Grading the Badgers: Defensive line

A great number of defensive minds believe that the way to build a defense in the game of football is with a strong defensive line. There are number of reasons for this theory, including generating a significant pass rush and freeing up linebackers to make tackles in space. Those are just two of the reasons as to why game-changing defensive ends are often drafted high in the NFL and rank among the highest-paid players in the game.

Wisconsin’s defensive line didn’t have the star power to create quite that much buzz across the country, but certainly did job required. The Badgers’ linebackers and secondary posted stellar seasons partly due to how good the defensive line was.

Wisconsin was able to get to the quarterback without having to bring more than four rushers in most cases. The lack of blitzing allowing there to be more of an emphasis on coverage down the field.

Alec James was the best defensive lineman for Wisconsin this season. He started all 13 games at defensive end and collected 7.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. While the sack total is impressive but not gaudy, it got the job done. James was named consensus second team All-Big Ten.

Opposite of James often times was Conor Sheehy. He also finished as an All-Big Ten player, being named to the second team by the coaches and the third team by the media. He didn’t quite have the production that James did. Sheehy finished with 1.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in 12 games played during the season. He was effective enough to get the job done, but again, not a star.

On the interior, Olive Sagapolu was named an honorable mention in the Big Ten for his play. He did miss three games but was productive when on the field. The nose tackle position typically isn’t a place where stats are expected to be accumulated, but rather success is measured by how well the linebackers behind are able to play. That obviously was something that went well for Wisconsin.

The line could have been better had Isaiahh Loudermilk been able to stay heathly. The 6-foot-7, 306-pound defensive lineman was productive in the limited opportunities he had on the field, but he missed seven of the games due to injury. In the five games he played in, he had a pair of sacks and nine total tackles.

Another player that would have been able to help out if not for injury was Chikwe Obasih. The defensive end had a good junior campaign, but was only able to get on the field for five games in 2017.

Grade: B+ | Injuries hurt this group in some aspect. They certainly could have been a deeper group, potentially leading to more production. That being said, the defensive line should necessarily be judged solely on what they did, but also what the other position groups were able to do as a result of their efforts.

Wisconsin football: Practice report 8/15

MADISON — The Wisconsin football team held their first scrimmage of fall camp on Monday at Camp Randall Stadium. It lasted about 90 plays, with the final 20 or so belonging to the freshmen and other young players.

“Obviously we ran a lot of plays against each other. And when one side has success the other side isn’t,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I think this is a huge week for us.

“I thought today was a good start, but (we) have a long way to go.”

Defense rules much of the day

The two-hour scrimmage went largely in favor of the first- and second-team defense. They forced a pair of turnovers, allowed just two touchdown drives and piled up four sacks.

Of the five drives the first-defense was on the field, four of them ended in three-and-outs. Among the standouts were juniors Chikwe Obasih, Alec James and T.J. Watt. The trio accounted for three of the four sacks and were constantly getting push into the offensive backfield.

Secondary coach Jim Leonhard said on Sunday he was looking for his guys to make more plays, and safety Joe Ferguson obliged, making a tiptoe grab near the sideline for an interception.

Hornibrook impresses with the first-team offense

It’s getting closer and closer to decision time for head coach Paul Chryst and the Badgers when it comes to choosing either redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook or senior Bart Houston to be the starting quarterback. And if you were to judge the competition on just this day alone, Hornibrook was the better player. He moved the offense, and Chryst has said that when it comes down to it, that’s what matters.

In his two drives with the first-team offense against the second-team defense, the Pennsylvania product led a pair of scoring drives. The first went 98 yards in 16 plays, and was capped off by a 3-yard touchdown run courtesy of redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw. Hornibrook was 5 of 6 for 65 yards on that possession, and was able to overcome a sack and a holding penalty to still get the team in the end zone.

Later, he put together a 57-yard drive in which he was 4 of 4 for 39 yards, including a pretty 18-yard touchdown to senior Rob Wheelwright, who had gotten a step on cornerback Titus Booker.

For the day, Hornibrook was 11 of 14 for 119 yards, the one touchdown and one interception.

“I think Alex did some good things,” Chryst said afterwards before mentioning some of the not so good things Hornibrook did, including taking a sack on first down.

As for Houston, he was just 6 of 14 for 72 yards. His best drive came against the second-team defense. He drove them 59 yards, including a 15-yard completion to junior George Rushing and a 12-yard toss to senior Reggie Love. But he missed a chance for a touchdown, one-hopping a pass to a wide-open Wheelwright by the goal line.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do on it,” Chryst said of the offense as a whole before singling out the two signal callers. “I thought both of them did some good stuff today.”

