Deep D-line tries to make jump

first_imgFifth-year senior Brendan Kelly is one of three linemen competing for the two starting defensive end positions. Kelly started eight games for UW last season after redshirt junior David Gilbert went down with a foot injury after four games.[/media-credit]The 2012 offseason has been one of significant turnover for the Wisconsin football team, with six assistant coaches leaving and a body of seniors jockeying for position on NFL draft boards.And while several positions are only now beginning to start anew with spring practice in top gear, the defensive line is one of the few units that, relatively speaking, is taking up where it left off after the lights dimmed on the Rose Bowl and the 2011 season.Despite losing Louis Nzegwu and Patrick Butrym – who both started their final two years at UW – the defensive line still retains seven principle contributors from a year ago. All but two have appeared in at least 11 games in each of the past two years, while five combine for 39 starts.Marshaled by defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, who enters his sixth year at UW, nine players cycled in and out of the line in 2011 until starting end David Gilbert sustained a season-ending injury in Week 4.In the upcoming 2012 season, the rotation will probably feature as few as six people or as many as “eight … nine, 10, we’ll see,” according to Partridge, as his shoulders shrug and a pleasant smile emerges.Partridge smiles because he faces one of the cushiest problems a coach could have – managing a unit brimming with able bodies and the best way to go about it is let them all compete.Partridge doesn’t classify anyone as an expected starter and has left all four spots on the line up for grabs. Even Ethan Hemer, who’s started the past 20 games for UW, isn’t guaranteed anything.“It’s a fun room to be a part of,” Partridge said. “They work their tails off. … They’re hungry.”Partridge said Hemer, Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen will compete for the two starring roles at tackle while Bryce Gilbert and Warren Herring will fight for time behind them.Meanwhile, Brendan Kelly, Pat Muldoon and David Gilbert will lock horns for the two end positions while Tyler Dippel, Konrad Zagzebski, Jesse Hayes and James Adeyanju will try to squeeze themselves into the picture as well.So no matter the configuration Partridge comes up with, the foundational experience is set for the defensive line, much like it was prior to the start of last season. The next thing to do from there is to lift those in the trenches beyond being just fundamentally sound.The Badgers showcased a middling rush defense last season. It finished sixth in the Big Ten by allowing 152.8 rushing yards per game and fifth with 25 sacks. Of course, the linebackers would also hold some responsibility in this department, but according to Kohout, the defensive line is well aware of its shortcomings.“You could ask everyone on the D-line, they’d probably say that’s an accurate statement,” Kohout said, when asked if the line’s presence in the backfield was disappointing. “I think we were playing too lateral at times. I think we were a good, solid defensive line. We took care of our responsibilities, but it’s time to take the next step and be the elite defensive line we can be.”Nzegwu got to the quarterback more times than anyone else last year (4.5), but was followed closely by Allen (4), who has yet to start a game in his career, including Gilbert (3), who lasted four games before injury struck, and Kelly (3), who took over for in Gilbert’s absence.After Nzegwu, Allen caused the most problems in the backfield, with 5.5 tackles for loss, while Kelly totaled five and Gilbert 3.5.The only way to stand out in a group this deep in 2012 will, obviously, be to mold into the playmaker the Badgers have been searching for ever since J.J. Watt left for the NFL after the 2010 season.And there should be no shortage of motivation for anyone to reach that new level of play. Two years ago, Kohout, then a starter, came down with a midseason injury that allowed Hemer to pass him by, who’s held on to the job ever since. Gilbert looked impressive during his four games last year, but his season was cut short thanks to an injury as well.Last offseason, Muldoon was a top candidate to replace Watt at end but was beaten out by Gilbert and Kelly. He eventually notched two starts late in the 2011 season, but Kelly soon earned his place back.“We had four different defensive ends start, and I think three or four D-tackles [played a lot] so our whole D-line, one through eight, I think was ready to step in at any moment,” Muldoon said. “It depended on who was healthy or who was just performing at their best at that time of the season. Everyone had their little injuries throughout the season that put them back.”With so much fluctuation along the line, it can be easy to wonder just how friendly the relations are between these giants of the defense. But it’s been clear in spring practices so far that the group has been able to rejoice in its depth.The defensive linemen is frequently the loudest group out on the field, with shrieks of celebration and mid-air chest-bumps following quality plays.And if someone goes down with an injury, nobody’s thinking advantageously.“We’re like brothers,” Kelly said. “That’s the thing about our D-line, we’re so close. One guy goes down, everyone helps that dude to get back. Everyone encourages him. I was hurt for so long and I saw that happen, that happened to me. They tried to pull me back. That’s what got me through the injury, just by being a good person and helping guys back like that.”last_img

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