Speed, Speed, Speed

JJ Watt. O’Brien Schofield. Erasmus James. Wendell Bryant. Those are the first names that come to mind when I think of dominant defensive linemen that played for the Badgers. It seemed like for a string of consecutive years in recent memory that the Badgers would lose a solid defensive lineman to the NFL and one would emerge as a force the following season. After Watt decided to forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft in 2011, the Badger faithful were left wondering who would emerge as the defensive front leader that season.

Gilbert:  Difference maker in 2012?

Gilbert:  Difference maker in 2012?

Entering fall camp of 2011, Badger coaches were already used to the question of who would replace JJ Watt. Their answer was that not one person would replace him and that it would be done by committee. Many thought David Gilbert would be the next great DE for the Badgers in 2011. After a quick start to the season – 3 sacks in 4 games – it sure was looking that way for Gilbert. Unfortunately, a broken foot caused him to miss the remainder of the season.

Wisconsin defensive coaches kept preaching that the defensive line would contribute by committee and felt good about flying under the radar as having no stars on their defense. However, that did not work that well as fans started to notice a lack of getting to the QB. Sure, statistically the Badgers’ defense was ranked 8th nationally in total defense and allowed less than 300 yards of offense per game, but those numbers do not tell the whole story as the defense gave up 38 points per game in their 3 losses.

It seemed like everyone outside of Badgerland (and even some within) were quick to point out that it was the secondary’s fault for the regular season losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. Bielema recently argued that had they not lost CB Devin Smith early to a season-ending injury, the Badgers would have won those games and been able to face LSU in the BCS National Title game. I still cringe when watching these plays:

It’s quite apparent the Badgers’ secondary couldn’t make the clutch plays, but where was the speed on the defensive line? The defensive front could not make a push to get to or contain the QBs, which is essentially where the game of football is won: in the trenches. The Badgers’ offensive line usually wins their battles, but now it’s time for the defensive front to make a name for itself.

Going into the 2012 season, the biggest need for an improvement on the defensive line is speed and strength around the perimeter, i.e. a playmaker. This is where Gilbert comes in. If fully healthy by camp, he should provide that this season. Known as a physical freak in the weight room, Gilbert displayed serious ability on the field at the beginning of the 2011 season.

At this point, the probable starters on the defensive line for 2012 are:
DE David Gilbert (RS Jr. – 6’4” – 250lbs.)
DE Brendan Kelly (RS Sr. – 6’6” – 255lbs.)
DT Ethan Hemer (RS Jr. – 6’6” – 305lbs.)
DT Beau Allen (Jr. – 6’3” – 323lbs.)

While Jordan Kohout’s career was cut short due to severe migraines, the good news about the defensive front is that the unit is still deep and has potential. Tyler Dippel, Bryce Gilbert, Pat Muldoon, Warren Herring, and Konrad Zagzebski will now have to step up this season and spell the other starters. It’s possible that redshirt freshman DE James Adeyanju sees playing time as well this year. This is certainly a deep unit, however it’s still one that lacks speed.

After the Rose Bowl against Oregon, it was ever more apparent that the defensive front needed to work on getting faster and also recruit speed around the edges if they want to be able to defend the Oregons of the world. Gilbert can certainly play to that level and make clutch plays. If he can stay healthy and play to his potential, it’s quite possible Gilbert’s name will be one to remember among the Badger faithful for years to come.