The University of Wisconsin football team’s defense already recorded perhaps its most important stop of the year.
Keeping coordinator Jim Leonhard in Madison — a decision he says was him choosing UW more than turning down the Green Bay Packers’ offer of the same job — means one of the most promising young coaches in football will lead the Badgers’ defense once again.
For the second consecutive year, UW will have eight starters defensive starters returning and that continuity helped the unit rank in the top 10 nationally in key metrics like scoring defense (17.4 points allowed per game, ninth), total defense (299.9 yards allowed per game, fifth), rushing defense (96.1, fifth), third-down percentage allowed (28.7%, fifth) and red-zone scores allowed (72.2, 10th).
Still, when the Badgers open spring practices Tuesday, there are areas in which the defense can take a step forward and begin leading UW to its goal of reclaiming the top spot in the Big Ten Conference’s West Division.
Here are five defensive storylines to watch this spring:
RELOADING AT DEFENSIVE ENDUpdated
After two years of productive play at the defensive end spots from Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand, the Badgers must find a new top unit. Loudermilk is making a run at the NFL while Rand stepped away from football due to injuries.
Junior Matt Henningsen, who missed five games last season after an elbow injury, and sophomore Isaiah Mullens are the most experienced players in the group and can serve as the starters, but building up the talent behind them will be crucial this spring.
Freshmen Cade McDonald and James Thompson Jr. played in two games each last season, but Thompson suffered a season-ending right leg injury against Michigan and his availability for spring practices is unlikely. Two names to watch are freshmen early enrollees Mike Jarvis and TJ Bollers. Jarvis is the only true defensive line recruit in the 2021 class and Bollers — a touted four-star prospect — is someone Leonhard believes can play an “outside linebacker-plus” role, potentially playing along the line at some point.
RISING BATCH OF OLBsUpdated
The Badgers have been churning out pro-ready outside linebackers in recent years, with players like Zack Baun, Vince Biegel, Andrew Van Ginkel, Leon Jacobs and T.J. Watt becoming NFL starters. The current group of outside backers has high-level talent, but didn’t have the most productive year in 2020. UW had 11 sacks last season, with four coming from their outside linebackers.
Both starters return in senior Noah Burks and freshman Nick Herbig, and key rotation players like C.J. Goetz, Spencer Lytle, and Marty Strey are also back. This group could be defined by the development of freshmen Kaden Johnson and Aaron Witt. Johnson was a four-star recruit and saw action in three games last season, while Witt played in five games and tallied a strip-sack in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl win over Wake Forest.
Bollers again is a player to watch in this group, as is junior Izayah Green-May. It’s been a difficult pair of seasons for Green-May, with a thumb injury derailing him in 2019 and a right-arm injury limiting him to one game in 2020.
DEPTH BEHIND CHENAL AND SANBORNUpdated
When inside linebacker Jack Sanborn announced his return for another year at UW, it gave the Badgers one of the best tandems of linebackers in the Big Ten for another season. Sanborn (52) and Chenal (46) led the Badgers in tackles and Chenal (three sacks, seven hurries) was the most productive pass-rusher on the team.
Senior Mike Maskalunas will play his final year at UW this fall after serving as the backup at both inside ‘backer spots last season. This spring could be a showcase for young players in this group like Tate Grass, Maema Njongmeta, Malik Reed and Jordan Turner to push for roles.
It’s difficult to earn snaps on defense behind a duo like Chenal and Sanborn because they rarely leave the field, but Grass proved to be a valued special teamer last year, playing all seven games. Ensuring this crew is ready if Chenal or Sanborn were to suffer an injury is pivotal to ensure the defense doesn’t come unglued without one of its stars.
FINDING BURRELL’S REPLACEMENTUpdated
The only vacated starting role in the Badgers’ defense without a proven replacement is at safety. Eric Burrell played in 48 games and made 26 starts over four seasons at UW, but the Badgers need to find his replacement this spring as he makes him way to the pros.
There are options for the spot in players like Titus Toler and John Torchio, who have seen time over the past two seasons. Leonhard could opt for Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder to man both safety spots after the two rotated at one last season.
Impressing this spring could help a player get his foot in the door of the starting lineup before a pair of four-star freshmen arriving this fall — Braelon Allen and Hunter Wohler — make the competition at safety even tougher.
UW cornerbacks were short on highlights in 2020. None of the team’s seven interceptions came from corners, they were beat for big plays on multiple occasions in rivalry games at Northwestern and Iowa, and they didn’t take the step forward one would expect from a group that had between six and seven players with significant playing time under their belts.
New cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat inherits a room with multiple starters back, including Faion Hicks and Casear Williams, and young players needing to become more consistent like Donte Burton, Deron Harrell and Semar Melvin.
One position in this group that is of key importance this spring is the nickel back, or slot corner. Hicks filled that role most of last season, and he could once again, but UW needs to have more options to move inside other than one of their better outside corners. Or, if one of the younger corners can improve on the outside this spring, UW can feel more comfortable having Hicks move to the slot in sub packages.
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“(Jim Leonhard) painted me a really clear picture of what I'll be doing in his defense, what he saw for me,” Townsend said. “His career and what he's known for doing and developing players, that was a big deal to me.
Badgers’ head coach Paul Chryst on Monday shared eagerness both for his new group of coaches and for returning to the practice field with his players.