BuckAround contributor Neal Olson (@olewr7) previews the Badgers defense - should be pretty salty, as in recent times. Should stay that way as long as Dave Aranda is running it.
Four schools have finished in the top 20 the past three seasons in points allowed per game. Alabama and Michigan State are almost a given; both programs have built a national reputation as defensive powers. Wisconsin's presence on that list may surprise some, but the defense has kept some pretty impressive company since 2012.
Lost in the shuffle of the Gary Andersen era of botched post-game song choices and QB mismanagement, coordinator Dave Aranda has created an emerging defensive juggernaut. Since 2013, Wisconsin has allowed 18.6 points per game. Keep in mind that includes the 59 points scored by the Buckeyes in the Game that Shall Not be Named.
Aranda and Wisconsin’s best performance may have been in the Outback Bowl against Auburn. Fresh off the nightmarish Big Ten Title game, and facing an Auburn offense that had hung 44 points against the vaunted Alabama defense the last time it played, the Badgers held Auburn held to just 31 points, including overtime. The defensive stand in said overtime was an ultimate final touch.
As much as the re-vamped, aggressive defense can be attributed to Aranda, it takes the players on the field to execute. In that respect, Aranda found two staples to lead the attack in linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel. Both players wreak havoc in the offensive backfield. Biegel lead the team with 16.5 tackles for loss last season while Schobert was third with 13.5.
Schobert is yet another chapter in the long line of walk-on success stories at Wisconsin and Aranda should be credited with recognizing Schobert’s versatility against spread offenses. Schobert earned a start against Arizona State’s spread as a sophomore and has never relinquished his role on the field. His ability to play both the run and pass with equal comfort has given the Badger’s defense a dimension it has lacked in the past.
Contrasting with Schobert's versatile, even-keeled approach, Biegel’s wild, aggressive on-field play even carries over to his choice in haircuts. The similarities to crazy-man legend Brian Bosworth are uncanny - going forward, let’s all agree to refer to Biegel as simply “The Biegs”. His speed and power as an edge rusher puts a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and offensive backfields. Forming maybe one of top LB duos maybe the country, the Biegs' and Schobert's differing styles complement each other nicely.
While Schobert and The Biegs are entrenched on the outside, both inside linebacker spots are somewhat up for grabs. The presumed starters Leon Jacobs and TJ Edwards both missed time in fall camp but are expected to be ready for the season opener. Jacobs has played special teams and filled in for Marcus Trotter effectively against Illinois last season (12 tackles); Edwards, an RS frosh and converted quarterback has no game experience. Fifth-year grad transfer Kellen Jones and RS sophomore Keelon Brookins, as well as true freshman Nick Thomas, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly, have all rotated time with the first unit and flashed playmaking ability. Walk-on Connelly was recently given a scholarship and some have Orr penciled as the fourth ILB.
Aranda will likely use a multitude of linebackers to keep legs fresh and defenses guessing. Missed practice by already inexperienced players is not ideal, but it has allowed several younger players to gain valuable first team reps. The stable of linebackers is talented and will continue to lead the charge in Aranda’s defense.
Speaking of deep and talented position groups, the secondary is returning plenty of experience led by safety Michael Caputo. Caputo is a legitimate first team All American candidate and one of the reasons Athlon Sports named the Wisconsin secondary as a top ten defensive backfield in the country. Similar to Schobert, Caputo’s strength is in versatility. His comfort in a hybrid linebacker/safety role allows Aranda to unpredictably mix coverages and blitzes, probably the most critical key to success in Aranda's system.
Another major reason for the high expectations in the Badgers secondary is Darius Hillary. Hillary was sort of lost in the shuffle after Sojourn Shelton’s impressive freshman campaign of 2013. But with Shelton struggling through most of last season, Hillary turned into a true lock-down corner. To be fair, the Big Ten has lacked dynamic passing offenses the past few years, but Hillary's consistency and ability have been such that teams have rarely challenged him.
So rare in fact, that Hillary’s improvement probably contributed to a lot more targets of Shelton's mark. The increased volume definitely increased the pressure to perform for Shelton. He brings that South Florida football swagger to Wisconsin, and relies heavily on instincts and confidence. It was clear he lost that for much of last year. However, starting in spring practice and continuing into fall camp, he seems to have regained that edge.
As noted in the offensive preview, Tanner McEvoy’s presence at wide receiver is a pretty clear indication that the staff trusts Leo Musso, Lubern Figaro, or even the rejuvenated and hard-hitting D’Cota Dixon at the other safety spot. Knowing they have a back-up plan with McEvoy should the game call for it, it’s likely those three will see a vast majority of playing time in the remaining secondary spot.
While linebacker and secondary groups are solid and filled with talented players, the defensive line will need some players to step up in order for the playmakers behind them to shine. Despite the unheralded nature of the position, guys like Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski where stalwarts of the defense last year. Their ability, when they were on the field, to absorb space and blockers was a big reason guys like The Biegs, Schobert, and Caputo were able to make all those tackles for loss or after very short gains.
Fortunately, most of the players expected to be battling in the trenches have some game experience. However, going from a handful of plays a game, to consistent output will be the challenge. RS sophomores Chikwe Obasih and Alec James will likely see a bulk of the snaps at the end spots, and sophomore Connor Sheehy will feature prominently on the nose. All three are talented enough to make an impact but need to show they can be dependable down after down.
At end and nose, swing lineman Arthur Goldberg has started games in the past (at both end and nose); the primary depth at nose will be large-sized RS freshmen Jeremy Patterson, who's been limited by a leg injury after the first week of fall camp. Zander Neuville, a former walk on put on scholarship recently with Ryan Connelly, will figure into the d-line rotation, along with veteran Jake Keefer, who's been sidelined with injury and may not be ready when the season starts.
By and large, the success of the defense will hinge on whether the big bodies up front can take up blockers and allow the players behind them to make tackles. The success of the 3-4 is predicated on the linemen commanding double teams. The line group will be challenged right off the bat against Alabama's very good offensive line and running backs and may have some growing pains through the season. Fortunately, the non-conference shouldn't be too challenging, and no opponent on the B1G schedule brings an offense that will strike too much fear into this unit.
Still, considering the uncertainty along the offensive line and the potential impact that will have on moving and scoring the ball, Aranda and the defense will be counted on to keep games close this season. Luckily, Wisconsin has the playmakers capable of taking over games on defense, especially if they can force more turnovers than in the recent past.
Taking the longer view, Wisconsin's defense has established itself nationally during Aranda's tenure, so much so that he may not be long for UW. He interviewed for an assistant position with the Green Bay Packers during the off-season and will be a hot name for any college head coach (or another, potentially more lucrative, coordinator) opening the next few seasons. As long as the Aranda Express stays in Madison though, opponents can expect to face a top tier defense in every game against the Badgers.