The date was December 27, but the Badgers’ 34–3 Pinstripe Bowl victory against the University of Miami feels like it was yesterday.
Now, we’re entering April with the offseason in full swing.
Head Coach Paul Chryst’s team began spring practices last week in preparation for the 2019 season. Chryst’s team has many question marks on its roster entering these practices with many former players declaring for the NFL Draft. It is through these practices, though, that answers start to become evident, and the team’s depth chart for the season comes into form.
Kicking off a series of coverage looking at these practices and analyzing where each Badger positional group stands as spring practices come and go, we begin with two groups that are up in the air with the season five months away — the defensive line and linebackers.
One of the Badgers’ greatest pitfalls a year ago was their inability to stop the run and win the battle in the trenches defensively. After ranking third in the nation in rush defense in 2017, Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit fell to 50th in the nation in 2018, good for fifth in the Big Ten.
Now, Leonhard returns with his entire defensive line intact with the exception of nose tackle Olive Sagapolu who graduated and is now testing the NFL waters. This is a positive sign after last year’s squad started two true freshmen and a converted offensive lineman.
As of the beginning of April, redshirt junior Garrett Rand and junior Isaiahh Loudermilk are set for starting roles at defensive end. Rand missed all of 2018 with a torn achilles he suffered before the season began.
Chryst talked about Rand’s rehab and progress last Monday, discussing how Rand will be limited this spring.
“[I] did not know what [Rand’s] pitch count will be,” Chryst said.
Along with Rand and Loudermilk, who is fully healthy now after missing four games last season, Leonhard will keep an eye on how David Pfaff, Aaron Vopal and former walk-on Matt Henningsen progress as a unit this spring.
On the interior of the line, the Badgers will look to improve upon their lack of depth from 2018.
Sophomore Bryson Williams is set to take over Sagapolu’s role as the starting nose tackle. From there, the depth chart has question marks as redshirt senior Gunnar Roberge is the only listed backup to Williams. Leonhard will welcome help for the position in the fall when true freshmen Keeanu Benton, Rodas Johnson and Gio Paez come to Madison.
Chryst noted the importance of the defensive line and their development as spring football continues.
“That’s the group that needs to lead this team,” Chryst said.
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Wisconsin football is often recognized for its stellar play at linebacker over the years. Since 2009, seven Badger linebackers have been drafted in the NFL, with two or three names likely to join the list this year. Notable alums who’ve spent time on NFL rosters include DeAndre Levy, Chris Borland and T.J. Watt.
The position is pivotal to Leonhard’s 3-4 defensive scheme. After losing three of the team’s four leading tacklers to the draft in T.J. Edwards, Andrew Van Ginkel and Ryan Connelly, Leonhard will need to revamp the position in order to anchor his defense.
Badger fans hope this new linebacking unit will record more than the 14 sacks and seven turnovers it posted a year ago.
The projected starters at inside linebacker entering spring ball are redshirt senior Chris Orr and sophomore Jack Sanborn.
Orr played in all 13 games last season and recorded 27 tackles, two fumble recoveries and one interception. Sanborn, the Badgers’ top recruit in 2018, played in 11 games as a true freshman and recorded seven tackles and one forced fumble.
Sanborn is seen as a breakout candidate for the defense after receiving a considerable amount of playing time as a true freshman, playing well in the time he saw on the field.
The unit’s depth will most likely be filled by ex-safety Seth Currens, Mike Maskalunas and early-enrollee Leo Chenal.
On the other hand, the finalized lineup of outside linebackers is more uncertain entering the spring than the inside unit.
After saying goodbye to position coach Tim Tibesar, linebackers Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley a year ago and the team’s top pass rusher Van Ginkel this year, the development of the team’s new outside linebackers will have to occur quickly if the team wants to improve on their low sack and turnover totals from 2018.
Seniors Tyler Johnson and Zack Baun are set at the moment to be the starters at the position. Johnson battled injuries a year ago, though he did record ten tackles and three tackles for loss in his 10 appearances.
Baun played in 13 games last season, was the team’s third-leading tackler with 63 tackles and recorded 2.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and one interception. Baun is the true breakout candidate to watch at outside linebacker as the season approaches.
The depth at the position is rounded out by juniors Noah Burks and Christian Bell, sophomore Izayah Green-May, redshirt freshman Jaylan Franklin, ex-inside linebacker Griffin Grady and true freshman Spencer Lytle.
With many new contributors, Chryst and Leonhard have a lot to work with as the 2019 season approaches with both the defensive line and linebacking units look to improve upon a 2018 season sub-par by Wisconsin standards.