By Jake McCormick
Anyone who watched the Wisconsin Badgers last season understands the frustration surrounding a defense that has progressively looked more and more clueless as Bret Bielema’s tenure continues. But good news: The Badgers finished in the NCAA top 10 for fourth-down defense! Other than that, Wisconsin barely sniffed a top 20 ranking in any other defensive category and have continued to take steps backward in defending the increasingly popular spread offense.
The team racked up some of its worse statistics since the Don Morton era, but that can only mean they have no where to go but up, right? I definitely wouldn’t hold my breath, but the pressure on Bielema to prove why he is considered a defensive-minded coach should be enough to show a slight upturn in production from a young unit that returns four defensive starters. I should stress right away that the Badger defense has more questions than Ellen from that episode of Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete. How’s that for a throwback reference?
Total Defense: 37th
Rushing Defense: 44th
Passing Defense: 44th (At least their consistent)
Red Zone Defense: 114th (Only two teams finished worse … I wish I was kidding)
The defensive tackle positions are a massive unknown. Gone are the days of Wendell Bryant, Antajj Hawthorne, and even Mike Newkirk. Instead, guys like seniors Jeff Stehle, Dan Moore, and Central Michigan transfer J.J. Watt will shoulder huge responsibilities to set up a consistent pass rush by taking on multiple blockers. Having competition at a position is a good thing, but if no one stands out from this group the team might as well throw a two-man tackle sled in the middle. At least they would be big enough to shield the quarterback’s vision. Younger guys like Patrick Butrym, Eriks Briedis, and Watt need experience and should be rotated consistently to ease them into future starters. I would just be happy with anyone who can stop the run.
At defensive end, senior O’Brien Schofield has the most experience and is considered the entire lines emotional spark plug. He is the only returning starter at the position and co-led the team in sacks with five. His pass rush ability will be vital to a team that finished 10th in the Big Ten in sacks, with 23. On the other side, Watt will probably be splitting time with freshman Brendan Kelly. Someone other than Schofield needs to emerge as a pass rush force, but once again, I’m just going to close my eyes and hope for the best from Bielema’s recruiting staff.
Departing Badgers Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy gave Wisconsin three solid years of consistent playmaking ability. It will be tough to match their experience and explosiveness, but the 2009 starting linebacking corps won’t be the biggest concern for the Badgers. After leading the team in tackles at the middle linebacker position last year, Jaevery McFadden will return to his best position on the weak side. McFadden can definitely play, but he needs to improve his combined zero interceptions and forced fumbles, and low tackles for loss totals (2.5 in 2008). Moving him to his more comfortable position on the outside should set McFadden up for more big-play opportunities and sacks.
Juniors Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorensen round out the starting three at the middle and strong side positions, respectively. St. Jean is a very physical player, and Sorensen’s name was a constant during special teams’ plays in 2008. Behind the starters, the Badgers have some considerable depth in young players. Sophomore Kevin Rouse and freshman Leonard Hubbard will back up St. Jean and were good enough that the more experienced Elijah Hodge opted to leave Wisconsin instead of fight for the backup middle linebacker job. Freshman Mike Taylor will back up the outsides, and is someone to watch if Sorensen or McFadden flop. However, Taylor missed spring practices with a pulled hamstring and redshirted last year after a neck injury. In order for Wisconsin’s defensive scheme to be successful, someone needs to emerge from this group as a playmaker.
The most questions surround the Badger defensive line, and there are some questions about the linebackers. Do you see a pattern here? The Badger secondary has the least amount of unknowns going into the 2009 season. That certainly doesn’t mean they are good. With the consistency of Allen Langford gone, junior Niles Brinkley is the only returning starter at cornerback. Brinkley led the team in interceptions last year and plays a lot like former Badger B.J. Tucker in that he makes a big play then gives up a touchdown. Tit-for-tat, Mr. Hero.
Taking Langford’s place will be sophomore Aaron Henry, who hasn’t started a game since 2007 because of an ACL tear. However, Henry looked pretty solid before his injury and has reportedly boosted his play and confidence this offseason. The potential is there for Henry to follow in the footsteps of guys like Scott Starks, Mike Echols, and Jack Ikegwunou. After Henry and Langford is a bunch of first or second year players such as Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie.
Senior Chris Maragos looks to be the starter ahead of fellow senior Shane Carter, but Maragos needs to improve his overall awareness at the last resort position. The converted wide receiver struggled to maintain a consistent presence as a run-stopper or in pass defense. The fact that he used to be a wide receiver is a sign that Maragos doesn’t have much to offer as far as his hands go anyways. I wouldn’t expect the return of Jason Doering or Jim Leonhard, who worked with Maragos this offseason. It’s reasonable to assume he will improve with another year at the position.
The strong safety position got some YouTube love last year, courtesy of junior Jay Valai hitting a Minnesota Golden Gopher so hard that the “M” decal went flying off his helmet. Valai plays a lot like the Indianapolis Colts’ Bob Sanders and is about the same size. Also like Sanders, Valai has had injury problems because he plays recklessly at times, but the Badger coaching staff has worked to harness his Force powers into controlled aggression. I like Valai a lot and if healthy, he will give the Badgers a big hitter that forces an altered game plan from opposing teams.
The Wisconsin Badger defense isn’t what it used to be, and is clearly a young group. The maturity development of the entire unit can’t take more than a couple games if the Badgers want to go Bowling in December or January. As long as the defense shows some form of improvement and ability to stop teams in the fourth quarter, the team will have more than a few opportunities to prove they can contend in the Big Ten.