Can Wisconsin successfully replace its front seven?
A major contributing factor to Gary Andersen’s successful debut season in Madison was the veteran leadership on defense. Talented players like Chris Borland, Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer helped make the transition to Andersen’s 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
The defense as a whole had success in 2013, ranking sixth in scoring defense, seventh in total defense, fifth in rushing defense and 17th in passing defense.
However, it was UW’s run defense that was especially stifling. Each of Wisconsin’s 13 opponents recorded fewer rushing yards against the Badgers than their per-game season averages and Penn State’s Zach Zwinak was the only player to run for more than 100 yards against UW last season.
Wisconsin will be forced to overcome losses in its defensive personnel, as eight players in the front seven departed after the 2013 season. This leaves Aranda with a projected front seven that has a combined total of just 12 starts between them.
Though there are many questions surrounding this somewhat untested group, the Badgers do return several players that were contributors on defense last year.
Senior inside linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch are both expected to be playmakers on defense in 2014, and Trotter even led the team in tackles in two games last season while filling in for an injured Borland.
Other potential key players include redshirt senior nose guard Warren Herring (who recorded four sacks while playing behind Allen last year), redshirt senior lineman Konrad Zagzebski, redshirt sophomore nose guard Arthur Goldberg and redshirt freshman defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Alec James.
This group may not have the experience that players like Borland, Allen and Hemer brought to the table, but unlike them, they will take the field as starters with a year of experience in Andersen’s scheme under their belts.
The Wisconsin run defense may not rank as highly as it did in 2013, but there’s no reason to expect a steep drop-off in 2014.
Will returning experience make the secondary a strength?
Unlike the front seven, the UW secondary didn’t experience a lot of turnover following the 2013 season.
Safety Dezmen Southward is gone to the NFL and will be missed, but he is the only significant loss to the secondary. Redshirt junior safety Michael Caputo returns along with cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary to give experience to the defensive backfield.
Caputo was one of Wisconsin’s best surprises in 2013, earning an All-Big Ten honorable mention from the media after starting 12 games and playing in all 13 of the Badgers’ contests.
Meanwhile, Shelton was a breakout star in his freshman season for UW.
Shelton, who also earned an All-Big Ten honorable mention selection from the media, led the team and was tied for third in the conference with four interceptions. That total was also third highest among all true freshmen in the country, and the second most by a freshman in UW history.
Replacing Southward as a starter at safety will be true freshman Lubern Figaro, but redshirt senior Peniel Jean, redshirt sophomore Leo Musso and freshman Austin Hudson are all expected to see some playing time as well.
Figaro, a mostly unheralded recruit from Everett, Mass., has stood out above the rest throughout the spring and could end up being a major playmaker for the Badgers if he continues to progress.
In recent years, the secondary hasn’t really been Wisconsin’s strong suit on defense, even in 2013. Shelton certainly was a breakout star for the Badgers last year, but he did make his fair share of mistakes like any freshman. This included a crucial dropped interception near the end of the first half against Ohio State, which allowed the Buckeyes to score a touchdown on the very next play and take a momentum swing into halftime.
But the defensive backfield is now more experienced and has plenty of depth, so expect it to shine in 2014.
How can the Badgers fill the void of Chris Borland?
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Dave Aranda and the Wisconsin defense in 2014 is finding a way to replace linebacker Chris Borland.
Borland was the Badgers’ undisputed leader on defense last season and was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He also set a Big Ten record by forcing 15 fumbles during his career at UW, which is also the second-highest total in FBS history.
Needless to say, Borland left big shoes to fill in Madison, and it’s unreasonable to expect any single player to step in and replace him.
That being said, Wisconsin will look to get a combined effort at linebacker to make up for the void in production left by Borland’s departure.
Senior Derek Landisch, UW’s top returning tackler at linebacker, will start on the inside along with fellow redshirt senior Marcus Trotter.
When Borland missed two games last year with a hamstring injury, it was Trotter who filled in admirably. He led the team in tackles against both Illinois and Iowa, recording 18 total tackles in these games. To put that into perspective, Trotter had made 14 tackles in his entire collegiate career before Borland’s injury.
But now Trotter and Landisch will lead the way at inside linebacker, while junior Joe Schobert and redshirt sophomore Vince Biegel will sit atop the depth chart at outside linebacker.
Schobert and Biegel will play an essential role in Aranda’s defense, as the 3-4 scheme gives outside linebackers plenty of opportunities to wreak havoc in the opponent’s backfield. The Badgers haven’t been particularly good at creating turnovers over the past two seasons, finishing tied for last in the Big Ten in turnovers per game in 2012 and eighth in 2013, so it will be key for these two to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and cause mistakes.
It will take a group effort to pick up the slack left by the departure of Borland, a player that comes around maybe once a decade, but the Badgers are confident they have the talent at linebacker to still be effective at the position.