MADISON — The defensive line is the inarguable backbone of the defense. Without adequate pressure on the passer, it means more work for the secondary. Without enough physicality applied to the offensive line, there are less gaps for linebackers to exploit.

Without a productive defensive line, you’ve got a noticeably poorer defense.

Competing among the Big Ten’s signature grit and grind, an elite front seven will have perhaps a larger impact among those teams than it will in any other conference. As such, 2018’s spring practices have provided valuable time to build the strength in camaraderie and technique all too important to establishing a formidable defensive line. On a surface level, the defensive line is all about facilitating production for the rest of the defense, at least according to nose tackle Olive Sagapolu.

“It’s about trusting the guy next to you, we rely on each other. Without us, the guys in the back aren’t able to make their plays,” Sagapolu said.

Building off of that, such an organic process is impossible without what Sagapolu calls “fanatical effort.” Sagapolu cited the phrase a number of times during our conversation. Essentially, that effort has to stem from an innate obsession with the game.

Football means everything to these guys, and it shows.

“This is what we live for, this is what we do,” Sagapolu said. “This is what all the summer and spring conditioning is all about.”

His words are far from the empty platitudes they’re so generally associated with, as he continued to speak to the energy and engagement younger players have demonstrated so far in spring practices. He emphasized that younger linemen don’t just want to compete, they want their role on this defense to be known, and known clearly. Spring practice has been an incredible opportunity to both foster that confidence and build a strong relationship among linemen.

Defenses generally work together as a tight-knit group, and that intimacy is only accentuated among the defensive line. Defensive end Garrett Rand made sure to mention it takes a certain breed of athlete to thrive on the line — players must display mental strength as much as they display physical strength. He went on to highlight that the competitive spirit doesn’t take breaks in the same way players do. Each play is a prime opportunity to embrace that spirit openly. Rand used any arbitrary play or drill to drive his point home. He said seeing anyone succeed at his position makes him want to improve that much more, and that virtue is far from exclusive to his attitude.

Sagapolu bolstered Rand’s claim, motioning to the defensive backs working drills behind him well after practice had concluded.

There’s an atmosphere of dedication and drive here, even if spring practices are far removed from the regular season.