Wheelwright returns

Wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore suggested on Sunday that he needs to sometimes remind Wheelwright that, “his skirt is showing,” in reference to him not being available to play due to injury. Wheelwright has been in and out of practice in camp, but he took part on Monday and looked good. He finished with three grabs for 50 yards and one touchdown and should have had another if not for a poor pass.

“We’re challenging Rob to take that next step,” Gilmore said. “We’re challenging Rob not to get comfortable.”

In and out

The offensive line has been in constant flux through the first week of camp. Some of that was planned as right tackle Jake Maxwell and left guard Dan Voltz were each coming off injuries and the team is being cautious. Other players – like right guard Beau Benzschawel and backup guard Jon Dietzen – have missed time due to injuries. But on Monday we got a glimpse of what the coaching staff hopes is the starting lineup against LSU – and it looked pretty good.

When Voltz, Benzschawel and Maxwell joined left tackle Ryan Ramczyk and center Michael Deiter along the line, the offense had success moving the ball. The activity with those five will continue to ramp up as Sept. 3 gets closer, as will the attempt to build depth behind them.

“We have been missing them,” Chryst said of the guys being in and out of the lineup. “Ideally you got a clear five and they play together a ton because there are so many nuances and intricacies. But I think we’re doing a good job of making it work.”

On the mend

Running back Corey Clement didn’t take part in the scrimmage, but the senior appears to be getting closer to returning after missing the last four practices with a hamstring injury. His rehab during the session included full speed sprints, followed by work on a stationary bike. Wisconsin is obviously being cautious with him after a 2015 that saw him forced to sit eight games with a sports hernia.

In his absence, most of the carries went to redshirt sophomore Taiwan Deal and redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw. The pair had varying levels of success, though Shaw did score the lone rushing touchdown of the scrimmage.

Here’s the rest of the injury list:

WR Jazz Peavy (chest) – Wore a yellow no contact jersey

S Keelon Brookins (groin)
WR Quintez Cephus (leg)
OL Jon Dietzen (head)
LB T.J. Edwards (foot)
OL George Panos (shoulder)
OL Logan Schmidt (head)
LB Mason Stokke (head)
LB Nick Thomas (head)

Injured in the scrimmage
RB Taiwan Deal (arm)

Getting his kicks

A slimmed down Rafael Gaglianone still has plenty of leg. The Wisconsin junior, who lost about 30 pounds in the offseason, drilled all four of his field goal attempts during a special teams portion of practice, including a 50-yarder. In the scrimmage, he also hit from 28 yards.

Wisconsin football: Practice report 8/10

MADISON | The intensity of fall camp took at step up on Wednesday for the Wisconsin football team, as the players were sporting shoulder pads for the first time this year.

Forcing turnovers

In the spring, the Wisconsin defense forced a ton of turnovers, a lot of them coming via interceptions. That continued on Wednesday as there were at least four interceptions during team periods – two by senior Sojourn Shelton and and two more by junior Natrell Jamerson. Shelton took both of his interceptions back for would-be touchdowns.

Splitting reps

The quarterback competition really started on Wednesday as senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook faced defenders for the first time in fall camp. They split first-team reps, with Houston usually going first. Hornibrook had the best throw of the day, finding freshman Quintez Cephus in tight coverage for a 40-yard gain.

In pads

It doesn’t really feel like football season until the pads go on, which happened on Wednesday. On the first play of full speed action this fall, junior defensive end Chikwe Obasih tossed a lineman aside, and gobbled up running back Corey Clement for what would have been a 3-yard loss.

Later in practice, tensions nearly boiled over when Cephus was blocking Derrick Tindal on a screen play and did so a little too long for Tindal’s liking. There was some pushing and shoving before the two got separated.

So far, Cephus has been the most impressive of the three true freshmen receivers.

“I can tell he wants it,” senior Rob Wheelwright said of Cephus. “Right after practice he was asking, ‘Man, we need to go look at this film. I want you to tell me what I did [right and wrong].’ He’s hungry. He’s ready to learn. And that’s really good seeing him compete.”

Making a change

Redshirt freshman David Edwards is making the move from tight end to right tackle this fall. Many schools recruited the former high school quarterback to be an offensive lineman, but Wisconsin said they’d give him a shot at tight end first. However, once the weight started going up – he’s put on 50 pounds since coming to Madison last summer – it was almost a foregone conclusion.

