What the future holds: Defense

Wisconsin’s 2021 defense was among the best in school history. It will likely end up leading the country in total defense and rushing defense, while finishing top five in nearly every important statistical category. The Badgers had that success with a largely veteran unit that will now have to replace eight starters going into next year.

Here’s a projection of what the depth chart could look like in 2022.

(For the purposes of this article we will refer to each player’s class as it will be in 2022. Meaning if they were a junior this past season, they’ll be listed as a senior in this piece.)

What the Future Holds: Offense

Defensive line

First unit
DE Isaiah Mullens (SR)
NT Keeanu Benton (SR)
DE Rodas Johnson (JR)

Second unit
DE James Thompson Jr. (RS SO)
NT Gio Paez (JR)
DE Isaac Townsend (JR)

New additions: NT Curtis Neal, DE Isaac Hamm, DE Tristan Monday

Wisconsin will be young across its defense except at defensive line. All-Big Ten nose tackle Keeanu Benton is returning for his senior year to anchor the middle of the Badgers unit. The Janesville native was a big reason the defense set the school record for rushing yards allowed, while also expanding his role into being a part of the Badgers nickel package and finishing with 2.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and two fumble recoveries.

The other starter back is senior Isaiah Mullens. Getting his first consistent reps in college, Mullens had 24 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors.

The only starting job open is the one vacated by Matt Henningsen. Defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej said during bowl prep that junior Rodas Johnson, redshirt sophomore James Thompson Jr. and junior Isaac Townsend could all have a chance at the job. Johnson and Thompson Jr. served as the backups to Mullens and Henningsen this year, while Townsend transferred in from Oregon and appeared in five games.

Finding a backup to Benton will also be important with Bryson Williams leaving. Junior Gio Paez saw action in 10 games and would figure to be the top option. One guy to watch would be true freshman Curtis Neal. He was a hot commodity on the recruiting trail before a knee injury forced him to miss his senior year and will be enrolling early.

Outside linebackers

1) Nick Herbig (JR)
2) CJ Goetz (SR)
3) Darryl Peterson (RS FR)
4) Aaron Witt (JR)
5) Spencer Lytle (JR)
6) Kayden Johnson (RS SO)
7) TJ Bollers (RS FR)
8) Ayo Adebogun (RS FR)

Nick Herbig is a star and will become the face of the defense with so many guys departing. The junior led the team in sacks (9.0) and finished third in tackles for loss (14.5). Offenses are likely to focus on him even more next fall.

Who will be on the other side of Herbig is the question here with Noah Burks exhausting his eligibility after six years. Senior CJ Goetz has the most experience among those returning after playing in all 13 games and coming up with 18 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

The most intriguing player is redshirt freshman Darryl Patterson. He earned his first extended playing time against Arizona State in the bowl game and believe that will serve as a springboard towards him earning reps next season. Those that face him every day in practice rave about his strength and ability to push the pocket, something that showed up in his high school film when he posted 38.5 sacks in his final two years.

Junior Aaron Witt would have factored into the rotation this past season if not for a leg injury suffered in spring practice. He played in five games as a true freshman and had a strip-sack against Wake Forest in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, Witt offers a little different body type than the rest of the room.

A couple of others to watch will be junior Spencer Lytle and redshirt freshman Kaden Johnson. Lytle has battled injuries his first few years and appeared in only six games this season. Johnson was a big recruiting win for the Badgers out of Minnesota and spent much of this year as a contributor on special teams.

Redshirt freshman TJ Bollers was with the outside linebackers all year before being moved to tight end during bowl prep. It is unclear if that is a permanent change or just a result of the tight end room being decimated by injuries.

