With the way its defense performed in 2020, the University of Wisconsin football team believes it should’ve won more than four games.
But as the Badgers move into the offseason, they’ll need to find and develop replacements for key players at each level of the defense and try to turn more of their pressures into sacks in 2021.
UW brought in 11 recruits on defense in the 2021 recruiting class, not counting any walk-ons that might be added in February. Five of those players earned four-star rankings from recruiting sites. Couple that with the recruiting success on defense the last two seasons and there’s plenty of young talent to like on the roster.
Let’s take a look at how the Badgers’ defense could come together next season.
On the roster: Michael Balistreri (RS Jr.), Keeanu Benton (Soph.), Boyd Dietzen (RS Soph.), Matt Henningsen (RS Jr.), Rodas Johnson (RS Fr.), Cade McDonald (Fr.), Isaiah Mullens (RS Soph.), Gio Paez (RS Fr.), James Thompson Jr. (Fr.), Bryson Williams (Jr.)
Incoming: Mike Jarvis
Departing: Isaiahh Loudermilk (NFL), Garrett Rand (injuries)
Projected starters (end, nose tackle, end): Thompson, Benton, Henningsen
Loudermilk’s departure might be the most impactful loss of the offseason for the Badgers. He was a stud on the defensive line and was able to play as effectively in base as he was nickel.
Rand (above) was Loudermilk’s running mate for years, but he announced that he was stepping away from the game due to injuries. Benton has shown flashes of being a big-time playmaker, and before an injury last season, Henningsen was a solid piece of the end rotation.
Thompson and McDonald saw the field as freshmen in 2020, but Thompson suffered a season-ending right leg injury against Michigan, so his status for the offseason is unknown. Mullens will also be a part of the rotation, if not a starter.
Depth may be a concern with this group moving forward, but they’ve got a solid top group to lean on.
On the roster: Noah Burks (RS Sr.), C.J. Goetz (RS Soph.), Izayah Green-May (RS Jr.), Nick Herbig (Fr.), Kaden Johnson (Fr.), Spencer Lytle (RS Fr.), Riley Nowakowski (Fr.), Marty Strey (RS Soph.), Aaron Witt (Fr.)
Incoming: Ayo Adebogun, TJ Bollers, Darryl Peterson
Departing: Possibly Burks (Graduation)
Projected starters: Burks (Replaced by Witt if Burks leaves), Herbig
Herbig (above) coming in and earning the starting job opposite of Burks was a surprise this season, but he proved he belonged by playing with a high motor. Goetz got more playing time than expected and he was able to provide some depth, but the young group of Johnson, Witt and the incoming freshmen will likely push for reps next year.
Witt is physically-gifted rusher and tallied a sack in the Duke's Mayo Bowl. A full offseason of preparation should do wonders for him.
Bollers is a four-star prospect that defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard called an “outside linebacker-plus.” Leonhard sees a versatile role for Bollers, and that could start next year.
A big question mark is what the Badgers can get out of Green-May. He missed the year with a right arm injury.
On the roster: Leo Chenal (Soph.), Ross Gengler (Fr.), Tatum Grass (RS Fr.), Mike Maskalunas (RS Sr.), Maema Njongmeta (RS Fr.), Malik Reed (Fr.), Jack Sanborn (Jr.), Jordan Turner (Fr.), Preston Zachman (Fr.)
Incoming: Braelon Allen (could also play safety), Jake Chaney, Jake Ratzlaff, Bryan Sanborn
Departing: Possibly Maskalunas (Graduation)
Projected starters: Chenal, Sanborn
Sanborn’s return to the Badgers is a massive win for UW’s defense. Keeping Sanborn (above) and Chenal together for another season provides a cornerstone for the defense to build around.
It’s a young group behind those two, but they took strides this season in practice. Chenal and Sanborn rarely, if ever, leave the field, so getting backups ready in case of injury would be the primary concern.
The recruiting class at linebacker, highlighted by four-star prospects Allen and Ratzlaff, is impressive and helps deepen the group. Last season, inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad said he believed he had three players at his position he was comfortable putting on the field — it’ll be more next season.
On the roster: Donte Burton (RS Soph.), Dean Engram (RS Fr.), Deron Harrell (RS Jr.), Faion Hicks (RS Jr.), Max Lofy (Fr.), Semar Melvin (RS Fr.), Alexander Smith (RS Soph.), Caesar Williams (RS Sr.)
Incoming: Al Ashford III, Ricardo Hallman
Departing: Rachad Wildgoose (NFL)
Projected starters: Hicks, Melvin
There are rightfully major concerns about this group going into 2021.
After playing well for the most part against Indiana, the corners struggled against Iowa, Minnesota and Wake Forest to end the season. Hicks (above) and Williams will be back and likely be starters, and while the rest of the group has experience, their level of play hasn’t been high.
Leonhard’s aggressive pressures leave the corners on islands often and they didn’t respond well to those one-on-one challenges, with penalties in the secondary being a key issue this year.
There will be a lot of competition for reps in this group — any step up in play from the younger players would be welcome.
On the roster: Travian Blaylock (RS Soph.), Dante Caputo (RS Fr.), Madison Cone (Sr.), Tyler Mais (RS Jr.), Scott Nelson (RS Jr.), Brady Schipper (RS Soph.), Titus Toler (RS Fr.), John Torchio (RS Soph.), Collin Wilder (RS Sr.)
Incoming: Braelon Allen (could play ILB), Hunter Wohler
Departing: Eric Burrell (NFL), possibly Cone (graduation)
Projected starters: Nelson, Wilder
Replacing Burrell will be a tall task, as he was the most experienced player in the group, but the safety position has depth going into next year.
Toler, Torchio and Mais have gotten some snaps over the past two years, and there could be an opportunity for more rotation if Leonhard likes a handful of his options at safety.
Wohler was one of the top recruits in the class, a four-star prospect out of Muskego, but expecting immediate production out of him might be too much to ask.
UW’s safeties are asked to play in the box often, with Nelson and Wilder (above) providing good physicality as tacklers. They’ll need to find someone to take more of an open-field coverage role next season.
As featured on
State Journal beat reporters Colten Bartholomew and Jim Polzin get together over Zoom and discuss Barry Alvarez’s retirement ceremony, the search for the Badgers’ next AD and UW’s spring football practices.
Dean Engram and Alexander Smith have earned most of their playing time the past three seasons on special teams units.
“He told us that he wanted corners that played with a dog mentality. He just want dogs out there on the island," Badgers junior Alexander Smith said of new cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat.
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