Wisconsin Spring Football: Defensive Line Preview

The Wisconsin Badgers officially wrapped up spring camp last Friday night and are now heading into the summer months to prepare for fall.

While spring football is generally a time of self-improvement and overall development, the 15 extra workouts also provide players with the opportunity to step up and show the coaching staff they deserve playing time at autumn.

While the Badgers were confined to the McClain Center with ongoing renovations at Camp Randall, the defense under Jim Leonhard was stealing and making plays.

Over the next couple of weeks, All Badgers will be taking a post-by-post look at some of the general takeaways from spring and what it might mean for each group of posts in the fall.

Positions previously covered:

After wrapping up the offense last week, today we take our look at Wisconsin’s defense.

First, the defensive line.

While Matt Henningsen left to pursue his NFL dreams with the Denver Broncos, defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej and the Badgers entered the spring in search of his defensive replacement.

Based on the practices I’ve seen, I think Wisconsin has several players who should be able to step in and help fill their spot.

Redshirt junior Rodas Johnson is the favorite to earn the starting spot after rotating heavily last season and recording seven tackles in 12 games with a strip sack against Notre Dame at Soldier Field. Johnson’s speed off the line makes him a potential asset as a pass thrower next season. However, this spring he was in and out of the lineup with an injury, which also gave some young players a chance to gain important reps and build depth at the defensive end.

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Redshirt sophomore James Thompson Jr. was constantly making plays when I was around, and at 6-foot-5, he’s a physically imposing player. He regularly entered the backfield and did a great job of obstructing the traffic lanes against the first and second team offensive lines. While Johnson is likely the starter, Thompson Jr. should give the Badgers a starting quality reserve to add to the rotation.

Two other defensive ends who stood out this spring were Isaac Townsend and Cade McDonald. The two mainly worked with the second group, but they each showed flashes and were willing to help if needed. Head coach Paul Chryst specifically mentioned Townsend as a player who took advantage of extra chances in his last spring press conference, and I think Townsend would be the fourth defensive end in both depths right now.

Defensive end Isaiah Mullens is an undisputed starter at this point, and although he didn’t make all 15 practices, I think he looked like a veteran ready to become an even bigger playmaker as a senior. His size and his strength make him strong against the race, which he showed again this spring.

Moving on to the other position on Wisconsin’s 3-4 defensive front, there’s no doubt that Benton is the best defensive lineman in the room and is poised to be a disruptive force next season. from his place as nose tackle. The Badgers have been cautious with him throughout the spring and instead focused on letting some of the younger players get reps in that position.

The player who benefited the most from Benton’s absence from the team’s games was second in redshirt, Ben Barten. A converted offensive lineman, Barten signed with the Badgers in the 2020 class as a jumbo athlete who could play either side of the ball. This spring, Barten received the bulk of the reps at nose tackle, and I thought he was holding his own. At 6-foot-5 and just over 300 pounds, Barten is a big nose tackle, but he’s done a good job eating blocks during practices I’ve seen.

It will be interesting to see where Barten sits in the pecking order at the nose of the tackle in the fall. Redshirt junior Gio Paez sat out this spring due to injury, and he’s another player capable of supporting Keeanu Benton.

Then there’s real freshman Curt Neal, who didn’t take live team reps this spring as he recovers from a knee injury. He was a decorated freshman who ultimately chose Wisconsin over Ohio State, so just the fact that he’s on campus and able to go through individual drills also gives him a chance to factor in. the equation in the nose of the tackle next season. Neal still needs to add more weight to his frame, but he’s a very high-managed player with a lot of potential.

Overall, defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej has done a terrific job of rebuilding depth along the D-line since taking over. The Badgers have several players at every position ready to contribute, and that’s a testament to the development along the defensive line. Isaiah Mullens and Keeanu Benton are the leaders of the group, and that’s unlikely to change until next season, but this spring has shown there’s more depth than years past, and that’s good news for all defense.

Projected depth chart:

Defensive end: Isaiah Mullens (RS SR), Isaac Townsend (RS JR)

Nose attack: Keeanu Benton (SR), Gio Paez (RS JR) or Ben Barten (RS SO)

Defensive end: Rodas Johnson (RS JR), James Thompson Jr. (RS SO)

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