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2022 in review: Evaluating Wisconsin’s defensive starters

An analysis of each defensive player’s individual performance throughout Wisconsin’s 2022 campaign.

After a season full of changes and new developments, the Wisconsin Badgers finished 2022 with a 6-6 record (4-5 in Big Ten). Fielding a catalog of new starters after graduating so many seniors in 2021, the Badgers suffered from maddening inconsistencies at times in all three phases of the game. 

Overshadowing their on-field successes and failures, however, was the future direction of the program. Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard became interim head coach after a 2-3 start prompted Paul Chryst’s firing

Widespread speculation and reports indicated Leonhard would be named head coach following the regular season, but the university surprisingly hired Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell. With hope, Fickell will elevate Wisconsin’s recruitment efforts and make Madison an attractive transfer destination, both of which will revive the Badgers as contenders in the Big Ten. 

Still, in reflecting on the 2022 campaign, it’s important to evaluate key starters’ contributions and consider their roles going forward, if any. Let’s continue with the defense.

Note: All statistics cover the 12 regular-season games and do not include the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.

OLB | Nick Herbig | Jr.

11 sacks | 47 tackles | 15.5 TFL | 2 FF 

Nick Herbig was Wisconsin’s best player in 2022, spearheading a defensive unit that lost over 50% of its starters from the previous season. 

The outside linebacker began his season with a bang, recording two sacks against the Illinois State Redbirds in the opener.

Herbig arguably had his best game in a crushing loss to Iowa, where he had three sacks while forcing a fumble as well on a strip-sack.

With his efforts, Herbig was awarded a deserved All-Big Ten first-team selection in 2022, alongside outside linebackers Tommy Eichenberg and Jack Campbell.

Outside of Herbig, Wisconsin couldn’t field a consistent pass rush. Opposing offenses devoted even more attention to stopping him — which he still succeeded against.

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Herbig isn’t a great run defender, which will likely lower his draft stock in the 2023 NFL Draft, but he joins a strong brotherhood of Wisconsin pass-rushers to go to the next level.

DE | James Thompson Jr. | R-So.

2 sacks | 22 tackles | 6.5 TFL | 1 FR

James Thompson Jr. was a regular backup for the first half of the season but stepped into the starting lineup after Isaiah Mullens suffered a leg injury that cost him the entire second half of the year.

With increased playing time, Thompson began to flash, recording at least 0.5 tackles for loss in six of Wisconsin’s final seven games while utilizing his lengthy 6-foot-7-inch, 290-pound frame to disrupt on the inside.

Thompson is certainly raw as a player, especially on the pass-rushing side, but showcased his athleticism and ability to get into the backfield on several occasions. His greatest contributions may not show up on the stat sheet, but Thompson provides enthusiasm heading into 2023, where he can step into a more consistent role.

Like Herbig in 2021, Thompson should focus on his finishing ability. Thompson’s surprising athleticism for a player of his size brought intrigue to the Wisconsin defense over the last weeks of the season, which was an attribute that drew consistent praise from Leonhard in his weekly pressers.

DT | Keeanu Benton | Sr.

4.5 sacks | 36 tackles | 10 TFL | 2 PD

Keeanu Benton was arguably the most underrated player in the Big Ten this season, at least in the eyes of the voters for the All-Big Ten teams.

Benton was the heart of the defensive line, serving as an effective space-eater in the middle of the defensive line while really breaking out as a complete player in 2023.

The 6-foot-4-inch defensive lineman was the player most hurt by stat sheets on the Badgers, as his presence is much greater than the numbers indicate.

Benton consistently got in the backfield — be it as a pass-rusher, but more so as a run-defender — displaying a combination of sheer power and athleticism unique for a nose tackle.

Benton still has untapped potential as a pass-rusher, which could make him more than a two-down player at the next level.

With the amount of turnover on this Badgers team, Benton had to become a leader, getting out of his normal nature by becoming more vocal. This change reflected on the entire team, according to Leonhard, capping off an impressive season both on and off the field.

DE | Rodas Johnson | R-Jr.

1 sack | 23 tackles | 6 TFL | 2 PD

Like Thompson, Rodas Johnson was a pleasant breakout on the defensive line for the Badgers in 2022. 

Taking on an expanded role alongside Benton and Herbig, Johnson was a key reason why the defense elevated as the season progressed, being a disruptor against Nebraska and Iowa.

Johnson began the season by showing out in training camp and followed with an impactful 2022 season. He should be a top returner in the unit if he comes back for another season, as is expected.

Johnson’s athleticism was showcased in 2022 on several instances, but the defensive end will need to add more discipline as a run-defender when securing the edge to avoid being in the wrong spot and allowing substantial gains on the ground. 

But, Johnson was a pleasant addition to the defensive line that desperately needed production outside of Benton and Herbig, especially with a disappointing year from Mullens.

OLB | C.J. Goetz | R-Sr.

2 sacks | 62 tackles | 8 TFL | 2 PD

C.J. Goetz became a first-year starter in his fifth season with the Badgers and delivered enough to retain that role for the entire year.

