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