuing positional preview series, UW's defensive line gets it's shot at the limelight.

WHAT WE KNOW: J.J. Watt is the unquestioned leader of the unit

If you take a look at Watt's Twitter feed on occasion, you'll notice a common phrase. It's what he lives by and it's what has helped him become a standout on this Badger team and one of the better defensive ends in the Big Ten.

"Dream big. Work hard."

If last year was any indication, particularly with the season Watt compiled, the Badger defensive line will be in good hands. He is the unquestioned leader of the unit, one of the unquestioned leaders of the defense and one of the up and coming stars in all of college football.

He has an unbridled work ethic, a load of talent and a passion that will help guide a unit that needs to replace three key players from a season ago. With his size, skill and determination, people following the Badgers closely should get the feeling that the defensive line, one with plenty of question marks, will probably mesh together better than most would think with Watt setting the example.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK ENTERING CAMP: Are there enough bodies for a rotation inside?

We know for sure that Patrick Butrym will likely fill one of the two defensive tackle positions. At the same time, redshirt freshman Jordan Kohout seems to be the next closest. Behind those two players, though, it really starts depending on who steps up in camp.

The most logical choice would be true freshman Beau Allen. As one of the more heralded prospects in the 2010 UW recruiting class, Allen has the size and motor to contribute right away. Already weighing 325 pounds at 6-foot-3, Allen could find himself becoming a plug in the middle of the line that makes tremendous strides in run defense.

(On a side note, UW head coach Bret Bielema shot down any rumor about Allen having a heart issue. According to Bielema, Allen has been 100 percent cleared from the get go.)

But like a season ago, the Badger coaches will likely want to play more than three guys at the defensive tackle position and penciling in Allen at this point is a little premature. So, who else will they have to rotate in such a crucial position? Could Eriks Briedis finally step into a significant contributory role? Or will Tyler Dippel find a way to stay healthy and boost his depth chart stock?

Also, don't count out Pat Muldoon, either. After struggling with an ACL injury throughout the majority of last season, the Cincinnati native has caught the attention of Bielema and coaches seem to be pretty high on the redshirt sophomore.

If depth inside becomes a major issue, it is possible for the coaching staff to move Watt inside to offer stability. But I get the sense the coaches don't want to do that just because they like Watt on the edge as a solid pass rusher.

WHAT ABOUT THE DEFENSIVE ENDS?

Replacing, or better yet, duplicating what Schofield did a season ago simply cannot be expected from the young core of defensive ends the Badgers have. But there does seem to be a couple of guys that have the potential to have a breakout year much like Schofield did a season ago.

Both Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert have bodies that look ready to break through as legitimate passing threats, but their consistency at the position has thwarted some of their advancement. If they are able to prove throughout the month of August that they can play, and play at a high level consistently, then defensive line coach Charlie Partridge will likely feel comfortable rotation those two opposite Watt.

Hopefully with camp around the corner both those players step up their game and find a level of consistency so the defensive end position can operate at a level close to where it was a season ago.

Also, players like Brendan Kelly and Anthony Mains have a chance to finally stay healthy and break into the rotation. That would do wonders for a line that needs as much depth as it can possibly have.

FRESH FALL CAMP FACES- Konrad Zagzebski, Jacob Ninneman, Joseph McNamara, Jake Irwin, Warren Herring and Bryce Gilbert

Clearly, by the number of players entering camp this season, defensive line was a position of need in the past recruiting cycle. Now, for this bevy of young players on the roster, fall camp will grant them an opportunity to open some eyes while making a bid to get into Partridge's rotation.

Herring, who was the only early enrollee during spring camp, will have a head start over the rest of the incoming freshmen. It will be interesting to see how he handles fall camp and whether or not he can continue to improve at the rate he did in March and April.

EARLY CAMP PREDICTION:

If I had to tab a starting four right now I would say Watt and Nzegwu would anchor the outside with Butrym and Kohout manning the middle. But the starting rotation isn't what's going to stabilize the defense, it's the players that fill out the rotation that will.

Last season, Partridge said he wanted a rotation of eight guys to get involved at the defensive tackle position. It won't be any different this year, but the question is whether they have the bodies that are ready to contribute available.

One would imagine Allen will play a role at the defensive tackle position, but I'm curious to see how guys like Kyle Costigan and Ethan Hemer do during fall camp. At times during the spring, it seemed as though both of those players were making a push for regular playing time. A performance like that through fall camp would shore up a lot of depth questions surrounding the interior defensive line.

I'm also going to focus a lot of my attention on Mains and Kelly on the outside. This will really be a make or break year for both those players. If they can kick aside the injury bug, they could become serviceable backups for Watt and the platoon of Gilbert and Nzegwu.



 

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