As the buzz began surrounding the 2012 football season, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema repeatedly stated his excitement for the depth and experience returning on the defensive line.
More specifically, the group with the deepest depth on the roster belonged to the Badgers’ defensive ends. Returning five players who saw action in 2011, there were high expectations heading into the season that this group, with another offseason to get healthy and make strides physically, would provide the Badgers with a strong pass rush that was severely lacking a season ago.
“It’s real important (having the depth to allow a player rotation), you know,” redshirt junior David Gilbert said. “If you’re out there, I don’t care how good of shape you’re in, if you’re out there on the 12th play of the drive you’re going to be a little gassed and we need our best at all times.”
And with Gilbert coming back from a season-ending leg injury in 2011, it wasn’t too far of a stretch to venture these Badger defensive ends would be better than advertised.
But, like any football season, injury reared its ugly head in 2012, depleting the Badgers of their prized depth on the edges of the defensive trenches.
Redshirt senior Brendan Kelly and redshirt junior Pat Muldoon have both spent time on the bench this season because of injuries. Kelly did not suit up in the Badgers’ losses this season or the UTEP game, as a nagging hamstring problem has prevented the tall, lanky speed rusher from playing at full throttle since the season opener.
Muldoon suffered a broken thumb against Oregon State and did not play against Utah State, UTEP or Nebraska after making his way into the starting lineup to replace an ailing Brendan Kelly.
But the pair made their triumphant return against the Illini this past Saturday, as Illinois’ mobile quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase experienced the full force of a loaded Badger defensive line. The team recorded four sacks, with one recorded by Muldoon in his return, cast wrapped in a club and all.
“The way our defense played for four quarters, you could really see to get Brendan Kelly back, Pat Muldoon back, some guys up front to give us a pass rush at the end,” Bielema said in his post-game press conference following the Illinois game.
And it wasn’t just the sacks that made the Badgers defensive end depth vital in the Illinois game. With the ability to keep players fresh by having able substitutes, the Badgers’ defensive ends were able to rush harder thanks to fresh legs. They also did an outstanding job maintaining a contained outside rush on the pocket, keeping Scheelhaase confined within the pocket for the majority of the game, as the quarterback broke his runs up the middle rather than breaking them outside.
“When you have defensive line depth that helps your pass rush instantly,” Bielema said. “Those guys were getting after it in the third and fourth quarter. (Scheelhaase) is a good athlete, but we knew we wanted to keep him in the pocket and move it around.”
Also recording a sack this past Saturday was Tyler Dippel, the redshirt junior end who has seen his playing time and role on the field dramatically increase in the face of injuries to Kelly and Muldoon. Dippel proved his worth during Kelly and Muldoon’s absence, as did the play of redshirt sophomore Konrad Zagzebski.
Bielema himself even had praise to offer for Dippel’s performance over the course of the season.
“Dip’s a high motor guy,” Bielema said. “We were watching film this morning and he had a huge sack a year ago in (the Illinois) game. Dip makes me mad a lot, but he’s probably one of my favorites because of how hard he plays and he’s kind of a fun kid to be around, kind of a knucklehead in certain ways. It’s kind of one of those things where he brings some energy, plays a lot harder than others.”
So for players like Dippel and Zagzebski, who shouldered an increased workload with the absences of other veteran defensive ends, the experiences in the starting role will only be a positive for them personally and for the team as a whole.
With this week’s game coming against a Purdue team with a solid passing attack, the defensive ends will once again get a chance to get to the quarterback. And with Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase being the last mobile quarterback Wisconsin will face until Nov. 17 at Camp Randall versus Ohio State and Braxton Miller, the Badgers will be able to finally pass rush without any restrictions or worries of containment.
Defensive tackle and redshirt junior Ethan Hemer said he’s just happy to see the line back at full strength.
“Having guys that are able come back from injuries and being able to contribute right away is huge,” Hemer said. “Obviously injuries are just a part of the game, but I’m glad to see our defensive ends are back.”