Going into Saturday's 2009 season opener against Northern Illinois with five first-time defensive starters isn't much of a concern for Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren. As a matter of fact, it's not even a blip on his radar screen of concerns.
""I don't think it matters that it's their first start,"" Doeren said. ""We expect those guys to play like they practice, and they practice hard every day.""
After a disappointing 2008 campaign marred by key injuries and erratic play on both sides of the ball, Wisconsin will enter Saturday's opener with a revamped defense to match its updated offense.
Aside from the surprising rise of junior Scott Tolzien to the top of the quarterback depth chart and the departure of star tight end Travis Beckum, the offense remains full of familiar faces from last season.
The defense, however, is a different story. Of the five defensive players making their starting debut Saturday, three are part of a new-look defensive line that only returns senior defensive end O'Brien Schofield.
Seniors Jeff Stehle and Dan Moore are expected to step in at defensive tackle to form a burly quartet boasting an average weight of 282 pounds, almost a 25-pound increase from last year's defensive line.
The front four will be busy Saturday as they try to contain NIU's dual threat quarterback Chandler Harnish. The speedy sophomore rushed for 539 yards in 2008 and added 1,528 yards through the air to lead the Huskies to a 6-7 record and a spot in the Independence Bowl.
""[Harnish] has got speed, he can run and he can throw,"" senior linebacker Jaevery McFadden said. ""He can do it all, so we're just going to have to throw some different looks at him.""
Doeren added that stopping Harnish starts with attentive defense.
""Obviously we have to know where he is as far as containing him when he drops back. And then on his movement—his sprint-outs and bootlegs—making sure we've got the edges of our defense down,"" Doeren said.
Ultimately, keeping Harnish under control will require a solid performance from a Wisconsin linebacker corps also sporting a different look from last season. McFadden is the sole returning starter after leading the team in tackles last season, and joining him will be freshman Mike Taylor and junior Culmer St. Jean.
St. Jean is expected to split time with fellow junior Blake Sorensen at middle linebacker, and freshman Chris Borland will also see some action playing behind Taylor.
Hard-hitting safeties Jay Valai and Chris Maragos are the heart and soul of the secondary, and redshirt sophomore cornerback Aaron Henry will bolster the team's pass coverage after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Sophomore cornerback Devin Smith will make his first career start opposite Henry after playing in 11 games in 2008, mostly on special teams.
Valai acknowledged the relative youth of this year's defensive unit but believes the lack of experience has only motivated the team to work harder.
""Everyone was young at one point,"" Valai said. ""You've got to get ready to play and everybody's hungry to make a name for themselves, so we're going to be ready on Saturday.""
Though most eyes in Camp Randall Stadium will be on Tolzien as he makes his debut Saturday, Valai and the renovated defense are eager to show Badger fans there is plenty to be excited about in this year's team.
""Basically we're going to go out there and cause havoc, that's our main thing—to go out there and be aggressive.""