Football used to be played between the tackles, but not anymore.
Offenses now operate mostly on the perimeter, which creates a bit of a problem for a University of Wisconsin defense that has been a top-10 unit nationally for five straight years but is in a transition year after losing seven starters.
Between graduation and early departures for the NFL, UW lost almost everyone who played a significant role in its perimeter defense. Gone from the unit that ranked second nationally in total defense and third in scoring defense are the top three ends, both starting outside linebackers, both starting cornerbacks and the fastest safety. Making UW’s task even more daunting this season is that many of the potential replacements have limited or no game experience, a departure from recent seasons.
“Year in and year out, when you think of the Badgers, you think of a tough, hard-nosed defense,” sophomore cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams said as fall camp opened Wednesday. “It’s a standard that we have to keep alive and we will keep alive.”
If the defense does maintain that standard, there is no telling how good the Badgers can be because the offense returns virtually intact from a 13-1 team. But even though UW’s defense returns a solid core of potential All-Big Ten Conference players in seniors Olive Sagapolu at nose tackle (although he will start fall camp at defensive end), T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly at inside linebacker and D’Cota Dixon at safety, it won’t be easy.
Carriere-Williams and senior outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel are the only returnees on the perimeter with extensive game experience. Sophomore end Isaiahh Lowdermilk and junior outside linebacker Tyler Johnson got their feet wet last season, but that’s about it for experience at the six perimeter positions. Another player with solid experience, junior end Garrett Rand, will miss the season following Achilles’ tendon surgery, leaving UW with a need for unproven players to assume key roles on the outside at all three levels of defense.
If the Badgers are worried about that, it isn’t showing.
“We need guys to step up and be big players for us,” Edwards said. “But that’s not something we’re concerned with. We know that someone will be there, we just don’t know who.”
Players such as Zack Baun at outside linebacker, Madison Cone, Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams at cornerback and Aaron Vopal, Keldric Preston, David Pfaff, Kraig Howe and Isaiah Mullens at end have been presented with an opportunity to become household names. Not all will make the jump, but UW needs some of them to deliver.
“New faces, new roles, guys have got to step up,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “Unfortunately, we had some injuries this offseason where we’re going to start out a little short-handed, but we’re excited. There’s a lot of guys that nobody knows their names and nobody necessarily knows the skill and the talent they have that are going to have to really step up for us. Hopefully, they’re able to continue to progress their game and we can get them in there sooner than later. It’s a big challenge when you lose that much experience, there’s no question about it. But the fun part of college football is finding a new group and finding a way to win games.”
One thing UW has going for it is that group of veteran stars right through the middle of the defense. Another thing is that the other players in the program have never been on a UW team that played even average defense.
“The experience and playmaking ability out of that group is pretty tremendous,” Leonhard said. “Obviously, we’re going to lean on them. The beauty is these other guys that have been in the program have seen some really good football. It’s not like you graduated an experienced group that hadn’t won or had success. These guys know what it takes to have success. They know what it takes to win big games. Even though they don’t necessarily have game-day experience, they know what the standards are around here.”
They’ve been taught well, they’re highly motivated by the opportunity and, oh by the way, some of them are pretty talented.
“They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have talent,” Leonhard said. “We’re excited about that. It’s just been their approach. They’re smart. They realize the roles that are open and what we ask of those positions. I think there’s a lot of guys that are hungry to make that name for themselves and to become that two, three, four-year starter like some of these guys we just lost. You’re nervous, but you’re more excited as a coach going into camp just (to learn) who’s made the jump and who’s really gained the confidence.”
A weak non-conference schedule should help the transition, but all hands had better be ready for UW’s Big Ten opener at Iowa. If they are, UW will have passed one test of an elite program: It can reload year in and year out without missing a beat.
“I think we’ve shown that consistently over the years,” Dixon said. “Honestly, my expectations are the same with these guys. I see them work. I trust them. I trust their preparation. I think they’ll deliver.”
If they deliver to past standards, this could be a fun season.