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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Defensive line smothering opposition

[media-credit name=’Ben Smidt’ align=’alignnone’ width=’648′]Dline2_BS_400[/media-credit]While the offense struggled in the absence of tailback Anthony Davis, a trend ideally now a thing of the past, the Wisconsin defense quickly evolved into one of NCAA football’s premier units. Under defensive coordinator Bret Bielema, the Badgers have held opposing offenses to an average of 4.8 points per game and 190.0 yards per game — first and second in the nation, respectively.

In all four appearances, Wisconsin successfully halted opposing rushers, pressured opposing quarterbacks, blanketed opposing receivers and kept all of the above out of the end zone on all but one occasion.

The unit anchoring the Badgers’ dominating defensive performance this season should come as no surprise. One of the more accomplished defensive fronts in recent memory, the Wisconsin line continues to make big plays at the line of scrimmage.


“We want to dictate the flow of the game, and how we go about our business is a direct indication of that,” Bielema said.

In the days when Wendell Bryant ruled the Badger line, Erasmus James, Jonathan Welsh, Anttaj Hawthorne and Jason Jefferson were all young prospects looking for a spot among prestigious company. The group developed together over the course of several years, emerging as the Big Ten’s most highly touted front four.

“When you come in with a bunch of guys as freshmen you don’t know what it takes in order to be a winner,” James said. “Now we’re all grown up and we’re all leaving together, and with that we know what it takes. We all want to get out there and perform to the best of our ability.”

With the inexperience at linebacker, it’s been baptism by fire for the young corps. According to middle linebacker Reggie Cribbs, the athleticism of the front four has made that process much easier. Against runners the caliber of Arizona’s Mike Bell, Penn State’s Tony Hunt and UNLV’s Dominique Dorsey, the Badgers allowed an average of just 72.8 yards per game this season.

“They have timing, they have confidence, they understand what a big play means, how they have to go about it, and the tempo they need to sustain for four quarters,” Bielema said. “That’s what our guys have brought to the table.”

While James and Hawthorne are widely considered the superstars of the group, the strength of Wisconsin’s defensive line rests in the collaboration among all four.

“We have great balance,” Bielema said. “Nobody can count on only taking care of ‘Taj (Hawthorne) because Jefferson is playing football just as well as ‘Taj is. They can’t say, ‘we can just take care of ‘Raz (James)’ because Jonathan Welsh is doing special things on his side of the line.”

“Anytime you have a great corner on one side it isn’t too hard to figure to go the other way,” Bielema continued. “But with the line, if you have a great tackle at both positions and a good defensive end at both positions — it’s hard to get away from those guys.”

Hawthorne continues to prove why scouts view him among the nation’s elite defensive tackles. Along with registering 10 tackles (three for a loss), Hawthorne made a momentum-shifting play against Central Florida, picking off a wayward screen pass from quarterback Steve Moffett.

Opposite Hawthorne, Jefferson has accumulated nine tackles (2.5 for a loss) and one sack. Starting for a third consecutive season at left end, Welsh stepped up big in 2003 following the injury to James. He racked up eight quarterback sacks and a career-high 50 tackles. Through four games, he has nine tackles (2 for a loss) and one sack in 2004.

The most impressive individual stats this year clearly belong to James. Though his return this season remained shrouded in doubt coming into the opener against Central Florida, James made an impact that seems to get more significant every game. Over the past two weeks, he garnered Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors for standout performances against Arizona and Penn State.

James leads the line with 18 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a total loss of 58 yards, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. His season total of five sacks makes him the top defensive pass-rusher in the Big Ten.

And yet, for a brief period nobody knew if James would ever play again. An offseason hip injury in 2003 caused team doctors a great deal of concern. Wisconsin trainers sent James to New York in the spring for a consultation with a Giants team physician, a specialist in the field.

“They were trying to compare it to Bo Jackson,” James said. “And when you compare something to Bo Jackson it’s not good. [But] once I went out there and came back, everything started to get better.”

After getting clearance from the specialist, James returned to Madison to begin rehab and rejoin his old comrades in the weight room.

“I was really happy for him,” Jefferson said. “You know, he came a long way and I’m just happy that he’s back. It’s a blessing, I guess. He brings so much to [the defensive line] and just makes everyone else’s job that much easier.”

After a lengthy rehab, which cost the end his entire 2003 season, he returned to spring camps and the active roster.

Despite lingering injury concerns, Bielema explained the recovery and emergence of the Badger pass-rusher should come as no surprise.

“When you take something away from someone that they care about passionately, then it becomes something that they put their whole heart into,” Bielema said. “When they get an opportunity to do it again, it leads to special things.”

“I’m not taking anything for granted anymore,” James said. “I’m just happy to be out there, on this field.”

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