The dust has barely settled on Wisconsin’s 13-1 season in 2017, but as the calendar flips to a new year it is already time to look forward to what the Badgers have in store for them next season.
We started on offense, looking ahead to what could be and how we see things playing out on that side of the ball.
Today we take a look at the other side of the coin and preview the Badgers defense.
Biggest Question Mark:
Wisconsin entered 2017 knowing they had a deep and experienced secondary. The Badgers look ahead to 2018 not knowing much about what will transpire for its secondary.
Everyone knew that Natrell Jamerson and Derrick Tindal were going to be gone, but losing former Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson was not a foregone conclusion. His big year on the stat sheet told a different story and he has declared for the NFL draft.
That means the Badgers have to replace three of four starters and must also replace oft-used backup safety Joe Ferguson to graduation as well.
Normally there are options to step up and take over, but in 2018 it will be a youth movement for UW’s secondary. Only D’Cota Dixon and nickel back Dontye Carriere-Williams return as players with great experience on the field. Carrier-Williams will only be a sophomore and certainly stepping up in time on the field in 2018, but he did contribute well as a redshirt freshman this season with 30 tackles, six passes defensed and one interception.
Who sits opposite of him and can this group find depth in the offseason certainly are key points to watch.
Reason to Be Optimistic:
Change hasn’t bothered UW defense before
Few programs have undergone more upheaval than UW has on defense over the past four years or so. In fact, few have had to go through three different defensive coordinators in three seasons like Wisconsin has.
The good news buried in that sad stat is that whomever has been at the helm of the Badgers defense hasn’t mattered much — the results have always been fantastic.
Dave Aranda came in and transformed a good defense in to a great one and was off to the million-dollar land of the SEC after three years. Then it was one season under Justin Wilcox, who upped the ante and parlayed that in to the California head coaching gig. That was followed by former Badger great Jim Leonhard, who took UW’s defense to the best in college football this past year.
That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because the Badgers have a group of players who are truly family and play for each other regardless of who is coaching or the turmoil they may experience on or off the field. It’s been the least talked about aspect of what has happened over the past three years — no matter the coach, the players have played at an elite level.
Wisconsin faces another offseason of transition, as seven starters and three other members of the two-deep are gone. There’s also a chance that Leonhard could be coveted by places like Florida State or even in the NFL this offseason too. So, it’s good to know that when asked to step up to tough situations, the defensive group has set the standard of stepping up to the challenge.
Reason to be Pessimistic:
So many key parts to replace
Wisconsin has a reputation as a developmental program, and rightfully so. You don’t get three-star players and plug and play them as freshman more often than not. But, the 2018 version of the Badgers defense is going to require young players to step up.
Whether that be names like sophomore defensive end Isaaiah Loudermilk or Donyte Carriere-Williams or a host of other young defensive backs, the UW defense is going to need young players to step up in a major way to replace some of the players departing.
But, it isn’t just the youth that needs to step up that could be scary. It’s the fact that Wisconsin has multiple starters to replace along all three position groups. There’s both defensive ends, both outside linebackers and three quarters of a secondary to replace.
We’ll see if UW’s increased efforts on the recruiting trail yield quicker results, because the expectations for this defense won’t change.
Projected Starting Lineup:
DE: Isaaiah Loudermilk, So.
NG: Olive Sagapolu, Sr.
DE: Garrett Rand, Jr.
OLB: Andrew Van Ginkel, Sr.
ILB: T.J. Edwards, Sr.
ILB: Ryan Connelly, Sr.
OLB: Zack Baun, So.
CB: Dontye Carriere-Williams, So.
FS: Eric Burrell, So.
SS: D’Cota Dixon, Sr.
CB: Madison Cone, So.
Change is certainly going to the be the big talking point about the 2018 Wisconsin Badgers defense, but change isn’t always a bad thing. Sure, there are question marks surrounding the secondary thanks to its youth movement being forced a year early.
However, you have to like what promise was shown by some of the names expected to step up in 2018. Wisconsin saw great potential from limited playing time for names like Loudermilk and Rand up front, got excellent experience for Carriere-Williams in the secondary and linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel might as well have been a third starter at outside linebacker.
Expecting the Badgers to be the No. 1 defense in the country given all the change may be a bit much. But, don’t be surprised if they exceed national expectations. It’s just what this group has done no matter what has been thrown at it for the better part of the last half-decade.