Where things stand: Defense

MADISON — Wisconsin finished with the top-ranked defense in the country last season with a senior-heavy starting unit. That meant spring practice would be significant as the Badgers looked to replace eight starters, including their entire secondary. After 15 practices, here’s where things stand in that regard.

Defensive line

Projected depth chart:

Defensive end
1) Isaiah Mullens (SR)
2) James Thompson Jr. (RS SO)
3) Cade McDonald (RS SO)

Nose tackle
1) Keeanu Benton (SR)
2) Ben Barten (RS SO) or Gio Paez (RS SO)
3) Curt Neal

Defensive end
1) Rodas Johnson (JR)
2) Isaac Townsend (JR)
3) Mike Jarvis (RS FR)

Incoming freshmen
Isaac Hamm

Injuries hampered the defensive line in the spring with Keeanu Benton and Isaiah Mullens missing extensive time, while Gio Paez and Curt Neal (returning from torn ACL) did not take part in any contact drills. Still, second-year coach Ross Kolodziej must feel good about where his group is after 15 practices.

The injuries to Benton and Mullens allowed the young and inexperienced players at the position to get a ton of snaps. Juniors James Thompson Jr. and Rodas Johnson had good springs and look ready to step into the void left by the underrated Matt Henningsen at defensive end. Oregon transfer Isaac Townsend flashed some playmaking ability and was a part of the two-deep before an injury sidelined him down the stretch. Redshirt sophomore Cade McDonald continually stood out against the run and will provide solid depth.

There is uncertainty behind Benton. Paez was the logical pick to fill the role that Bryson Williams held a year ago, filling in when Benton needed a breather. But, as we outlined earlier, he did not do any contact this spring. It led to offensive lineman-turned-nose tackle Ben Barten getting almost all the reps once Benton went down. He is a big body (6-foot-5, 304 pounds) and held up despite his workload. Still, if Paez is healthy, he feels like the most likely option to spell Benton when Wisconsin is in its base defense.

Outside linebacker

Projected depth chart:

1) Nick Herbig (JR)
2) Kaden Johnson (JR)
3) Darryl Peterson (RS FR)

1) CJ Goetz (SR)
2) TJ Bollers (RS FR)
3) Darryl Peterson (RS FR)

Outside linebackers coach Bobby April told reporters his group is the deepest it has ever been, something which showed day after day in the spring. It is not hyperbole to say that April will have five legit starters to choose from this fall.

Herbig missed the first couple weeks of spring due to an arm injury but everyone knows what he can do. The junior is coming off a season in which he led the team in sacks (9) and finished third in tackles for loss (14.5). Certainly, there will be more of a focus on him this year with inside linebackers Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn gone. But teams that put too much attention on Herbig will pay for it, because the guys behind him and on the other side are the real deal.

Goetz is the group’s best run stopper and spent most of the spring with the first-team defense at the boundary (the short side of the field) spot. April said he’s among the strongest guys in the group and a freak when it comes to his explosion off the ball. His experience gives the defense someone to lean on.

The excitement at the position comes with the potential of the guys behind Herbig and Goetz. The trio of TJ Bollers, Kaden Johnson and Darryl Peterson have the chance to be special.

Bollers dropped about 10 pounds from last year and it was really noticeable. He maintained his strength but was clearly quicker off the ball. It resulted in him spending a healthy part of the spring either shoving Wisconsin’s tackles into the quarterback or going around them to accomplish the same thing.

Peterson worked at both the field (wide side of the field, more pass coverage/playing in space) and boundary spots as April tried to determine the better fit. Wherever he ends up, Peterson will be a disruptor, especially in getting after the passer. That was his strength in high school and we saw it play out in the spring.

Johnson worked with the first-team group while Herbig was out. Like Bollers and Peterson, the Minnesota native is an impact play waiting to happen. He showed off a bevy of pass rush moves during 1-on-1s throughout spring, including a bull rush that put right tackle Logan Brown on his butt.

The scary thing is that another potential contributor – Aaron Witt – remains out with a foot injury. He flashed some ability as a true freshman in Wisconsin’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl win in 2020 and April says his size (6-foot-6, 254 pounds) gives them a different kind of body to throw at defenses. The hope is he will be able to practice when fall camp opens.

Inside linebacker

Projected depth chart:

1) Tate Grass (JR)
2) Jake Chaney (SO)
3) Jake Ratzlaff (RS FR)

1) Jordan Turner (RS SO)
2) Maema Njongmeta (JR)
3) Spencer Lytle (JR)

Incoming freshmen:
Tristan Monday

New inside linebackers coach Bill Sheridan spent the first couple weeks learning about his guys, with the depth chart being broken down by how much playing time each guy got last year. In the final two weeks, we got a better idea of where the players stand and it became clear the top two at the position are Jordan Turner and Tate Grass.

