With the loss of linebackers Alex Lewis and Jeff Mack to
graduation and the medical concerns facing the Badgers up front
next season, the UW coaching staff opted to focus on the defensive
side of the ball in their 2004 recruiting class.

Announced Wednesday, this year’s group of 23 features 13
defensive players.

“It’s a defensive-loaded class. The primary emphasis was on
defense this year,” UW head coach Barry Alvarez said. “I think it’s
a very athletic group. A number of players can play multiple
positions … I would anticipate that at least a handful of these
guys will have an opportunity to get on the field next year.”

Headlining Wisconsin’s recruiting class on the defensive side of
the ball is 6-foot-3, 240-pound lineman Mike Newkirk (Ladysmith,
Wis.).

Newkirk, also a standout high-school running back, was named the
state’s 2003 Offensive Player of the Year by the Wisconsin Football
Coaches Association after rushing for school records of 2,409 yards
and 40 touchdowns as a senior.

Coach Alvarez said Newkirk is “one of the guys who could
contribute right away,” and defensive line coach John Palermo even
compared him to former Badger great Tom Burke.

“We’ve had [Newkirk] in camp for three years, and he’s a kid
that I’ve developed a close relationship with, that I really enjoy
coaching,” Palermo said. “He’s tough; he’s physical. I don’t know
that he has the same speed as Tom Burke had, but yet he plays just
as tenacious as Tom Burke plays.”

Also helping shore up Wisconsin’s concerns on the defensive line
will be Jason Chapman (Bedford, Ohio), Gino Cruse, Jr. (Phoenix,
Ariz.) and Nick Hayden (Hartland, Wis.).

Cruse is the cousin of Washington Redskins halfback Trung
Candidate, and Chapman played for the same high school as former
Badger receivers Chris Chambers and Lee Evans.

“Overall, [the incoming class on the defensive line] is
physically probably ahead of most classes that we’ve had — from a
size, strength, speed aspect,” Palermo said. “It’s a group that for
sure a year from now is going to have to be either first or second
teamers because of our numbers, and the numbers that we graduate a
year from now.”

As for the linebackers in this year’s class, the UW coaching
staff spread their recruiting efforts across the country to find
the best available candidates.

Jammar Crane (Garland, Texas), Nick Sutton (Detroit, Mich.) and
Joshua Neal (Nashville, Tenn.) were all highly touted and
sought-after recruits in their respective regions, but Wisconsin
was ultimately able to get all of them to sign on.

In-state at the linebacker position, Wisconsin added Andy Crooks
(Wausau, Wis.) and Joe Walker (Green Bay, Wis.) to next year’s
roster.

Rounding out Wisconsin’s recruiting class on the defensive side
of the ball are defensive backs Antonio Freeman (Milwaukee, Wis.),
Jameson Davis (Hamden, Conn.), Jack Ikegwuonu (Madison, Wis.) and
Allen Langford (Detroit, Mich.).

Freeman, a 6-foot, 185-pound high-school track star, runs a 4.3
40-yard dash and is one of the most athletic players in this year’s
class.

Davis also has blazing speed and is an alumnus of the same high
school as Badger lineman Antaj Hawthorne.

Already enrolled at UW as an early high-school graduate, Davis
has enjoyed his time in Madison and is excited to begin his
football career as a Badger.

“I decided on Wisconsin because I went to all the other schools
that recruited me and offered me scholarships first, and when I
came here, immediately after I got off the plane, I felt a warm
feeling,” Davis said. “The pride here, the tradition here is strong
… it feels like a home here now. I didn’t feel that at other
schools; I felt distanced.”

As a whole, the 2004 Wisconsin recruiting class has been
referred to by prep analysts as one of the school’s strongest in
recent memory. And with the loss of a few core members from last
year’s defense, some of them may be asked to step in and contribute
right away.