Inside linebackers
1) Jordan Turner (RS SO)
2) Maema Njongmeta (JR)
3) Tatum Grass (JR)
4) Jake Chaney (SO)
5) Jake Ratzlaff (RS FR)
6) Brian Sanborn (RS FR)

New additions: Aidan Vaughn

The Badgers must replace two of the better linebackers in school history with Jack Sanborn leaving and Leo Chenal declaring early for the draft. The production from those two — 206 tackles, 34.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks — helped the defense become one of the elite units in the country.

With them gone, all eyes will be on redshirt sophomore Jordan Turner. An injury kept him out of multiple games in 2021, but when he got his opportunities he performed well, including picking off a pair of passes. Those going against him on a daily basis, including guard Josh Seltzner, praised his ability to shed blockers quickly and run sideline to sideline.

While we are comfortable projecting Turner as one of the starters, the guy lining up next to him is very much in question. Juniors Maema Njongmeta and Tatum Grass, along with sophomore Jake Chaney, will be options but another name to keep in mind is Jake Ratzlaff. One of the best players in the state of Minnesota in 2020, Ratzlaff still needs to add weight and live in the weight room this offseason but there is a feeling around the program that he could be special.

1) Alexander Smith (SR)
2) Dean Engram – slot (JR)
3) Semar Melvin (JR)
4) Max Lofy (RS SO)
5) Ricardo Hallman (RS FR)
6) Al Ashford (RS FR)
7) Amaun Williams (RS SO)

New additions: Avyonne Jones, A’Khoury Lyde, Justin Clark (transfer)

Like the linebacker group, Wisconsin’s secondary got hit hard by departures with all four starters not returning. That includes multi-year starters in Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams at cornerback. Hicks missed the bowl game with an injury leading to Alexander Smith getting his second career start. The senior is likely the top option for cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat at this point.

“I think Alex is the next guy,” Poteat said in December. “He’s grown tremendously. He can play inside and out. I think he’s pretty smart. So, he’s the oldest and he could be one of the leaders. I think he has that potential.”

Junior Dean Engram served as Wisconsin’s slot guy this year and played the third-most snaps among the cornerbacks. Poteat thinks Engram could play outside down the road but is really suited for the role he played this past season.

One of the unknowns at the position is junior Semar Melvin. He started two games his freshman year, including the Big Ten title game, but injuries have limited him to 11 games the last two seasons. If he can stay healthy, he has a chance to be the starter.

Some of the others that could factor in are redshirt sophomore Max Lofy, as well as redshirt freshmen Ricardo Hallman and Al Ashford. The latter missed the entire season with a shoulder injury.

The Badgers also added Toledo cornerback Justin Clark from the transfer portal. The senior reunites with Poteat who coached him for four seasons with the Rockets.

1) John Torchio (SR)
2) Travian Blaylock (SR)
3) Hunter Wohler (SO)
4) Preston Zachman (RS SO)

New additions: Austin Brown

Wisconsin must replace Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder but the options are interesting. Senior John Torchio played a ton this past season and filled in for Wilder after he was ejected from the season finale against Minnesota and started in his place in the Las Vegas Bowl. His numbers were actually as good or better than Wilder across the board, topping him in tackles (35), tackles for loss (3.0) and sacks (.5), while tying him for the team lead with three interceptions.

The other spot figures to be a battle between Travian Blaylock and Hunter Wohler. The former was healthy for the first time in his career, with his biggest role being the third safety in short yardage and goal line situations.

Wohler was the first four-star safety recruit from the state of Wisconsin and saw most of his action on special teams. But you get the feeling in talking to coaches and teammates that he has a chance to be a really good player for the Badgers in the next couple seasons. Wide receiver Markus Allen called Wohler the “next big thing” on defense.

Preston Zachman moved from linebacker to safety prior to spring practice and flashed with a couple pass breakups and an interception. He missed much of the season with an injury.

1) Andy Vujnovich (6th year SR)

1) Collin Larsh (6th year SR)
2) Jack Van Dyke (JR)

1) Jack Van Dyke (JR)

New additions: Vito Calvaruso (kickoff specialist)