Recruiting to Defensive Speed

by Sahil Shah

37 points! 33 points?! 39 points!?! 45 points!?!? Against their four toughest opponents, the Badgers gave up an average of 38.5 points per game. They were lucky to squeak out of one of those games with a win. They were lucky to get that win against Michigan State in the B1G title game by giving up 39 points.

2011 was statistically a good season for the Badgers’ defense, but they were far from special. The defense was porous and gave up too many big plays, had several mental lapses in the secondary, and could not generate enough pressure into the backfield. Fans knew it. Pundits knew it. The team knew it.

Leading up to the Rose Bowl against Oregon, coach Bielema emphasized defensive speed to stop the spread attack led by LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. The Badgers had so much respect for Oregon’s offensive speed they focused on conditioning drills – sometimes twice per day. The Ducks’ success in the Rose Bowl showed slightly better speed by the Badgers on defense, but clearly not enough to stop their attack.

During the game, it was clear that the Badgers just couldn’t stop the Quack Attack as Oregon gashed the defense on the ground and through the air. They couldn’t fill gaps to contain and break up the spread attack: cover WRs and TEs as they regularly got open over the middle.

Former Badgers DE J.J. Watt celebrates one of his sacks in a win over Terrelle Pryor and Ohio State in 2010.

Former Badgers DE J.J. Watt celebrates one of his sacks in a win over Terrelle Pryor and Ohio State in 2010.

In past seasons, defensive ends and tackles like JJ Watt, O’Brien Schofield, Erasmus James, Wendell Bryant, and Antaaj Hawthorne disrupted opposing offenses for the Badgers. James, Schofield and Watt in particular were speedy off the edge and consistently made clutch plays in the backfield.

Through the first three games this season, the Badgers have failed to force any turnovers and have registered only 3 sacks. It’s pretty clear that the Badgers need more speed and athleticism on the defensive line, and future recruiting classes are looking like Bielema has been and still is addressing those issues.

The 2013 recruiting class is looking very strong, highlighted by DEs Chikwe Obasih and Alec James, and DT Darius Latham. It’s strange and almost un-Wisconsin like that the class stars are not offensive linemen or runningbacks. However, the defense is an area that Bielema and his staff need to focus on making stronger at Wisconsin. Here’s a quick look at some of the commits in the 2013 class:

DE Chikwe Obasih is part of a very strong 2013 recruiting class for Wisconsin

DE Chikwe Obasih is part of a very strong 2013 recruiting class for Wisconsin

Chikwe Obasih: He’s very quick, athletic and raw. He has the speed to correct any mistakes he makes. He’s 235lbs but has the frame to put on more weight, which will help in beating linemen and Tight Ends around the edges to get into the backfield. Luckily for the Badgers, he also lends a hand in recruiting by trying to convince other players to commit to Wisconsin.

Alec James: James will likely line up as a DE opposite Obasih. As a junior in high school, James racked up 13 sacks and 21 tackles for loss and is considered one of the best athletes in the state of Wisconsin. Having offers from schools around the country, James was described as having ”SEC speed” – something that every conference is trying to live up to given their current streak of national titles. He’s listed at around 230lbs but has the frame to put on more weight like Obasih and should get stronger.

DT Darius Latham will be a force in the middle for the Badgers

DT Darius Latham will be a force in the middle for the Badgers

Darius Latham: Latham is a big body in the middle and though he is 6’5”, he still can get low below the pads and get great leverage. He’s quick on the snap count and should be able to fill the gaps to stop the run. There were rumblings about Latham making the switch to the offensive line at Wisconsin given his size, but he’s the type of athletic and strong player the Badgers need in the middle of the defensive line.

Those are just the highlights of the class, and with a few unfortunate career-ending injuries to current players and transfers, more scholarships have opened up for 2013. The Badgers are still in the mix for S Marcus Ball and CB Sojourn Shelton. With the potential for all of these commitments, the defense would be very solid at all 3 levels.

Wisconsin hasn’t stopped with the 2013 class, however. The 2014 class, though small at this time, is comprised of quality defensive players. The Badgers have already received a verbal from DE Conor Sheehy out of Milwaukee, WI. At 6’4” and 260lbs, Sheehy will easily put on more weight and end up moving to the DT position at Wisconsin. According to his high school coach Jeffrey Mazurczak, Sheehy is a student of the game, has tremendous work ethic and works only to get better.

Along with Sheehy, the Badgers just received a verbal from DT Craig Evans out of Sun Prairie, WI. Listed at 6’3” and over 300lbs already as a junior, it’s clear he’ll play DT at the next level. Originally from Mississippi, Evans is also described as a player who could quickly get into the backfield and disrupt plays. He saw the potential of the 2014 class and realizes it could be a really special one for Wisconsin, which gave him more of a reason to commit early.

If Wisconsin continues signing these highly touted recruits, the Badgers’ defense has the potential to be great in the coming years. In the Wisconsin program, players go through rigorous conditioning and development if they want to start for the Badgers. Ben Herbert is probably the most underrated coach on the staff and there’s no doubt he’ll be able to transform these young athletes into future beasts on defense at Wisconsin.

With the 2013 and 2014 classes looking strong, I can only imagine what Wisconsin’s defense will look like in coming years. Perhaps a defense molded after Alabama or LSU – strong, athletic, fast, and practically NFL-ready? One can dream, but it sure isn’t out of the realm of possibility as Wisconsin’s program is gaining more national attention every year and attracting more highly touted recruits to Madison.