Wisconsin’s historic 2017 campaign is in the books, as the Badgers polished off a 13-1 season with an Orange Bowl victory against Miami. Spring practice is right around the corner, which means preparations for next season aren’t too far off.
Wisconsin will have a number of players filling new roles defensively given that the Badgers lose seven starters off one of the best units in the country. The biggest questions come on the defensive line and in the secondary, which loses three of its four starters. Here’s a look at how the Badgers’ defense projects for 2018.
Starters: Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand
Backups: Billy Hirschfeld, David Pfaff and Kraig Howe
Overview: Isaiahh Loudermilk was a hulking 6-foot-7, 306-pound freshman in 2017 who worked his way into the two-deep and could be a force in the future. He played in 11 games and finished with 11 tackles and 1½ sacks. Garrett Rand backed up Olive Sagapolu at nose guard, but now he is freed up to make the move to defensive end. Wisconsin loses three senior defensive ends from last season with Chikwe Obasih, Alec James and Conor Sheehy, so the Badgers need plenty of talent to help fill the void. Billy Hirschfeld took time away from the team for personal reasons, but there hasn’t been any announcement regarding his future. David Pfaff played in four games, and Kraig Howe appeared in one game.
Starter: Olive Sagapolu
Backup: Bryson Williams
Overview: In his career, Olive Sagapolu has played in 36 games ― starting 20 of them ― and has been a steadying presence on the defensive line. Sagapolu is a space eater, but he’s also capable of making big plays. He finished last season with 17 tackles and 3 sacks. If incoming freshman Bryson Williams develops as expected, he could take over the backup nose guard role and then become a three-year starter after Sagapolu leaves. Williams recorded 77 tackles as a senior at Lincoln (Neb.) Southeast High and is versatile enough to play different positions on the line.
Starters: Andrew Van Ginkel and Zack Baun
Backups: Tyler Johnson and Christian Bell
Overview: The clear-cut leader of this group is Andrew Van Ginkel, who was sensational in his junior season as a complement to Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs. With Dooley and Jacobs gone, this is Van Ginkel’s position to dominate. He recorded 39 tackles last season with 10 tackles for loss and 6½ sacks and 2 interceptions. Van Ginkel came up huge for the defense in the Big Ten title game and the Orange Bowl. Zack Baun is listed as the other starter, although there will be competition for that spot. Baun missed last season with a left foot injury. He opened last spring camp as a starter before Jacobs overtook him. Tyler Johnson recorded 8 tackles last season, while Christian Bell added 2. This has been a position of strength in recent seasons for Wisconsin, and the Badgers will try to carry on that legacy under a new position coach after Tim Tibesar left to become the defensive coordinator at Oregon State.
Starters: T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly
Backups: Chris Orr and Arrington Farrar
Overview: When T.J. Edwards opted to return for his senior season, it bolstered the entire defense. Edwards and Ryan Connelly will form one of the best starting inside linebacker duos in the Big Ten. Last season, Connelly led Wisconsin with 88 tackles and added 11 tackles for loss with 3 sacks. Edwards finished with 81 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 4 interceptions and 7 pass breakups. Edwards ranked first in total tackles as a freshman and sophomore. To have someone like Chris Orr as the top reserve speaks to how deep this group will be in 2018. Orr, who will be a redshirt junior, started six games as a freshman in 2015. Last season, he recorded 36 tackles with 2 sacks. Arrington Farrar has played in 39 career games, although he moved from defensive back to linebacker last season.
Starters: Dontye Carriere-Williams and Madison Cone
Backups: Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams
Overview: Wisconsin loses both of its starting cornerbacks from 2017 in senior Derrick Tindal and junior Nick Nelson, who declared for the 2018 NFL Draft. This is one of the positions that will have the most to prove next season, but Dontye Carriere-Williams is a good piece to build around. Carriere-Williams was the Badgers’ third cornerback last season and played well when other teams tested him downfield. He tallied 30 tackles with 6 pass breakups and 1 interception. Madison Cone played in 9 games and made 1 tackle. But he did play at the end of the Orange Bowl and recorded a pass breakup. Faion Hicks took a redshirt season in 2017, while Caesar Williams took his in 2016 and played in one game this past season, but both players earned praise from defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.
Starters: D’Cota Dixon and Patrick Johnson
Backups: Eric Burrell, Scott Nelson and Seth Currens
Overview: D’Cota Dixon is the emotional leader of the secondary, and he’ll have to be at his best to guide a young group next season. Dixon finished fourth on the team with 55 tackles despite not playing in two games in 2017. Patrick Johnson played early in the season before sustaining a right arm injury and missing the remainder of the year. He’ll take over for Natrell Jamerson, who had a strong senior season. Eric Burrell and Seth Currens each appeared in all 14 games for the Badgers. Scott Nelson took his redshirt season, but he was added to the travel roster late in the season.