It would be crazy to think J.J. Watt will be replaceable as not only the leader of the defensive line for the Badgers, but the whole defensive unit in general. The first-team All American had 21 tackles for loss including seven sacks, three forced fumbles, nine pass break-ups and three blocked kicks. Let’s be honest, that’s a boatload. The Wisconsin native went on to be the 11th pick of the NFL draft for the Houston Texans. Sure, UW will miss Watt’s playmaking ability, but one thing they have going for them on defense is depth, especially up front.
The Badgers are not going to use just one guy to play in place of Watt, but they will count on a rotation of D-Linemen that runs 10 deep. Big Red brings back a wealth of players with a lot of playing experience. Particularly deep are the defensive tackles which will be lead by senior Patrick Butrym. The New Berlin, Wis. native started all 13 games for Wisconsin last season and finished second on the team in QB hurries and fourth in tackles for loss. Sophomores Ethan Hemer, Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen will provide defensive line coach Charlie Partridge (who is also the co-defensive coordinator) some needed depth in the middle. Kohout started the first seven games of 2010 before an ankle injury in the Ohio State game forced him to miss time. Kohout’s loss was Hemer’s gain as the 6-foot-6 inch, 300-pounder started the final six games in his place. Allen made an impact as a true freshman last year, earning his playing time. The Minnesota native dropped a few pounds over the offseason and figures to be a major contributor this year.
There will also be a 4-5 man rotation for the defensive ends this year, led by redshirt senior Louis Nzegwu. Often times last year, the Platteville, Wis. native did his job holding the line of scrimmage with Watt roaming free in the backfield making plays. This year the coaches will ask Nzegwu to be more aggressive and take calculated risks. Starting on the other side will be junior David Gilbert. The 6-foot-5 inch, 255-pounder is very athletic and will be counted on to play meaningful minutes and make plays rushing the quarterback.
Junior Brendan Kelly may be the most interesting prospect in the bunch. Kelly is extremely athletic but has battled injuries throughout his time in Madison. Kelly used his redshirt last year as he dealt with a pelvis injury. He missed time in both ’08 and ’09 with injuries as well.
Wisconsin loses two starters in Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorensen but bring back depth in the form of a few returners and a couple newcomers. Back from two shoulder surgeries and now playing middle linebacker is 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Chris Borland. Borland moves from outside backer to middle and will call the shots for the Badgers defense. Flanking him on one side will be returning All-Big Ten performer Mike Taylor. The redshirt junior played and started 12 games in 2010. He finished second on the team in tackles for loss, tied for second in interceptions and fourth in total tackles. On the other side of Borland will most likely be a mixture of senior Kevin Claxton and redshirt sophomore A.J. Fenton. Getting in the mix in several packages will be sophomore Conor O’Neill and redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter.
The unquestioned leader of the group will be none other than redshirt senior Aaron Henry. Henry made a smooth transition from cornerback to free safety and promptly took home second-team All-Big Ten honors. Along with Borland, Henry will be one of the vocal leaders of this 2011 Badgers team. Flanking him at strong safety will be athletic redshirt junior Shelton Johnson. Johnson played in all 13 games last year and started one. Getting playing time behind Henry and Johnson will be Dezmon Southward and Michael Trotter, Marcus’ brother.
The secondary is deep at the corner position with seniors Antonio Fenelus and Devin Smith leading the way. Fenelus took home first-team honors last year as he led the Badgers in interceptions and passes defended, starting in all 13 games. Marcus Cromartie and Peniel Jean figure to get playing time behind Fenelus and Smith.
With co-defensive coordinators Partridge and Chris Ash leading the way, I would expect the Badgers to take a few more chances as they try to generate the void of a pass rush provided by Watt. They have the luxury of rotating guys up front and in the secondary without much loss. While this defense might not be able to dominate opponents, I think it will certainly hold up their end of the deal as the offense can put up points in a hurry.
Look for my Big Ten season preview tomorrow as the college football finally gets under way with the Badgers hosting UNLV on ESPN.
About the Author
Written by Chad Seely
Hey sports fans! Welcome to my Wisconsin Badgers football blog. For any Badger scores, news or questions you may have, come check out this blog! For those who don't know me, I'm a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I graduated in May 2009 with a Broadcast Journalism degree and returned in Fall 2009 to get a Minor in Multimedia which I completed in May 2010. In the summer, you can catch me on AM1230 WSBB, splitting time as the play-by-play announcer and color commentator for the Daytona Cubs, the Advanced-A Affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.