What the future holds: Defensive line

With the 2017 season in the books, it’s time to look ahead to 2018 for Wisconsin. Over the next few weeks we’ll be going position-by-position to see what the future holds for the Badgers.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to each player in terms of their class for 2018. If someone was a sophomore in 2017, they will be called a junior here.

Defensive line:

Returning: Olive Sagapolu (SR), Isaiahh Loudermilk (RS SO), Garrett Rand (JR), David Pfaff (JR), Keldric Preston (RS SO), Kraig Howe (JR), Aaron Vopal (RS FR)

Leaving: Alec James, Conor Sheehy, Chikwe Obasih

Arriving: Bryson Williams (3-star), Boyd Dietzen (3-star), Isaiah Mullens (3-star)

Season grades

Biggest question: How does Wisconsin fill the depth chart following the loss of three productive seniors?

Wisconsin loses 157 games played, including 90 starts, from the three seniors that played their final game against Miami in the Orange Bowl. Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih were near constants along the Badgers front the last four seasons and won’t be easy to replace, though Wisconsin does have a few options.

The known is nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. The senior has made 19 starts in his first three years and is the centerpiece of Wisconsin’s front, especially against power run teams. He did have a career-high three sacks in 2017.

Injuries plagued redshirt sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk in 2017, but when healthy, he flashed some playmaking ability and should man one of the defensive end spots.

The other one, you would think, should be occupied by junior Garrett Rand. Thanks to all the experienced and talented players in front of him the last two years, he played out of position as Sagapolu’s backup at nose tackle as opposed to his more natural defensive end position. Now would be the time to move him back outside, something his father, somewhat surprisingly, took to Twitter to express earlier this month.

What’s up in the air is who will fill the depth chart behind those three.

Redshirt sophomore Keldric Preston is currently more known for a video of him eating an orange — peal and all — that went viral following the Orange Bowl. But like James, he’s a big, athletic body that should push for time this fall.

Redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal has the size and ability to hold up and is a guy to keep an eye on.

Juniors David Pfaff and Kraig Howe have been buried on the depth chart their first three years. If they are going to make an impact in their careers, the time is now.

As for incoming players, everyone is looking at Bryson Williams as a potential early contributor. Wisconsin managed to hold onto Williams despite a last minute push from his hometown Nebraska Cornhuskers and new coach Scott Frost. A 3-star recruit, Williams is already on campus as an early enrollee, going through winter conditioning and will take part in spring practice. It would be significant if the 6-foot-2, 295-pound Williams could win the backup nose tackle job.

Defensive end Boyd Dietzen — the top ranked player in Wisconsin in the Class of 2018 — finished with 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks for Division 1 state champion Kimberly as a senior. A 3-star recruit, Dietzen and fellow true freshman Isaiah Mullens could force their way into the conversation for playing time with a good summer in the weight room and a strong fall camp.

Predicted depth chart:

DE: Isaiahh Loudermilk (RS SO), Keldric Preston (RS SO)
NT: Oliver Sagapolu (SR), Bryson Williams (FR)
DE: Garrett Rand (JR), Aaron Vopal (RS FR)

What the future holds:
Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end
Offensive line

Like he did with Barry Alvarez, former coach Lou Holtz made an impression on the current Badgers

MADISON — Lou Holtz has been one of the biggest professional influences in Barry Alvarez’s life. The Hall of Fame coach hired Alvarez to oversee the linebackers at Notre Dame in 1987 and then had him run his defense the two years after that. The lessons learned and the advice gained during that short time together stayed with Alvarez during his 16 years as the head coach at Wisconsin and his 14 years as the school’s athletic director. So when Alvarez offered to have Holtz come speak to this year’s team, current coach Paul Chryst was receptive to the idea.

“Certainly there’s a lot of the philosophical foundational pieces that Coach Alvarez got from him, and I certainly have gotten from Coach Alvarez,” Chryst said of the points hammered home by Holtz. “The game is a vehicle we can use to teach and help these young guys grow. It was a good message.”

