Who Will Lead Wisconsin’s Defense?

Who Will Lead Wisconsin's Defense?
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The Wisconsin Badgers defense has provided the backbone of the program over the last decade. JJ Watt. Joe Schobert. TJ Edwards. Chris Orr. They’re all examples of guys who guided the Badgers as they’ve ascended to nationally admired units. Under defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, they’ve continued to take the leap forward. In five of the last six years, Wisconsin has ranked in the top ten in the country for total defense. For the 2021 season, expectations of that remain steadfast. Who will lead Wisconsin’s Defense?

The Badgers return one of the most experienced defensive units in the Big Ten. Couple that with a loaded amount of returnees led by QB Graham Mertz, and the Badgers find themselves as heavy favorites to come out of the West Division. In fact, they received 29 of the 34 first-place votes in a recent preseason poll.

While you can expect defenses led by Leonhard, who’s now in his fifth season as defensive coordinator, to be well-coached, aggressive, and generally stout, what can we make of this year’s unit?

Let’s take a look.

Bevy Of Experience

Returning all but 3 starters, this group is one of the eldest units in all of college football. Moreover, seven of the presumptive starters are redshirt seniors. Bolstered by the announced returns of key playmakers like inside linebacker Jack Sanborn, and top cornerbacks Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams give this group plenty of leadership throughout its ranks. What this group lacks in true star power in its experienced leaders, it makes up for with big-game experience, cohesion, and elite team defense. They know Leonhard’s system in and out and can be trusted to be positionally sound, aggressive when needed, and smart playmakers.

However, experience alone will not win you games. Previous Badger teams have had similar intangibles and still fell short. What can separate this group?

Uber Talented Underclassmen

While the defense is loaded with seniors, they still carry a hefty amount of talented underclassmen. Many of whom have seen real and important game action. First and most prominent, Nick Herbig. The sophomore edge rusher from Hawaii tied for the team lead in tackles for loss, and registered a sack, fumble recovery, and pass deflection as well. The star ability is there, but he isn’t alone. Junior inside linebacker Leo Chenal solidified himself with Sanborn to create a fierce-some duo in the middle of the defense. Registering top 2 marks on the team in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks, Chenal is a proven playmaker for the Badgers.

Growth is needed elsewhere though. For example, the defensive line. Junior defensive tackle Keeanu Benton led a stout run defense within the interior, but the unit struggled elsewhere. In particular, sustaining pressure on the quarterback in obvious passing downs. For this defense to be complete, this has to change. Benton and fellow junior Isaiah Mullens need to take the next step to alleviate edge rushers like Herbig. Their ability to eat space in the middle is vital to the defense. This will prevent double teams, and allow for Coach Leonhard to vary his play-calling, disguise coverages, and keep opposing offenses off-balance. Look for that early in the season, as it will be telling for the future of the Badgers.

Impact Freshmen

With the number of experienced starters on the defensive side of the ball returning, it’s hard to expect many freshmen to make an immediate impact. Exceptions might be in store for a few though. As part of a record-breaking recruiting class, freak athlete and edge rusher TJ Bollers, and in-state stud Hunter Wohler both look the part of immediate playmakers. If they’re ready to go, this defense could push this team a notch higher, which is vital when chasing a Big Ten championship.

Who Leads this Defense?

The Wisconsin defense has a great mix. Loads of experience, talented rising playmakers, and great depth thanks to another ceiling-raising recruiting class. With the leadership and big-game experience of guys like Jack Sanborn, Caesar Williams, and Faion Hicks, coupled with talents like Nick Herbig and Keeanu Benton, the potential is high. As for who will lead them, it might not just be one or two people.

With this group, they might just lead together.