Editor’s Note: In advance of Wisconsin kicking off its 2016 spring practice schedule Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, The Daily Cardinal’s football preview package takes a look at what the Badgers’ focuses will be, positional battles and players to watch. The offense overview can be found here, and the special teams overview here.
With a Justin Wilcox taking over for the Wisconsin Badgers, spring practice provides an opportunity for every player to show the new defensive coordinator what they can offer him on this defense. Game tape will show him plenty about returning starters, but these upcoming practices will be a major opportunity for the players who couldn’t crack the lineup in 2015.
As Wilcox builds his UW defense, it starts up front. The Badgers are fortunate to be bringing back almost the entire defensive line group from 2015, a budding, young unit looking to take the next step. They did suffer a big loss, as redshirt junior-turning-senior lineman Arthur Goldberg stepped away from the team because of recurring head injuries.
The versatile veteran missed much of the latter half of last season with injuries, so the team is prepared to move on without him. The loss of Goldberg puts more pressure on the pair of redshirt junior defensive ends, Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. Wilcox doesn’t rotate his defensive linemen as much as Dave Aranda did, so those two along with junior nose tackle Conor Sheehy will be asked to hold down the position.
Schematically, they won’t be asked to do anything too different than they did with Aranda, they will just have to do those same things a bit more. Of course, it’s no guarantee that those three are the starters when Wisconsin heads to Lambeau Field to face LSU in September. Obasih, James and Sheehy are just the most experienced at this point.
Versatile redshirt junior T.J. Watt and sophomore nose tackle Olive Sagapolu will certainly be in the mix. Watt will most likely end up playing both defensive end and outside linebacker, as he did last season. Wilcox, like Aranda, likes to stand up his defensive ends at times to give opposing offenses different fronts to figure out.
Sagapolu really struggled initially as a freshman last season, but he came into his own as the year went on, and it’s not out of the question that he could beat Sheehy for the starting spot inside. It’s important to note that neither will be pure nose tackles as Wilcox has a history of shifting lineman around to different techniques on the interior.
Redshirt sophomores Zander Neuville, Billy Hirschfeld and Jeremy Patterson should also be in the competition for some rotational snaps, as well as redshirt junior Garret Dooley, who offers versatility similar to Watt.
Wilcox’s defense relies on the big men in the trenches to fill the proper lanes and allow the linebackers behind them to flow in and make the play. Inside linebacker was the ultimate learn-on-the-job position for Wisconsin last season as then-redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards took his first career snaps week one against Alabama. Later in the season, it was true freshman Chris Orr who took over next to him, and the two inside ‘backers grew together as the year went on.
With full seasons under their belts, Edwards and Orr enter spring training with experience and an opportunity to improve even more. Senior Leon Jacobs is switching over to running back, so the young inside linebackers aren’t facing much competition for snaps.
Both men are ready to take the next step and establish themselves as the great, young inside linebackers they are capable of becoming, and it’s not likely redshirt junior Keelon Brookins nor sophomores Nick Thomas and Ty DeForest will find much playing time this season, barring injury.
What will help Orr and Edwards grow is the group the Badgers bring back at outside linebacker. The loss of Joe Schobert will not be easy to overcome, but UW did get a glimpse of what may be coming at the position during the Holiday Bowl, when redshirt junior Jack Cichy racked up three sacks on three consecutive plays.
He is the natural heir to the NFL-bound Schobert, and he already has given Badger fans a reason to be excited for him. T.J. Watt could also be in the mix here if Wilcox likes him better at linebacker than defensive line, but more than likely it’s going to be Cichy and redshirt senior Vince Biegel getting after the quarterback.
Cichy could be in for an even bigger role than just replacing Schobert. At each of his last two coaching spots, Wilcox had an outside linebacker who played almost as a hybrid safety, lining up pretty much everywhere but free safety. At USC, he had Su’a Cravens, and at Washington he had Shaq Thompson, both of whom will be playing in the NFL next season.
Cichy might have the best coverage skills of the outside linebackers on the Wisconsin roster in addition to his natural pass rushing ability, so if any of those guys can step into this role, it’s the redshirt junior. However, there is a wildcard for this hybrid safety role.
Junior D’Cota Dixon played cornerback in high school before coming to the Badgers as an inside linebacker and converting to safety for this past season. He has the versatility and skillset to play the Cravens role, although he may be a little bit undersized. That is a weakness he makes up for with his aggressive style of play, a shared trait with Cravens and Thompson.
Dixon could also be in the mix for the starting strong safety spot, so his future will depend on how Wilcox wants to use him. Both he and Cichy have the potential to be powerful weapons, regardless of where they line up. They are two high-character, high-effort players who will do whatever is asked of them.
The questions surrounding Dixon’s eventual landing spot make the safety position a hard one to lock down. Wilcox’s defense runs similar coverages to what Aranda ran in 2015, with a lot of Cover-1 and Cover-3, so there is a stark difference in the roles of the free and strong safeties. The FS is frequently asked to be the single-deep zone, while the SS covers underneath, often in man-to-man.
Losing both Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy means two new starters will step into these roles, and safety should provide one of the closest battles to watch at spring practice. Redshirt senior Leo Musso brings the most experience, and he should at the top of the list at free safety. Outside of him, things are quite unclear.
Dixon may be at the front of the line at strong safety, but if he takes the hybrid role, Wilcox may put someone else as the true starting SS. Redshirt junior Joe Ferguson, junior Lubern Figaro, redshirt sophomore Evan Bondoc and sophomore Arrington Farrar should all be in the conversation for both spots.
Figaro and Farrar have the coverage skills to compete at either spot, while Ferguson and Bondoc look to be primarily strong safeties. Both spots are wide open at this point, and any of these guys could easily have a big showing and step into the starting role in 2016.
There are some similar questions about where players fit at cornerback. Figaro played the position in the past, so he could move back there as well, but the loss of Darius Hillary opens up a starting spot.
Senior Sojourn Shelton will have one side locked down, but the other spot will likely be filled by a junior cornerback, either Derrick Tindal or Natrell Jamerson. Both players lined up in both the slot and on the outside last season as Aranda rotated Hillary around, and Wilcox could see one of them as a better fit on the outside than the other.
The hybrid linebacker-safety took on a lot of the slot coverage snaps in Wilcox’s previous defenses, and both outside corners would rotate inside sometimes too. Whoever wins the other starting spot in the Wisconsin defense will take on a much bigger role than they have in the past, and they will be put on an island in one-on-one coverage the majority of the time.
That is an area Shelton is more than competent in, but it remains to be seen how Tindal and Jamerson will handle those duties. Both are capable of winning the job, and their performance at every single practice will likely be scrutinized by this coaching staff.
There is a lot of pressure on all members of the Badgers’ defense as they try to impress the new man calling the shots. Justin Wilcox brings a similar style to Dave Aranda, so it’s not going to be anything too foreign for a lot of these players, but the learning curve could be a big factor in determining who gets playing time.
Spring practices will provide a glimpse of what this defense will look like for the 2016 season, but as always, we won’t quite know what to expect for sure until they suit up in September.