For a number of years, Wisconsin has produced a top-ranked defensive unit with key players going on to successful careers in the NFL.
In 2015, Wisconsin ranked second in the nation in total defense, first in scoring defense, fourth in rushing defense and second in first down defense.
The Wisconsin defense, under the new leadership of Justin Wilcox, is poised to continue its success in the upcoming season, starting with a matchup against their former coach.
Sophomore inside linebacker Chris Orr described the identity of the Wisconsin defense Wednesday after the second to last practice before the team heads to Green Bay.
“You can expect a fast physical swarm of guys, 11 hats around the ball and some hard hitting, some physicality on Saturday,” Orr said. “We’re physical, tenacious. We never give up on a play. You see 11 guys trying to get to the ball. Everyone wants a piece of the action. We want to dog pile on the ball carriers. I think that’s what defines this defense.”
Safety Leo Musso said, “I’d say a defense who’s smart, who plays well together and has fun out there. That’s the identity of our defense.”
Juniors Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih are the starting defensive ends going into this Saturday’s game. Sophomore Alec James is also expected to see significant time on the field this season. Sophomore Olive Sagapolu is the first string nose tackle.
Despite losing senior defensive lineman Arthur Goldberg last spring because of retirement due to head injuries, the Wisconsin defensive line is one of the most experienced units for the team. Sheehy played in 27 games with eight starts in 2014 and 2015. Obasih play in 27 games with 20 starts, and Sagapolu played in all 13 games last season with four starts.
“We work together really well,” Sheehy said after Wednesday’s practice. “We’re all really close, and we’re all good buddies.”
Sheehy said that the defensive line prepared for this weekend’s highly anticipated season opener no different than they would any other game.
“I’m going to treat it like any game,” he said. “We’re going to play hard and that’s all we can control.”
The stability of the defensive line will be crucial in stopping Leonard Fournette on Saturday.
The Wisconsin linebacking unit is one of the most cohesive groups for Wisconsin both on and off the field.
“We interact really well together. On the field, we are really good. We gel really well,” starting outside linebacker T.J. Watt said earlier in fall camp. “Off the field as well. We just spend a lot of time together through camp. It’s a really great good of guys.”
Sophomore Chris Orr expressed similar sentiments after Wednesday’s practice. He and junior Jack Cichy are starting inside linebackers this Saturday after Chryst ruled sophomore T.J. Edwards out with a foot injury. Of his teammate Cichy, Orr said that on the field it feels like the two have been playing together their entire lives.
“We love each other,” Orr said of the entire linebacking corp. “We’re best friends on and off the field always joking around together, always focusing hard together, always keeping each other humble as well. We’re just a great group.”
Vince Biegel, one of two team captains for UW, is the other starting outside linebacker opposite Watt.
“From an outside linebacker standpoint, we’re bigger than we’ve ever been but we can still be nimble enough to get out to the pass rusher,” Biegel spoke of the dynamic between Watt and himself.
The loss of Edwards for the season opener will take the Badgers former three-man rotation down to two, but the unit is confident in their ability to work together and make plays.
“It was tough, but he wouldn’t want us to miss a beat,” Cichy said of the adjustments with Edwards’ injury. “He wouldn’t want us to sulk for him. We are moving forward. We are making great strides.”
All of the linebackers expressed similar sentiments of what to expect from the Wisconsin defense, specifically the linebacking corps—a group that is aggressive, focused and determined to win.
“We’re going to get after the ball. We’re going to fly to the ball. We’re going to have a lot of blitzes up front, and we’re going to have great coverage in the back end,” Watt said.
Cichy also stated, “You can expect an aggressive mentality. We really want to stop the run especially the first game. We really want to impose our will on the other teams.”
The Badger linebackers will have the opportunity to do just that on Saturday when they work to stop leading LSU running back Fournette. Under the leadership of Wilcox, as well as former Badger and new secondary coach Jim Leonard, the Wisconsin linebacking unit will be able to make some big plays on Saturday. Plan to see a lot of action on the outside from Biegel and Watt.
Wisconsin’s defense lost several key defensive backs prior to the start of this season. Safeties Mike Caputo and Tanner McEvoy and cornerback Darius Hillary graduated Wisconsin and left to pursue careers in the NFL this past spring. To replace the departed players, senior Sojourn Shelton and junior Derrick Tindal will start at cornerback and junior D’Cota Dixon and senior Leo Musso will start at strong safety and free safety respectively.
Chryst and Leonard both are confident in the ability of the defensive backs to make plays Saturday and stop LSU’s running and passing game. The unit’s experience will make them confident and consistent in their playing ability come Saturday.
In his three seasons with the Badgers Musso recorded 34 tackles and three interceptions, and Dixon had 19 tackles in two seasons. Shelton recorded 20 pass breakups and five interceptions in his three seasons as a Badger, and Tindal had 42 tackles and six pass breakups in his two seasons. Experience on the Wisconsin defense and preparation throughout spring ball, summer training and fall camp will lead to success for the defensive backs even playing against a top-ranked offense in LSU.
“They are a great offense,” Musso said of LSU after Wednesday’s practice. “They’ve got great players everywhere. It’s just one of those things where it is still a football game, and we’ve got to prepare the way we do for every other team.”
The biggest strength Musso saw in his defensive backs was “how well we connect with one another and how well we communicate and just have fun out there and fly around and play fast physical defense.”
Despite changes made both in the players and in the coaching staff, the Wisconsin defense is expected to see much of the same as that of the past—fast, physical, aggressive defense.