After discussing the offense, we Badger bloggers turned to the near blank slate that is our defense. What to make of all the new faces? Adam Hoge of Bucky's 5th Quarter led the charge, with Scott Tappa of BadgerCentric, Phil Mitten of Hoops Marinara, and me contributing our views as well:
Can you believe it has been five years since that great defensive line of 2004? Depth is once again an issue this year, but there seems to be some promise in J.J. Watt among others. Do you see any newcomers stepping up on the D-line to provide some depth?
On Wisconsin: Yeah, 5 years since Anttaj and Erasmus, but harder to believe for me is that Chapman and Shaughnessy never became true beasts on the line. They had so much promise early. Schofield is solid (led the team in sacks last season) and everyone is excited about Watt, but it's all based on practice so far. I want to believe in him, but I'm a little nervous. I'm concerned about our size everywhere and Moore really should be an end (where he would probably be very good), but we should have speed on the edges. I don't know who the solid tackles-to-be are, but with Nzegwu, Mains, and Westphal, there is plenty of young talent ready to step up on the ends. We'll need it.
Badger Centric: It's funny, because when you mentioned 2004, the first thing I thought was "I thought 2005 would be a down year, and we ended up winning 10 games, great year." But that was in spite of the defensive line! Even so, while injuries killed that unit (remember Beckum playing end?), but guys like Shaughnessy, Hayden, and Chapman showed promise. I don't see those guys on this unit. O'Brien is a solid starter. Watt seems to have a Hayden-like ceiling. But are there difference-makers? Doesn't look like it. I'll be happy if these guys can keep offensive linemen off our linebackers.
Hoops Marinara: It's a shame Erasmus and Co. flamed out in the NFL. Maybe they weren't that great after all. In 2009, the Badgers look weak up the middle and that spells trouble. I like O'Brien Schofield, who seems like he should be the emotional leader on the unit. Again, I like the younger guys UW has backing up the end positions, but inside is a question mark.
Bucky’s 5th Quarter: You have to be careful from what comes out of Camp Randall in the off-season because a lot of it can be propaganda. But I must say I am a little more optimistic about the defensive line than I was in the spring. After talking with O’Brien Schofield, I must say he seems like a solid leader and he’s determined to have a good year. If J.J. Watt blossoms like he is supposed to, I think Brendan Kelly and Louis Nzegwu do enough to make this a solid line.
Speaking of a lack of depth, the linebacking corp. seems to be scrambling to replace Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy. Blake Sorensen didn't have a great spring, but he is still listed ahead of Mike Taylor on the depth chart. Are you worried about the linebackers?
Badger Centric: Yes, very. Don't want to join the chorus questioning Sorenson, but I've never seen it with him. Saw Taylor play in high school and he was a stud, but we certainly can't count on him to be a standout this year. McFadden and St. Jean are average at best. And there is no one else. What about playing Pleasant at linebacker? We see so much spread it might make sense to have a guy like that in the front seven.
Hoops Marinara: Sorensen certainly has a lot of expectations to fulfill, but I think along with Culmer St. Jean and J. McFadden they can form a decent group. No one will accuse them of being as athletic as last year's group -- Casillas and Levy were two of the best athletes at that position that Wisconsin has seen. But what the Badgers really need is simply a group that knows how to tackle well. I don't want every draw play that gets past the line going for 6 ... can we get another Donnel Thompson in this bunch, please?!
Bucky’s 5th Quarter: I’m excited about McFadden in the middle, but very worried about the other two spots. Culmer St. Jean has never really put it all together and Sorensen didn’t exactly take advantage of his opportunities in the spring. It should be interesting to see what Mike Taylor can do. If he has a good camp, this will be the most fun defensive position battle over the next month.
On Wisconsin: I think the linebackers are the scariest group. First, Sorenson looked S-L-O-W in the spring. I'm pulling for Taylor if only because Sorenson either isn't fast enough or didn't care enough to try harder. I think St. Jean played pretty well when he had his chances last season, so we have two solid starters, but who's backing them up? That's where the loss of Hodge as a solid, contributing second-stringer really hurt. We've heard some positives about Megna, Rouse, and Hubbard, but we haven't seen it yet. Bottom line: I'm worried. Really worried.