A majority of the players these days know Holtz more for his time on TV than as the coach of six different college programs, including his 11 years with the Fighting Irish where he led the program to its 11th national title in 1988. Yet, despite the nearly 60-year age difference between Holtz and most of the Badgers, his message to them of knowing their role on the team, and the need to embrace it, hit home with several players.

LISTEN: CB Derrick Tindal says it’s time the UW secondary gets some respect.

“Don’t be the guy that [doesn’t] accept your role,” cornerback Derrick Tindal said of what stood out to him. “Everybody can’t be a superstar. Everybody can’t be a starter. If your job is on special teams, and we need you to block, do that to the best of your ability.

“You think I like going out there to block on punt return sometimes? [No.] But I’m going to do whatever to help the team. I don’t care if it’s punt return, kickoff, kick return. They can put me on the front line if they want to. If they feel like that’s what is going to help the team, that’s what I’m going to do.

“I thought [coach] Holtz did a good job of [getting that message across].”

In recent years, injuries have forced Wisconsin to adapt on the fly and go deep into its roster to find replacements. And it’s worked well because players haven’t fallen into the trap of just going through the motions when they know they’ll likely be back on the bench when the first-team player returns. Instead, they’ve seen an opportunity and pounced on it, sometimes with stellar results.

LISTEN: UW coach Paul Chryst says the backup QBs are still very early in their development.

It was that type of work that led to the rise of linebackers Jack Cichy, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly in the last two seasons, while also giving wide receiver Jazz Peavy the break he needed when guys at his position went down. Wisconsin’s football history is littered with similar examples.

“Embracing your role on this team and never being content with anything that you’re doing,” Orr said of his biggest takeaway from Holtz’s speech. “I think that was a good message for young guys and old guys [to hear].”

For nose guard Garrett Rand, whose high school coach played for Holtz at Notre Dame, the overriding theme was to focus on holding up his end of the bargain and expect his teammates to do the same.

“Even for the guys that aren’t playing as much, do your job,” Rand said. “[If you do] your job, everything else will be fine.”

Garrett Rand may not be Aaron Donald, but the Badgers see similarities

MADISON | Inoke Breckterfield isn’t saying Garrett Rand is the next Aaron Donald. But the Wisconsin defensive line coach sees the uncommon attributes that the true freshman and the player most consider to be the best defensive tackle in the NFL share.

“I’ve been bringing up Aaron Donald with Garrett since I recruited him,” Breckterfield said of Donald, who he coached for two seasons at Pittsburgh. “He has that mentality. He’s got the drive and the strength and the quickness and all that.”

Appearance wise, the comparison makes sense. Neither guy is the prototypical size for a college defensive lineman, each measuring in at under 6-foot-2 and less than 285 pounds. But they also have traits that can’t be measured scientifically.

“He’s not Aaron Donald, but (they’ve) got some similarities. That’s why I feel in love with the kid,” Breckterfield said. “I don’t give a rats about that height and size (because) he plays fast, he’s strong, he grinds and he loves football. That’s the part I love about him.”

Donald was a consensus All-American as a senior, when he won ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors, along with sweeping the most prestigious awards possible for a defensive lineman, including taking home the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award and the Outland Trophy. He went on to be a first-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2014 and has the potential to be the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL when he signs his next contract.

Rand, on the other hand, is just getting started. One of the top rated members of Wisconsin 2016 recruiting class, the four-star prospect from Arizona arrived with a lot of eyes on him. It’s what happens when a video of you bench pressing 500 pounds as a high school senior goes viral. And when word leaked that he called this summer’s performance of 33 reps at 225 pounds — the highest total on Wisconsin’s roster — an “off day,” the mythical aura around him continued to grow outside of the program.

But among his fellow players, few took notice. At least if you’re to believe defensive end Chikwe Obasih. Asked about Rand’s weight lifting feats, Obasih said he’d never seen the video and hadn’t heard about his team-high on the bench press.

“I have no idea about any of these numbers,” Obasih said. “Swear to God.”

The junior then turned to fellow defensive lineman Conor Sheehy and asked him if heard about it. Sheehy shook his head.

And Rand is just fine with that. Though proud of what he’s done, he has no intention of being known simply for his ability to rule a weight room. He wants to do it on the field. And to do it on the field, his technique, especially at his size, is paramount and something he focused on during the 21 practices in fall camp.

