Badgers: What now along the defensive line?

Wisconsin could be without two key pieces of its defensive line this fall.

According to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, defensive ends Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk are out indefinitely. Rand suffered an Achilles injury that could keep him out the entire season, while Loudermilk underwent knee surgery this spring to deal with some lingering issues.

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Both are big losses for a defensive line group already trying to replace three seniors — Chikwe Obasih, Conor Sheehy and Alec James — from last year. Rand and Loudermilk were penciled in as starters in the base 3-4 defense. With them out, what will Wisconsin do?

On the surface, this feels very much like 2014. The Badgers lost four experienced players from the previous year with seniors Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski the only experienced players back. But Herring suffered a knee injury in the season opener and missed the next five games, while Zagzebski was carted off with a neck injury, though he’d return the next week. It forced Wisconsin into playing young guys like Obasih, Sheehy, James and Arthur Goldberg. It wasn’t ideal, but Wisconsin managed. Where it’s different this time around, is this happened far enough in advance of the season they can plan accordingly.

Here’s our look at some of their options.

Olive Sagapolu

The senior is Wisconsin’s starting nose guard, and it’s his best spot. But even before the loss of Rand and Loudermilk, there was already a plan in place to use Sagapolu in different spots. Listed at 346 pounds last year, he was down to 338 in the spring and still trying to lose more as he transitioned himself into being more of a three-down player. So often in recent years, Wisconsin’s opponents would spread things out and it left Sagapolu standing on the sideline while the Badgers went to their sub packages with just two linemen. Now, though, Sagapolu should be available to defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard in all situations, which is obviously even more important now in the wake of the injury news.

Aaron Vopal

The redshirt freshman ran with the first-team defense at points this spring when Rand and Loudermilk were out and didn’t look overwhelmed. At 6-foot-6, 299 pounds, Vopal is more than capable physically to handle the grind in the trenches. And it’s important to remember that while making plays is great, the real job of Wisconsin’s defensive linemen is to keep the opposing offensive line off the linebackers so they can flow to the ball. Vopal appeared to have that ability in the limited time we got to see him in practice.

Keldric Preston

The redshirt sophomore is currently more known for a video of him eating an orange — peal and all — that went viral following the Orange Bowl. But he did seem to have some pass rushing talent in 1-on-1 drills this spring and could be some help in Wisconsin’s nickel packages.

Bryson Williams

Williams enrolled at Wisconsin in December and took part in all the offseason work and spring ball. His future is at nose guard, and it’s where he lined up during practice, serving as Sagapolu’s backup. But it’s not where he played in high school. His film shows him as a 4-3 defensive tackle and there is some carryover between that and a defensive end in a 3-4. Williams, like Sheehy and Goldberg did during their careers, seems capable of playing both defensive line spots.

David Pfaff and Kraig Howe

The two juniors have been buried on the depth chart their first three years. Howe flashed a couple times during spring practice, including having a strip-sack of quarterback Kare Lyles in a scrimmage. It would be huge if either guy can make a jump this year to being a contributor on Saturdays.

True freshmen: Isaiah Mullens & Boyd Dietzen

A 3-star recruit, Mullens chose Wisconsin over offers from the likes of Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and others. According to a Land of 10 article, Mullens weighed 292 pounds at 6-foot-6 earlier this spring, and is thought of as a really good athlete. If some of the older guys don’t take advantage of their opportunities, it might be Mullens who steps into a role in his first year.

Meanwhile, Dietzen, the top-ranked player in Wisconsin in the Class of 2018, finished with 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks for Kimberly as it won another Division 1 title. Also a 3-star recruit, Dietzen seemingly now has a better chance of seeing the field this fall as well.

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