Goetz fit with the defensive line as a quality run defender while exhibiting consistent hustle on the edge.

Goetz never became a strong pass-rusher but found himself around the ball, as seen with his 62 tackles, which ranked third on the team.

Coming into the season, Goetz had a wealth of experience with 33 games — but just one start under his belt. This caused a slower start to the season, but the redshirt senior improved as the year went on in what could be his last with the program.

LB | Maema Njongmeta | R-Jr.

3.5 sacks | 95 tackles | 12.5 TFL | 1 INT 

Like many others, Njongmeta was a first-year starter for the Badgers, and he had tough shoes to fill after Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal departed for the NFL Draft.

Njongmeta was never great in coverage this season but found his way to the ball with his athleticism, racking up a team-high 95 tackles.

He impressed with nearly four sacks via well-timed linebacker blitzes, as Leonhard looked to play to Njongmeta’s strengths.

Njongmeta had a slower start to the season, being inconsistent with the angles he took in the running game, as well as his tackling. Yet, Njongmeta progressed as the year continued to become more of a full-time starter rather than a rotational piece, which led him to earn an honorable mention for the All-Big Ten teams.

He’ll likely resume his role in 2023 as a starting linebacker, assuming he remains with the team, where he’ll look to grow to become a more well-rounded player.

LB | Jordan Turner | R-So.

2 sacks | 65 tackles | 5 TFL | 1 FF | 1 INT

Jordan Turner won the starting job after a training camp battle with players like Jake Chaney and Tatum Grass, but it was more of a timeshare to begin the season, with Chaney even impressing more at times.

However, Turner’s athleticism benefitted him as the season went on, especially during linebacker blitzes, which helped him maintain a significant role in the defense.

Turner was a liability in coverage for the majority of the season, as teams would pick on him with routes over the middle to further their offensive momentum.

He was also raw mentally, taking inconsistent angles in the running game, which led to some lapses on the backend as well.

But, Turner grew as the season went on, which led to him winning defensive MVP in the team’s bowl game with a team-high eight tackles.

Turner will look to grow next season as the potential starter opposite Njongmeta after an up-and-down first year as a starter.

CB | Alexander Smith | R-Sr.

17 tackles | 2 TFL | 2 PD

Top cornerback Alexander Smith experienced a setback prior to the season, suffering a hamstring injury that kept him out for the first eight weeks.

There was a clear difference in the play of the cornerbacks with and without Smith, who, by far, was Wisconsin’s best cornerback in 2022.

Smith’s 5-foot-11-inch, 185-pound frame allowed him to match up well against most opposing receivers. The redshirt senior limited explosive plays, which was a commonality against fellow corners Jay Shaw and Ricardo Hallman.

Smith also fit fairly well in run defense, although his lack of size hurt him at times in the ground game.

The cornerback has decided to return for a sixth season in 2022, which will be vital to a group of players that will lose three key rotational pieces from this year.

CB | Jay Shaw | 6th-Sr.

36 tackles | 1 TFL | 2 INT | 6 PD

Shaw transferred from UCLA for his final season of college eligibility and was expected to be a vital part of the Badger secondary.

While he played a significant amount, Shaw disappointed in his lone season with the Badgers — constantly struggling to win at the catch point while committing several penalties. 

After several years in a familiar system, Shaw acknowledged his struggles in adjusting early on, as he had to rebuild the communication level he had with defensive backs at UCLA.

Toledo transfer Justin Clark was arguably the better outside cornerback, although he split reps between the slot and the boundary, which was why the two rotated opposite of Smith on the outside.

S | John Torchio | R-Sr.

55 tackles | 3 TFL | 5 INT | 6 PD

John Torchio was a valuable piece of the Wisconsin defense, recording a team-high five interceptions, which earned him first-team All-Big 10 honors by the media.

Torchio, known as the “jewel thief,” had a knack for making plays, including two interceptions that he returned for touchdowns.

The redshirt senior has an aggressive nature in the run game — making splash plays while also missing tackles. He has a similar mentality in the passing game, too, as he made several impact plays while having a few coverage busts on the season.

Regardless, Torchio was an impact player for the Badgers in 2022, and was one of their most consistent players on the back end.

S | Kamo’i Latu | Jr.

55 tackles | 3 TFL | 2 INT | 3 PD

Kamo’i Latu is a transfer from Utah who was brought in to help man the backend after several departures from the secondary in the offseason.

Latu was initially a backup, although defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard intended to rotate him, Hunter Wohler and Torchio to maximize the ability from his three-safety looks.

When Wohler suffered an injury early in the season, Latu stepped into the full-time role, which was met with ups and downs.

Latu struggled with tackling and angles in the running game at first but blossomed into a key starter as the season progressed. His development culminated in a two-interception game at Northwestern, followed by a 13-tackle game at Michigan State.

Latu’s aggressive nature created splash plays, which added much-needed energy from the safety position opposite Torchio.

While Torchio does not intend to return to Wisconsin for a sixth season, Latu should remain a Badger, creating some level of consistency in the backend for the team.

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