“I knew it was coming,” Edwards said of the move. “Everybody kind of joked about it since the day I got here.

“When I got here I was pretty skinny. I was about 240 [pounds]. By the end of [this past] spring I was about 260. Got back from [summer] break at 270. So it was just a natural progression.”

Edwards is working as the No. 2 right tackle behind redshirt sophomore Jake Maxwell. He’s looked solid in the first few practices, and even got some reps with the first-team line as the training staff tries to limit Maxwell’s workload coming off a leg injury in the spring.

Looking good

It’s not clear how much Taiwan Deal will be used this season, but the redshirt sophomore looks much quicker this fall than a year ago. On several plays, the 220-pound Deal made defenders miss in the hole and accelerated into the second level.

Transfer Chris James also look very much the part of future big-time weapon for the Badgers. He’ll have to sit this season due to NCAA rules, but James showed off his big-play potential on an outside run where he got the edge and took off for what would have been at least a 20-yard gain.

Held out

Wheelwright hasn’t made it through a single fall or spring practice without getting injured. So when the senior didn’t take part on Wednesday some eyebrows were raised. But he said there’s nothing to worry about, and they are just trying to give his body a chance to recover and be healthy for the season. Still, having to watch from the sideline is a bit frustrating for the Ohio native.

“Me having to watch these guys, first day of pads on, going against the defensive backs, and the DBs are hollering. You want to be out there to be like, ‘OK, lets quiet ya’ll up.’ But it’s all good for the long run.” Wheelwright said.

Wheelwright said he feels like he’ll practice on Thursday and Friday, and that sitting out will be just a “here and there” thing.

You can listen to the full post-practice interview with Rob Wheelwright below:



Still out:
ILB T.J. Edwards (foot)
OL George Panos (shoulder)

Keelon Brookins (groin)

Wisconsin football preview: Defensive line

MADISON | The Wisconsin football team will open fall camp on Aug. 8, so over the next few days we’ll be going position-by-position to preview head coach Paul Chryst’s second team in Madison.

Today we take a look at the defensive line.

Defensive line

No unit on the team, perhaps outside of the linebackers, has more depth and experience returning than the defensive line. Their top four players have played in 93 games in their careers, including 35 starts. And though they have to unexpectedly replace Arthur Goldberg (25 starts), who stepped away from the program due to repeated head injuries, the group that remains is more than capable.

The line is led by junior Chikwe Obasih, who has started 20 games over the past two seasons, including all 13 last year. He helped Wisconsin lead the country in points allowed per game (13.7) and finish fourth in rushing defense (95.4 ypg). He ranked first among the linemen with 41 tackles and showed flashes of being disruptive in the backfield, recording 5.0 tackles for loss.

Fellow junior defensive end Conor Sheehy is about 15 pounds heavier than he was at the start of last year and now stands at 288, which will help him hold up against some of the power run games UW will face, including LSU in the season opener.

Don’t be surprised if junior Alec James pushes Sheehy for a starting job, while also being with the first-team defense in the nickel and dime packages due to his pass rushing ability. Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield also believes redshirt sophomore Billy Hirschfeld could push for time at defensive end.

At nose guard, the Badgers have a pair of massive bodies to hold the point of attack in their 3-4 scheme. It took about half the season, but sophomore Olive Sagapolu started to show down the stretch what the coaching staff liked so much about him. At 6-foot-2, 340 pounds, Sagapolu is a good enough athlete to get off blocks but also stout enough to deal with the constant double teams he sees.

There has also been some chatter around the program that the light may have turned on for redshirt sophomore Jeremy Patterson. A guy that former coach Gary Andersen and his coaching staff thought would be an instant contributor, Patterson has played in just two games in his career. But the 350-pounder has the ability to be a difference maker, and the Badgers would be ecstatic if he and Sagapolu are able to spell each other.

The one wild card is true freshman Garrett Rand. The Arizona product once benched 500 pounds as a high schooler and appears physically ready to play. Breckterfield believes he can play either defensive end or nose guard – much like Goldberg – and he intends to give him every chance to get on the field early in his career.

Two-deep projection
DE: Chikwe Obasih, Billy Hirschfeld
NG: Olive Sagapolu, Jeremy Patterson
DE: Conor Sheehy, Alec James

Monday: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers
Tuesday: Offensive line, tight ends
Wednesday: Defensive line
Tomorrow: Linebackers