The Badgers defensive line began the season facing a great deal of challenges. With the absence of the graduating seniors, position changes for some and various injuries for others, many people had doubts about the line’s effectiveness in 2001. But after an explosive performance last weekend, the players seem to be banding together to prove their doubters wrong.
“It’s been kind of tough, because we’ve had guys get injured, guys move around to different spots,” senior defensive lineman Ben Herbert said. “But right now, as was apparent in our game against Penn State, we’re starting to come together. We’re starting to really play well together. We’re starting to understand how the guys next to us are playing, so it’s helping us as far as making plays. I think we’re coming together nicely.”
UW fans watched a fierce D-line hold Penn State to a mere 131 yards of offense, seemingly at the top of its game. But as far as senior defensive tackle Wendell Bryant is concerned, his squad hasn’t peaked just yet.
“We still have a long way to go,” Bryant said. “We’re not a young football team anymore, we’re a very good football team, but for us to do anything or for us to make any statements, first we have to go out there and we have to meet our goals. We have to play sound football for four straight quarters and not make a mistake. That’s when we’ll be the football team that we wanna be.”
Bryant is a major key to the line’s dominating presence. The current Big Ten Player of the Week’s leadership and abilities on the field serve as a good example for some of his younger teammates like sophomore Erasmus James. James admits it was a tough adjustment at the start of the season, but things seem to be coming together.
“At first it was kind of hard because you have all these seniors and upperclassmen in front of you,” James said. “They know what they’re doing, and you just gotta look at them and follow their technique and everything they do. And as [the season] went on, the first game, first snap, we started getting right to it, and it’s been pretty good from there.”
James is currently tied for second in the Big Ten for quarterback sacks, along with teammate Delante McGrew, with a total of four. Coach Barry Alvarez has confidence in James’, and the rest of the younger players’, potential.
“Ras (James) is a guy that every week gets better,” Alvarez said. “He’s going to give you pass rush. But he’s just learning the game; he might make some mistakes. We have a pretty good flow, and we can rotate [the younger guys] and keep them relatively fresh. It doesn’t surprise me they’re playing that well. I know they’re getting coached extremely well.”
McGrew is facing a challenge of his own lately, due to the injury of fellow teammate Darius Jones. The sophomore defensive lineman has been sidelined since the Fresno State game, due to a broken index finger. Jones’ absence in the rotation means a lot more playing time for McGrew.
“I [feel pressure],” McGrew said. “But I can’t say I feel a lot more pressure, because he was hurt in the beginning, so we’ve kind of been going along without him. He got hurt early in camp, and when he came back he got hurt the very following week.”
Jones did play through an earlier hand injury, wearing a soft cast. But with his current injury, the index finger must be kept straight, forcing him to sit out until he is completely healed.
But the defensive line has shown it is strong in the face of injury. The players plan on using their game this weekend against Western Kentucky as a jumpstart for the Big Ten games that lie ahead.
“It’s just a time to, like coach Alvarez says, go out, take care of what we need to do,” Herbert said. “Try and build some more momentum to get back into the Big Ten. It’s a time to get back on track, clean up all the areas that we made mistakes in on Saturday, and try and move forward.”
But Bryant warns not to discount the Hilltoppers, currently 1-1 in the Gateway Conference.
“They’re a good football team, they’re a solid football team,” Bryant said. “They have a good running game, so it’s gonna be a challenge. I think this is really gonna be a test for our defense mentally, knowing where to be and knowing what our assignments and responsibilities are, and I think this is what we need.”
As a unit, the defensive line has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. But the abilities they demonstrated in last weekend’s game must continue to be improved upon in order for the nation to see them as a true contender. Despite limited experience on the line, James is well aware of the challenge that lies ahead.
“I think there is a lot more to be done because everywhere you go, someone’s gonna say ‘oh, they’re a young squad — we can do anything,'” James said. “So I think we still have a lot of proving to do.”