2014 Preview - Defense

For decades, basketball teams used five distinct positions.  Every team had point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and of course, a center, in their starting five.  In the last decade or so, that’s gone out the window.  The pro league became flooded with guys who could legitimately play any position on the court, and teams stopped worrying about filling the standard positions and just put the five best guys on the court.  Now, when you vote for the NBA All-Star Game, the only positions are “frontcourt” and “backcourt.”

While it’s impossible to directly copy that philosophy in football, I can’t remember a time following Badger football where the position a player is listed at means less than it does this year under Dave Aranda.  Potrykus had a great look at this very topic last week:

“We want to be able to get away from the area of specialization where you only play this spot," Aranda said, "to where we can be flexible enough to where we can apply different concepts and get in and out of things."

Obviously, it’s impossible to completely ignore positions in football like you may be able to in basketball. Teams still need three or four big guys on the line and some speed to cover fast WRs, but in between those constraints there is space to get creative.

Last fall Rich wrote for this site about the problems the team was having with “square pegs,” or guys who didn’t fit in with the new scheme, and there was a lot of that.  I don’t know anyone who felt good about watching Brendan Kelly drop back into coverage – most just felt sorry for him.  Other senior defenders had solid years, but not many had spectacular years (besides Chris Borland, but we’ll get to him).  It became clear as the season went on, the shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 might not have been as smooth as hoped.

That’s not to say the defense was bad – far from it, actually.  It held opponents to 10 or less points in 7 of the 13 games, which is pretty incredible.  However, the warning signs were always there.  Too often, the 2013 defense was dependent on the blitz to create pressure.  It struggled to force turnovers.  When teams were able to identify and block the blitzes, and/or had a capable QB, it left a young secondary exposed: Connor Shaw, Christian Hackenberg, Braxton Miller, and Taylor Kelly all torched the Badgers through the air with little resistance.

Since it wasn’t stocked with flashy players, and ended on a sour note with against Penn State and then South Carolina, I do feel like last year’s defense was sort of underrated – it held Minnesota and Iowa to a combined 474 yards and 9 points in two big road wins, but yet, as I mentioned above, it had major struggles against other types of teams.

A lot of those “square pegs” are gone to graduation, and the slate is wiped mostly clean for the defense this year.  In year two of the Andersen era there will be plenty of Bielema’s recruits playing, but on paper they look like they will fit the scheme more than last year’s bunch did.  Joe Schobert, Leon Jacobs, and Vince Biegel appear to fit the 3-4 LB prototype much better than their predecessors.  On the defensive line, Chikwe Obasih and Alec James are a little quicker and lighter as defensive ends, and Warren Herring played very well in spurts last year as the nose guard anchor.  Finally, Aranda has had time to move players around in the secondary, and at least a couple true freshmen figure to get time this year.

The guys are there, but it will be a matter of just how they fit what Andersen and Aranda want to do.  Following offseason depth chart movements was maddening if you’re one for the strict structure of positions.  I’m pretty sure Jacobs moved from inside to outside LB and vice versa at least five times.  I also think they may have 15 scholarship safeties on the team.

So what do we actually have with this defense?  I’m focusing on these 6 things in particular:

1. Depth will be an issue - 7 starters, and 10 of the 22 in last year’s two deep are gone.  The D- line and LB positions in particular are dependent on a lot of young and/or unproven players.  While it’s always great to hear about the true freshman impressing at camp and will see the field on day one, it also means there is an upperclassman who’s been unable to step up and take the spot.

2. Chris Borland - Holy hell are they going to miss this guy.  Unless it’s the QB position, I try not to get too wrapped up in the loss of a single player because in a sport like football, one player doesn’t make or break the team.  Even though the loss of Jared Abbrederis is going to be an adjustment, I’m expecting some of the new WRs to step up with more opportunities and chances. It can be overcome.

Without Borland, the adjustment will be massive – he was just so damn good.  I’ve never seen a defensive player have such an impact for the Badgers.  With great DBs (like my hero Jamar Fletcher), teams could throw to whoever that guy wasn’t guarding.  Teams could double/triple J.J. Watt or just run away from his side.  Borland, though, was literally EVERYWHERE, and his presence allowed his defenses to cover up deficiencies in many other areas.  When you consider his replacements on the inside might be limited in their abilities, his impact will be missed.

3. The year of Michael Caputo - Caputo played in spots in 2012 and thrived last year with a bigger role. When he missed the Penn State game, the struggles the defense had were jarring.  With more confidence and a full year of experience under his belt, I’m beyond excited to watch him play.  For a few years now, the Badgers have been missing the hard-hitting, impact safety.

4. Emergence of Joe Schobert - One of my favorite things about attending a game in person (besides the drinking) is getting to watch the special teams guys.  I remember being in Vegas for the opener in 2010, seeing David Gilbert kill people on kickoff coverage, and just getting giddy about what was to come.  I had a similar moment with Schobert a couple years ago.  Look for him to parlay a strong bowl performance into a big year this year.  If Borland’s production is going to be replaced, a lot of it needs to come from Schobert.

5. Better safety play - As I mentioned in the opener, “positions” on this defense are mattering less and less and it’s never been clearer than at the safety position, where they seem interchangeable.  A lot of the two-deep is young, but there are many options for Arnada to play around with, including several true freshmen.  I’m excited to see how he utilizes these guys in 2014.

6. College kids with terrible haircuts- I won’t link a picture of myself here, but when I was in college, let’s just say I made some poor hair choices – like, a lot of them.  So, I can appreciate college kids making equally dumb choices, and really enjoyed the Vince Biegel mullet:

I hope we get more and more dumb hair ideas as the season progress. I need them to feel better about the ridiculous hair I may or may not have sported in the early 2000s.

It was a different time back then, and I’m not just talking about hair.  It’s a different time for the Badgers’ defense with new schemes, (still relatively) new coaches, and, of course, new players.  I started with a look at a different time in a different sport: the NBA before “positions” were blurred or even discarded altogether.  The analogy is apt as we’ll see on this season’s defense positions blurred or even discarded as never before – let’s just hope that it’ll be more worth watching than an NBA All-Star Game.