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