When J.J. Watt left Madison for the lockout-sullied National Football League, he took with him more than just 62 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
Rather, as anyone with a Twitter account or access to Madison-area newspapers will tell you, Watt also took his remarkable leadership abilities. Everything from the tried-but-true “Dream Big, Work Hard” mantra – wristbands reportedly coming soon – to his tendency toward steady, consistent production that undoubtedly kept the Badgers afloat during the trying portions of their schedule.
So now, with voids to fill both on and off the field, UW needs to figure out how it will return to within three points of a Rose Bowl victory – or better. Augmenting the significance of those voids is the fact that Watt wasn’t alone in departing the defense. Seniors Blake Sorensen, Culmer St. Jean, Jay Valai and Niles Brinkley are also gone, leaving even more holes to fill in the defense. Sorensen led UW with 66 tackles, while St. Jean, at middle linebacker, was essentially the quarterback of the defense. Valai was known for his big hits and smack talk, but he also kept the team an interesting combination of energized and loose, while Brinkley was a consistent defensive back throughout the season.
Coupled with the expectations of a preseason ranking likely ranging from top-five to top-15, the pressure to fill these defensive gaps figures to be monumental. However, despite two consecutive disappointing years following his impressive 12-win debut in 2006, head coach Bret Bielema has proven capable of achieving sustained success in Madison. The Badgers won just nine games in 2007 and seven in 2008, but improved to 10 wins in 2009 and 11 in 2010.
So, as Bielema himself likes to say, who will be the “next man in” for Wisconsin’s defense in 2011?
Aaron Henry, free safety
Don’t let Aaron Henry’s “Yes, sir; No, sir,” act fool you – the Badgers’ returning free safety and former cornerback may be one of UW’s more polite players, but he rarely lacks for confidence. Last year Henry paired with Valai to form a stout safety duo. The two of them were hard hitters (Henry even took that title from Valai more than a few times), playmakers and significant leaders on Wisconsin’s 20th-ranked defense.
Henry finished last season tied for fourth in tackles with 58, tied for second in interceptions with two (one of which was returned 50 yards for a touchdown in Wisconsin’s final regular season game against Northwestern) and pass deflections with nine and first in fumble recoveries with three. In UW’s season opener at UNLV, Henry returned a fumble for a touchdown. At Michigan Nov. 20, Henry recorded a career-high 10 tackles, and one week earlier against Indiana he returned another interception for a touchdown, giving him three defensive touchdowns on the season.
With Valai and Brinkley no longer around, Henry will be entrusted with continuing the marked improvement of the Badgers’ secondary. The unit entered last season under extreme pressure as one of the most maligned units in recent years, but under first-year defensive backs coach Chris Ash – now co-defensive coordinator – the secondary thrived. Henry will likely pair with redshirt junior Shelton Johnson at the safety position, and aside from returning starter senior defensive back Antonio Fenelus and senior Devin Smith (mainly a reserve last year), there isn’t much experience in UW’s secondary.
Chris Borland, linebacker
Chris Borland’s UW career started as well as anyone could have expected. At outside linebacker he amassed 54 tackles, five forced fumbles and three recovered while finishing the season as Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Last season Borland played in just two games after suffering a shoulder injury in the opener against UNLV. He missed the following game against San Jose State, and then after recording two tackles in the first quarter of the next game against Arizona State he reaggravated the injury and missed the remainder of the season.
This spring, Borland said he expects to be 100 percent healthy by the start of the Badgers’ summer workout program in June. Regardless of if that’s the case, Borland will be preparing for the fall at a new position – middle linebacker. Despite losing St. Jean, Wisconsin still boasts impressive talent at linebacker with redshirt junior Mike Taylor and senior Kevin Claxton.
At 5-foot-11, 242 pounds, Borland figures to be a solid fit at the inside position. In his 15 career games, Borland has shown an impressive nose for the ball and a knack for making big plays, as well as an ability to maintain ground to stop the run. All that remains is picking up the mental part of the game St. Jean played so well. But after two years in the system and an already strong football IQ, nobody expects Borland to struggle with the change.
Mike Taylor, linebacker
As impressive as Borland has been around the football in his still-young UW career, Taylor might have an even better nose for the ball. He redshirted his freshman year due to a neck injury, and after starting the first seven games of the next season he suffered a season-ending knee injury. In those seven games, he averaged 6.6 tackles per game.
Last season, Taylor missed only the opening game while still rehabbing. He started the remaining 12, though, finishing with 58 tackles (tied with Henry for fourth), eight tackles for loss (second after Watt’s ridiculous 21), one sack and two interceptions.
Taylor has regularly been more reserved than Borland, who isn’t exactly a vocal leader either. But with Henry likely to fill that role, Taylor and Borland can afford to focus on staying healthy and anchoring what could be the Big Ten’s top linebacking core.
All that’s left is a Twitter hashtag worthy of Watt’s #DBWH.
Mike is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. Who do you think will step up to lead Wisconsin’s defense this season? Who needs to? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @mikefiammetta.