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Monday, August 15, 2022
defense

Football: Safety battle highlights spring practice for defense

Last season, Wisconsin made the smooth transition to a 3-4 defense under head coach Gary Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.

After losing standout linebacker and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland, linebacker Ethan Armstrong and safety Dezmen Southward, among others, spring practice has largely been an attempt to fill those holes on defense and reproduce 2013’s success.

Safeties

On the defensive side of the ball, no position battle offers more intrigue than the one going on at safety.

With redshirt senior Michael Trotter moving to linebacker and redshirt junior Tanner McEvoy making the move to quarterback this spring, four players are left vying for the two starting spots on the depth chart.

Safeties coach Bill Busch has already stated that redshirt junior Michael Caputo, who ranked second on the team last year with 63 total tackles, will be the starter at strong safety. Caputo, selected by the media as a 2013 All-Big Ten honorable mention, briefly made a switch to linebacker earlier in spring practice, but has returned to safety and will provide veteran leadership.

Redshirt sophomore Leo Musso has been taking first-team reps and is projected as the other starter for UW.

However, redshirt senior Peniel Jean and freshman Austin Hudson have taken second-team reps throughout spring practice and figure to be in the mix, along with redshirt sophomore Nate Hammon.

The position has seen a lot of changes over the offseason, with Jean moving from cornerback to safety, redshirt junior A.J. Jordan making the switch from wide receiver to safety, and redshirt sophomore Vonte Jackson switching from running back to safety after suffering three torn ACLs in less than two years.

There’s even a chance that McEvoy could be moved back to free safety if he loses the quarterback battle, so the fight for this starting spot on the depth chart is far from over.

Cornerbacks

Unlike at safety, there is not an intense position battle at cornerback for the Wisconsin Badgers.

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UW returns both of its top two cornerbacks from 2013, sophomore Sojourn Shelton and redshirt junior Darius Hillary.

Shelton was a key player for the Badgers’ secondary as a true freshman last season, recording 30 tackles and four interceptions in his 11 starts. For his efforts, Shelton was named an All-Big Ten honorable mention by the media. Hillary started all 13 games for Wisconsin last year, recording 30 tackles and one interception.

The Badgers are still looking for a viable third option in case Shelton or Hillary goes down. Their best bet might be redshirt junior Devin Gaulden, who is playing with a chip on his shoulder after missing nearly two full seasons as a result of an ACL injury in September 2012 and several setbacks during his recovery.

Special teams

Heading into his first season with the Badgers, special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk’s biggest priority will be choosing a kicker that will bring consistency to the position, something that certainly wasn’t the case in 2013.

Junior Jack Russell took over for a struggling Kyle French midway through the season, and was able to settle down after a rough start.

Russell went 9-for-13 on field goals, including a career-long 48-yarder against Penn State. However, there are still questions about his leg strength and overall consistency, so he will face tough competition from sophomore Andrew Endicott and strong-legged freshman Rafael Gaglianone.

After being named a consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2012, redshirt junior punter Drew Meyer couldn’t quite maintain that level of success last season, though he still will be the starter and will look to bounce back in 2014.

Senior wide receiver Kenzel Doe will return punts and kicks for the Badgers, after averaging 7.2 yards per punt return in 2013 to go along with a 91-yard kick return touchdown in the Capital One Bowl.

Wisconsin will need to find a viable second option for kick returns, however, otherwise teams will try to avoid Doe at any cost.

Defensive line

Following the departure of the senior-heavy defensive line, the second year of Wisconsin’s 3-4 scheme will feature a variety of new faces. Primary starters Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Pat Muldoon and top backup Tyler Dippel have all left.

However, the line will not be full of inexperienced underclassmen. Redshirt senior defensive end Konrad Zagzebski and redshirt senior nose guard Warren Herring both played in all 13 games last season.

Zagzebski recorded 19 total tackles as well as two tackles for loss. He also made three starts. He is roughly the same weight as his predecessors Hemer and Muldoon, maintaining cohesiveness off the edge.

Herring started one game last season and recorded impressive numbers. Among his 17 tackles, six were for loss. He also tied for second on the team with four sacks.

The final starting spot on the line, however, is where it gets murky. Aranda could opt to go with either redshirt junior James Adeyanju or redshirt junior Jake Keefer, though the two players offer just a combined 10 games of experience.

Another option would be to go with one of three redshirt freshmen—Garret Dooley, Alec James or Chikwe Obasih. All were labeled four-star recruits by either ESPN or Rivals. However, all three are currently undersized—Obasih is the heaviest right now at 245 pounds.

Linebackers

Like the defensive line, the linebacker corps is full of holes after Armstrong, Borland, Brendan Kelly and Conor O’Neill all left Wisconsin.

Senior inside linebacker Derek Landisch will transition smoothly into the starting lineup. He started two games last season and led all backups with 33 tackles, two of which were for loss.

Joining him on the inside will be junior Joe Schobert. He appeared in 13 games and made 24 tackles, also showing an ability to excel in pass coverage, deflecting three passes last season.

Redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Vince Biegel appears ready for a big role next fall. In 13 games last season, Biegel made 25 tackles with two sacks. Though he played a limited role, the Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., native occasionally displayed the ability that made him a unanimous four-star recruit out of high school.

While redshirt senior Marcus Trotter has always been a linebacker, his twin brother Michael is making the transition from safety this spring. Despite playing in only five games last season, Marcus made a major impact against Illinois while filling in for an injured Borland. In that game, he tallied nine tackles and recovered a fumble. Meanwhile, it is unclear whether Michael will play on the inside or outside.

With inexperience at the outside spot opposite Biegel, the coaches will likely ask their players to remain versatile to fill in where needed.

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