“I’m still thinking (too much) because it’s still new to me,” Rand said of the technique he uses at nose guard as opposed to what he was asked to do as a defensive end in high school. “I want to get everything right.”

The most significant difference is the amount of double teams he has to deal with from the center and either guard. As a nose guard, you’re there to hold the point of attack and not allow the players blocking you to get off to the linebackers. At 277 pounds, that’s much more difficult than if you’re 340 pounds like starting nose guard Olive Sagapolu. But Rand remains confident he can hold up despite the difference.

“I was always a person that didn’t want to get that heavy because I don’t think I’ll move as well,” Rand said. “The heaviest I’d ever want to get is maybe 300 pounds or 290. The strength I have (at my weight right now) is stronger than most defensive tackles.”

On Wisconsin’s first depth chart of the season, Rand is listed as the second-team nose guard, in front of redshirt sophomore Jeremy Patterson. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be the second guy in when the Badgers open the season this Saturday against LSU.

Breckterfield loves Rand’s worth ethic and the effort he puts into every snap. The coach said Rand wants all the reps he can get and never asks to come off the field. But as of a week ago, Breckterfield still needed to see more.

“I’ve got to be confident I can put him in a game, and if I’m not, I don’t want to waste his (redshirt year),” he said. “I’m still waiting for that…(but) he’s getting better every day.”

Wisconsin football: Practice report 8/17

MADISON | The Wisconsin offense just looks better with a healthy Corey Clement in the backfield. And that’s where the senior was on Wednesday afternoon as the Badgers held their 12th practice of fall camp.

It was just his second practice back after missing nearly a week with a hamstring injury, but the running back showed no ill effects, darting in and out of running lanes and showing the burst that makes him a special player.

“He makes us all look better,” running backs coach John Settle said after practice. “We’re trying to be smart. We’ve got him on a pitch count, so to speak. And he can’t understand that. He feels good, and he wants to just go, but it’s kind of hard to go from zero to a hundred. So we’re trying to slowly build him up, build his stamina up. We want him to get hit, knocked around. But the most important thing for us is September 3rd. We’ve got get him there healthy.”

That’s the day Wisconsin opens the season against LSU at Lambeau Field. And Clement understood it was the reason he had wait to return to practice, especially after pushing through a sports hernia a year ago and missing eight games as a result.

“You play for so long, you hate to keep watching,” Clement said. “All I did was watch almost half of last season. I got tired of it. But (we) just wanted to play it smart, get back healthy and keep practicing towards LSU.”

Having Clement in the backfield gives Wisconsin a game-breaker at the position, somebody that defenses have to worry about on every snap. Though Dare Ogunbowale gave them that ability in spurts last season, Clement is a danger whenever he gets his hands on the ball. And the Badgers coaching staff knows it.

“When he’s healthy, it’s a totally different speed and totally different athlete running down the field,” Settle said. “Any time he touches the ball he has big play ability. That’s what we all like about him. We don’t have to block all 11 to make something happen.”

Hear all of Clement’s comments to the media below:


Moving up

Several true freshmen have seen their fortunes improve in recent days, including nose guard Garrett Rand. Though undersized (285 pounds) for the position, Rand has jumped redshirt sophomore Jeremy Patterson and is now running with the No. 2 defense. The Arizona product is as physically ready to play as any first-year defensive lineman has been for the Badgers in at least the last 10 years.

Granted an extra year

According to UW officials, fullback Leon Jacobs has been granted a medical hardship waiver for last season, meaning he gets the year back and will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Jacobs suffered a foot injury in fall camp last year and reinjured it early in the season before he was shut down for the rest of the campaign. His absence revealed a lot of talent behind him at inside linebacker, so the the coaching staff decided to move him to offense in the spring.

“Leon’s one of those guys that has a good play and then has a bad play,” Settle said of Jacobs’ transition to fullback. “We understand he’s still young to the position.

“The thing I like about him is he’s blocking the right person, so assignment-wise he knows what to do and he knows who he has. Now we’ve got to clean him up technically.”

