National Signing Day is in the books, but it is never too late to look back at the past decade of Wisconsin Badgers recruiting. After all, the past can predict the future.
What does the past tell us about Wisconsin’s ability to be a player on the Big Ten and national scale? It tells us that despite recruiting rankings suggesting mediocrity, the Badgers program has been one of the most consistent in the nation.
So, who are the recruits that turned in to home runs? Let us look at the top 5 defensive ends over the past decade.
5.Warren Herring (2010)
Recruiting Info: 3-star, No. 58 WDE, No. 22 in Illinois
Career Wisconsin Stats: 56 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks
Few players in recent history had as interesting a playing career as a Badger as Warren Herring had. He played half of his career under Bret Bielema and half under Gary Andersen. It was that switch that likely made him a more impactful player than he would’ve been in the old system.
Herring put up eight of his 10 tackles for loss and four of his 4.5 sacks as Dave Aranda took over and switched things to the 3-4 defense. For a player that was an after-thought in a huge recruiting class, he certainly had a big impact on the Badgers once he was being put in the best position to use his talents.
While his name may not come to mind as quick as others, few were as productive immediately upon Aranda’s arrival as Herring was. Had injuries not limited him to eight games in 2014, Herring may have been in line for much more notoriety amongst Badger fans.
4. David Gilbert (2009)
Recruiting Info: 3-star, No. 507 nationally, No. 20 WDE, No. 71 in Florida
Career Wisconsin Stats: 79 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles
Many Badgers fans will be left wondering exactly what could’ve been for a player like Gilbert as the Badgers made the switch to the 3-4 defense. Gilbert didn’t stick around to find out, but as one of the most dynamic pass rushers in recent UW history he still has a place on this list.
It is hard to say that he didn’t live up to the recruiting hype, despite only seeing the field for three seasons in Madison.
Most will remember him as a pass-rushing dynamo, but Gilbert also had a knack for making big plays on the edge in the run game as well. He was the perfect complement to JJ Watt early in his career and shined big time in his final season in a Badgers uniform.
3. Louis Nzegwu (2007)
Recruiting Info: 3-star, No. 697 nationally, No. 40 SDE, No. 4 in Wisconsin
Career Wisconsin Stats: 100 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, 7 passes defensed
The hallmark of Wisconsin’s run to three-straight Rose Bowl appearances was its defense, and Nzegwu was one of the most consistent players on those teams. He was also one of the most versatile players on UW’s defense under Bret Bielema.
Whether it was holding the edge on rushing plays, heading up field on a blitz or dropping in to coverage, Nzegwu was often making the right play at the right time. Nzegwu won’t show up on the career stat sheets for the Badgers, but he was a master at doing all the little things right.
For a player most thought was a developmental prospect at best, Nzegwu proved to be a key component after a few years waiting in the wings.
No defensive end has perhaps a better lasting final memory than Nzegwu, who returned an Oregon fumble 33 yards for a touchdown and a 28-21 Wisconsin lead in the second quarter. Sadly the Badgers lost, but not for a lack of a great game by Nzegwu.
2. Chikwe Obasih (2013)
Recruiting Info: 3-stat, No. 344 nationally, No. 13 WDE, No. 2 in Wisconsin
Career Wisconsin Stats: 84 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks
Wisconsin’s switch to the 3-4 defense has de-emphasized the stats a defensive end is going to rack up. However, few player have been as productive or important to the success of those around him as Obasih has in his first three years of his career at UW.
Obasih rarely comes off the field and it is hardly a coincidence that the right outside linebacker has been successful no matter who was there. Wether it was Conor O’Neill, Joe Schobert, Jack Cichy or T.J. Watt, they’ve all had success and it certainly has helped that they’ve had a player like Obasih to take pressure off them up front.
Don’t think of him as just a space-eater either, as Obasih became more of a playmaker with Justin Wilcox in charge of the defense this past season. It will be interesting to see how the change to Jim Leonhard as defensive coordinator changes things for Obasih and the other defensive ends.
1. J.J. Watt (2008)
Recruiting Info: walk-on
Career Wisconsin Stats: 106 tackles, 36.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks
Maybe a bit of a cheat, but Watt was a transfer who decided to technically walk-on at Wisconsin rather than be converted to an offensive lineman at Central Michigan in 2008. The rest is history, as they say.
Watt went on to use the redshirt year in 2008 to put on another 25 pounds and was 6-5, 290 pounds as a redshirt sophomore in 2009. He flew on to the radar that year with 44 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
The legend of Watt only grew stronger in his junior season as he continued to terrorize opponent backfields and ended the year with a ridiculous 21 tackles for loss to go along with 7.0 sacks. It was a performance that gave him a 1st round draft status, and in just two years time at Wisconsin the status as perhaps the greatest defensive end in school history.
It was only the tip of the iceberg, as Watt has gone on to become a household name in the NFL and earned Defensive MVP three times in his career already. It’s safe to say no defensive end has had the impact on UW that Watt did in his short time in Madison.