Is it safe to say (and a little scary to say) that the secondary is the strength of the Badger defense? It seems like every guy listed on two-deep has shown flashes of brilliance at some point in the last few seasons, but they also have had their hardships. And will Aaron Henry really be as good as he looked like he would be before the knee injury?
Hoops Marinara: There's no question that the secondary looks good by comparison. But I think they actually will be good. Henry should be ready to go -- he's one of the elite talents on the team. I'm really excited to see him grow up. The entire makeup of the secondary is intriguing. You have knock-out artist in Valai, an overachiever in Maragos, plus a lot of experience backing those safeties up (Carter and Pleasant). Niles Brinkley is probably the weak link.
Badger Centric: It is scary, and I'd even question the "flashes of brilliance" assertion. We've seen flashes of competence from these guys, and I'd settled for sustained competence. But every one of the starters has question marks: Henry with the knee, Maragos still learning the position, Valai and his pure hitter MO, and Brinkley giving up big plays. But I'm actually optimistic about these guys and the young guys too. Shane Carter is a wild card, if he could come in and force some turnovers that would be huge.
Bucky’s 5th Quarter: Remember when Shane Carter led the Big Ten in interceptions two years ago? And Niles Brinkley picked off four passes last season? Why don’t I remember all of this? Oh, because when they weren’t grabbing turnovers they were getting beat for touchdowns and committing crucial penalties. Every member of the starting secondary has a good amount of experience, but how much talent do they have? We’ll find out soon.
On Wisconsin: I think they are a strength, but that's relative to the near total unknown of the front 7. Especially at safety, I worry about making that critical tackle. As much as Valai can lay the wood (needs to watch the head-to-head stuff, though), he missed his fair share of tackles last season. That's been Carter's problem all along, which is why Maragos will probably start at free safety. At corner Henry will be fine. I'm glad they decided to keep him out all of last season to truly let him heal. Niles Brinkley played fine last season, and I'm hoping Fenelus and Smith are coming along as well as advertised. But hope is not a method.
What are your thoughts on the defensive coaching staff? Toughness seemed to be an issue at times last season. How will this unit overcome the mental and physical shortcomings that were apparent in 2008?
Bucky’s 5th Quarter: The good news is that fixing these problems was item No. 1 in the off-season. Improving the defense’s mental and physical toughness – and committing fewer mistakes – will give this team an extra win or two this season. And if the problems continue then it will be a major problem for the defensive coaching staff.
On Wisconsin: Bottom line is the heat should be squarely on Doeren. After what Hankwitz did to turn around the Northwestern defense, Bielema's choice to go with Dave over Mike hasn't looked so hot. Maybe it was just breaking everything in the first year with guys who were more used to Hankwitz's way of doing things? That's no excuse this year. On top of making tackles, the defense needs to improve its conditioning. The losses to Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State all lay at the defense's tired feet (Bielema's too, of course). The idea that a Barry Alvarez legacy team (as long as he's the AD, he's a part of it) could be 9th in scoring defense in the Big Ten is unfathomable. That can't happen again.
Badger Centric: I don't know about toughness, it's hard to get to be a guy who plays a lot on a Big Ten defense and not be at least somewhat tough. Remember, there were a lot of injuries on that side of the ball last year: Casillas, Levy, Chapman, Henry, and that hurt productivity. What sticks with me are comments made on my blog after the Iowa game. I forget who said it, but the point was made that our defense had finally adapted to deal with the Spread, but when we go against a power line and back like Iowa had, we get run over. That probably won't always happen, but there's a lot of truth there. So by making the seemingly necessary adaptation to deal with the Spread, we have lost our identity as being a stout, stop-the-run defense, and become just another defense with a bunch of undersized guys running around in space. If these undersized guys were racking up sacks and interceptions, that would be one thing, but the unit seems mediocre at best, and it's not like next year looks any more promising. Some of that's on X's and O's coaching, but it's also recruiting and player development.
Hoops Marinara: It starts at the top with BB. I can't stress enough how much I want the coach to relinquish the Special Teams duties. He needs to set the example being focused and knowing where to be at all times. The good news is if the secondary can be everything I want it to be, that makes the job of pressuring the QB a little easier. I think the offense can be better this year too, which should (hopefully) alleviate the problems the defense had being worn out all the time in tight games.