Injuries piling up

Wisconsin’s practices were closed on Tuesday, so when reporters got a look at the team on Wednesday the number of injuries had jumped a bit.

The newly added names included running back Dare Ogunbowale (leg) and fullback Alec Ingold (leg), while two projected starters – right tackle Jake Maxwell (leg) and left guard Dan Voltz (knee) – remained out for rest as they return from injuries.

Ogunbowale said he wasn’t really battling an injury as much as he was dealing with soreness following Monday’s scrimmage. He expects to return to the field on Thursday.

The full list:

WR Jazz Peavy (chest) – Wore a yellow no contact jersey
S Keelon Brookins (groin)
LB Nick Thomas (head)
RB Taiwan Deal (arm) – Wore a yellow no contact jersey

WR Quintez Cephus (leg)
OL Jon Dietzen (head)
LB T.J. Edwards (foot)
FB Alec Ingold (leg)
WR Henry Houden (head)
RB Dare Ogunbowale (leg)
OL George Panos (shoulder)
WR Kendric Pryor (arm)
FB Austin Ramesh (leg)
OL Logan Schmidt (head)
LB Mason Stokke (head)
OLB Jake Whalen (leg)

Potential is there for several true freshmen to help Wisconsin

MADISON | No one associated with the Wisconsin football team has seen the true freshmen class in a single practice yet, but based on the way some of the coaches talked on Sunday during the team’s annual media day, there appear to be several that could help this season.

Among the positions where that could happen is at wide receiver, where only senior Rob Wheelwright and junior Jazz Peavy have what would be considered significant playing experience. Junior George Rushing and senior Reggie Love have also seen some time, but they are veterans in class only.

“They’re old, yet young,” wide receiver coach Ted Gilmore said of a group that has a bunch of upperclassmen but few proven options. “For them, it’s taking that next step. All those years they sat back and watched and wished they were in a certain position, now is a great opportunity to seize that moment.

“I really feel they are ready to do that … Whatever their role is, they’re going to earn it.”

The same could be said for the true freshmen at the position, especially A.J. Taylor. One of the top rated recruits in Wisconsin’s 2016 class, the speedy Taylor played mostly running back in high school, and he did it at a high level, earning first-team all-state honors in Missouri as a senior. So when he stepped on campus in June there was some doubts about the position change swirling around in his head, but those have since subsided and he’s feeling more and more comfortable by the snap.

“I was a little hesitant coming in,” Taylor admitted. “But this summer has really changed my whole mindset. I’ve been working and working, trying to get more consistent. And actually, I feel a lot more comfortable playing receiver now than I did my whole four years playing running back [in high school]. I feel more confident [now] than anything.”

Though Taylor will learn all of the wide receiver spots, he could be most dangerous working in the slot, where Wisconsin could use him on jet sweeps and in other situations with the goal of getting him the ball in space.

Down in the trenches is another area on offense that will see an infusion of young bodies that might be able to help, at least when it comes to providing depth. Cole Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl are further along physically than normal first-year players. And they play a position – tackle – that currently lacks much experience after the starters. So offensive line coach Joe Rudolph wouldn’t be surprised to see them among the two-deep.

“I think those guys will both get reps with the second team early in camp, and we’ll kind of see where they’re at,” Rudolph said. “They aren’t far off in some areas [physically]. You need that.”

On the other side of the ball there are a couple defensive backs that could push to get on the field, especially at safety. Both Eric Burrell and Patrick Johnson appear physically ready, and they’ll get their shot at a position that is clearly the most wide-open due to the departure of Tanner McEvoy and Michael Caputo.

The most intriguing of the true freshmen is Garrett Rand. A defensive lineman, the Arizona product is already one of, if not the strongest player on the team. Much was made about his strength after video surfaced of him benching 500 pounds in high school. The tape didn’t lie, and when he showed up this summer, he managed 33 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press – the highest total on the team. What’s more, he called it an off day.

Rand is proud of what he can do in the weight room, but added, “I want to be known for more than [my bench press numbers].”

Defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield said Rand plays with a fire and will be given every opportunity to contribute at defensive end, and possibly at the nose guard spot.

Other potential first-year possibilities include punter Anthony Lotti and cornerback Caesar Williams.

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