In Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense, the linebackers tend to get all the glory, but it wouldn’t be possible without the dirty work that has been done up front as well. Let’s just call the three defensive linemen the defense’s unsung heroes. It’s also been nice for the coaching staff and others to be able to lean on a veteran group of players up front.
Unlike the past few seasons, one could easily be forgiven for not knowing anyone along the Badgers defensive line in 2018. After years of veterans stacked across Wisconsin’s three-man front, only one true vet will take the field for UW this upcoming fall.
With the graduations of Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy, things were bound to be very different on the edge in 2018.
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Just how different? Let’s take a look at the UW defensive line for the upcoming season.
State of the Position: Shaky
How else do you describe a position that lost both starters and a third senior at defensive end alone? UW would’ve been in much better shape, but expected starting defensive end Garrett Rand is out for the season with an injury and redshirt sophomore end Isaiahh Loudermilk is coming back from a leg injury himself. That leaves a lot of inexperience at both end positions.
The good news is that there is at least one veteran with extensive playing time up front — nose guard Olive Sagapolu. He’s becoming more and more of a disruptive force up front as well, notching career highs in tackles (17), tackles for loss (3.5) and sacks (3) last season. With a lot of unknowns around him, Sagapolu is going need to be more than a space-eater up front. Luckily, he has proven a solid leader and a fast study.
Additional good news comes from the fact that UW has a knack for recruiting well and getting those guys coached up quickly. One end position will likely see Loudermilk as a starter if he can go this fall, while juniors David Pfaff and Kraig Howe need to show they can be relied upon in fall camp.
Don’t be surprised to see Loudermilk and redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal get the starting nod, with up-and-coming Keldric Preston a pressure-down situational piece to the puzzle up front. However, that’s a lot of pressure on a group that has played less than a full season of college football combined.
After years of being solid up front, this group could be the biggest question mark on UW’s defense.
Biggest Question: What happens if Sagapolu gets injured?
Wisconsin has been light on depth at the nose guard position for a few years now. A combination of injuries, positional changes and Gary Andersen recruits not panning out did that to UW.
This season, Sagapolu is really it up the middle for the Badgers. Just how dire is the situation at nose guard? Former 4-star offensive lineman, Kayden Lyles, is switching positions for fall camp. He’ll be joined in a backup role by true freshman Bryson Williams. Neither of those two have played a down of college football, so it will be trial by fire up the middle for UW’s depth up front to say the least.
Stat to Know: 5
UW’s defensive line doesn’t get nearly the credit it should get, but that’s part of the nature of playing in a 3-4 defensive, where the line makes linebackers look really good. Given all that is gone from the d-line in 2018, we’ll see if the linebackers can continue to shine or not.
However, one of the biggest points of pride for the Badgers defense has been its ability to control the game and the scoreboard..and that’s in large part due to the line. In fact, over the last three seasons, UW has ranked inside the top 5 of scoring defenses in the country. Continuing that trend requires a young, inexperienced and thin defensive line to be able to stand up to the pressure of some really solid offensive lines on the docket.
DE: Aaron Vopal, Kraig Howe
NG: Olive Sagapolu, Kayden Lyles or Bryson Williams
DE: Isaiahh Loudermilk, David Pfaff or Keldric Preston