Tone setters: Wisconsin's experienced defensive line anchors team on and off the field

Defensive end Chikwe Obashi and Alec James have helped to lead Wisconsin's defense both on the field and in the locker room. 

Image By: Owen Desai

Mid-interview, Chikwe Obasih starts peeling the tape from around his hand, decompressing from the humid August practice he finished minutes earlier.

He balls up the tape in his hand and does his best Alex Hornibrook impression, winding up and nailing Alec James in the side of the head, who is in the middle of his own interview with a television camera in his face.

They exchange glances, have a good laugh and then get right back to business.

This is the type of relationship the Wisconsin Badgers’ defensive line has built going into their fourth year together.

“We’re a bunch of brothers,” Obasih said, right before throwing the tape ball. “Just making fun of each other, having fun and then doing what needs to get done.”

Obasih and James have been brothers dating back to middle school. Both defensive linemen grew up playing football in Brookfield, WI, ultimately starring at rival high schools before coming together in Madison.

“I always felt like I had to catch up to him,” Obasih said. “He’s the one who started on varsity as a freshman. It felt kind of good, having a rival and a school that close to try and get yourself better.”

They were the top two recruits in the state following their senior seasons. Both committed to the Badgers and started their college careers with a redshirt season in 2013. Obasih hasn’t missed a game since, while James missed two over the last three seasons.

“Being close off the field and talking about things like how games went and how practice went afterwards, back at home, I think it helps a lot,” Obasih said. “You get a sense of support. It’s like, it’s not just you toughing it out on your own.”

Toughing it out is the name of the game for the defensive line in the Badgers’ scheme. They do the dirty work, which makes everyone else’s job easier.

In the running game, that means winning at the point of attack, occupying a rushing lane and forcing the running back into the arms of a linebacker who had a clean path to the ball-carrier.

As pass rushers, that means occupying the interior blockers so the edge rushers get one-on-one matchups, while trying to collapse the pocket vertically to limit the quarterback’s space.

Wisconsin defensive linemen don’t get the glory of double-digit sack totals. They don’t often get recognition for making a big third-down stop. The Jack Cichy’s and T.J. Watt’s get the headlines, but UW’s experienced linemen take pride in flying under the radar.

“As long as I’m doing my job and we’re not getting hit in my gap or his gap, then we’re taking care of our stuff up front,” James said. “The biggest thing for us is just focusing on technique each day, the little things we can get better at just to help the defense as a whole.”

Satisfaction for them doesn’t come from any individual accomplishments. Instead UW’s defensive line group preaches selflessness and personal responsibility. They find motivation and excitement in their success as a defense.

“We just look at it as doing our jobs,” James said. “If one of us makes a great play, I’ll say something to them, but we just try not to be satisfied.”

That mentality sets the tone for the entire defense. But Obasih and James are not the only experienced Badger defensive lineman. In 2014, Conor Sheehy was added to the mix as a true freshman out of Milwaukee, and the Badgers planted the seeds of a formidable defensive line. Three years of linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties have come and gone, but it’s been Obasih, James and Sheehy holding down the line of scrimmage that have remained constant through three defensive coordinators.

Their consistent plays lets the freshman making his first start know that this is the standard for a player in the Wisconsin defense. And it reminds the other seniors of how they’re are supposed to handle their business from play to play.

“You always want to lead by example,” Sheehy said. “Everybody handles their own business and goes about doing their own thing, but we all keep each other in check.”

This defense will only get 13 more games out of their starters on the line, but the hope from UW’s coaches is that the example they set will leave a lasting impression on the younger players up front who will be handed the reins next season and beyond.

The next generation of Badgers defensive linemen got their feet wet in 2016, and junior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu will be back to set the tone.

Garrett Rand appeared in 13 games last season as a true freshman, and junior Billy Hirschfield started to crack the rotation too.

Then there’s Isaiahh Loudermilk. The 6-foot-7, 306-pound athletic freak who redshirted last season. Loudermilk is looking to earn playing time as he adjusts to the Division-I level after playing eight-man football in high school.

Obasih is confident that the future is in good hands.

“I can see them really getting better and taking the next step up,” he said. “Billy Hirschfield has made huge strides, and it’s kind of been quiet because Isaiahh [Loudermilk] made a pretty big jump this past spring, but Billy is within his own, and he can play significant snaps this season.”

“Once we’re out, expect him to do really great things. Isaiahh and Garrett Rand are taking great steps, and Olive [Sagapolu] is going to be the leader of that group.”

Hirschfield and Loudermilk might not quite build the special connection that Obaish and James have, but come 2018, you can bet there will still be a tape ball or two hitting one of them in the face during an interview.

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