It feels like Turner is the next big thing at the position. The Michigan product is super athletic, instinctive and a playmaker (two interceptions in 24 snaps last season). The ferocity on a couple of his blitzes left running backs picking themselves up off the ground. That should pair well with Grass, who is extremely physical in the run game and flows to the ball well.

It is unlikely those two will come close to putting up the stats that Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal did last year, but the drop-off will not be as dramatic as some outside the program might think.

If one or both of them falters, Maema Njongmeta, Jake Chaney and Jake Ratzlaff would be the next guys up.


Projected depth chart

1) Alexander Smith (SR)
2) Cedrick Dort (6th SR)
3) Auman Williams (RS SO)

1) Jay Shaw (6th SR)
2) Ricardo Hallman (RS FR)
3) Al Ashford (RS FR)

Nickel CB
1) Justin Clark (7th SR)
2) Max Lofy (RS SO)

Despite losing multi-year starters in Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams, the cornerback group did not miss a beat in the spring. That is in large part due to an improved Alexander Smith and the additions of three transfers – Justin Clark (Toledo), Jay Shaw (UCLA) and Cedrick Dort (Kentucky).

Clark’s battles with wide receiver Chimere Dike were appointment viewing, and the seventh-year senior more than held his own. He plastered himself to almost everyone he covered and is clearly the top option as the nickel back right now.

A second-team All-Pac 12 selection last year, Shaw fits right into what the Badgers like to do with their corners. He excelled in man coverage and brings a ton of confidence to the position.

It could be argued that Smith had the best spring of any of the cornerbacks. Used sparingly last year, Smith’s role will increase greatly this fall. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard spoke extremely high of Smith’s intelligence and ability to play multiple positions, including safety.

Among the guys behind the top three, redshirt freshman Ricardo Hallman, redshirt sophomore Max Lofy and walk-on Auman Williams stood out. When Shaw missed time with an injury towards the end of spring, it was Hallman that replaced him while Williams was consistently around the ball and making plays. Lofy saw time on the outside and as the nickel back. He made a great play on a Chase Wolf pass in Friday’s practice that resulted in a tipped pass and an Owen Arnett interception.


Projected depth chart

1) John Torchio (SR)
2) Owen Arnett (RS FR)
3) Avyonne Jones (FR)

1) Hunter Wohler (SO) or Travian Blaylock (SR)
2) Preston Zachman (RS SO)

Incoming freshmen
Austin Brown

The biggest concern coming out of spring is the depth at safety. While Torchio and Wohler should be a solid starting duo, the loss of Travian Blaylock to a leg injury looms large. Leonhard said the senior was playing his best football and poised for a big season. It is still unclear if Blaylock will be available this fall. If he is not, the depth might be a little scary.

Walk-on Owen Arnett had a nice spring and found himself in the right place at the right time a lot, which led to a couple of interceptions. Would he be ready to play if called upon? That is unclear.

Behind those three, it was early enrollee Avyonne Jones, redshirt freshman Al Ashford and walk-on Bryce Carey getting reps. Asking any of them to play vital snaps this fall might be a little too much at this point in their careers.

Redshirt sophomore Preston Zachman, who made some plays last spring, missed all 15 practices this year with a leg injury. He should return for the fall. The Badgers also bring in talented freshman Austin Brown. Whether he could contribute right away is something we won’t know until fall camp.

Leonhard admitted dipping into the transfer portal is a possibility.

Special Teams

1) Vito Calvaruso (JR)
2) Nate Van Zelst (RS FR)

Calvaruso missed the first couple weeks with a leg injury, which allowed Van Zelst to seemingly take control of the kicking job. Though he does not have a huge leg, the walk-on hit nearly everything in that stretch.

However, Calvaruso returned in the final two weeks of spring and could not have been more impressive. His leg strength is practically unrivaled in the history of the program. He hit from 54 yards in the final practice on Friday and it would have been good from 70 yards or more. In warmups, another 54-yard kick hit the top of the upright.

In recent seasons, Wisconsin has routinely punted in areas where other coaches might either go for it or attempt a long field goal. With Calvaruso, maybe Paul Chryst leans towards the latter more often.

1) Andy Vujnovich (6th SR)
2) Gavin Meyers (RS SO)

Long snapper
1) Peter Bowden (JR)

Kick returner
1) Stephan Bracey (JR)
2) Skyler Bell (RS FR)

Bracey missed most of the spring with an injury but gives the Badgers a weapon as a kick returner when healthy.

Punt returner
1) Dean Engram (JR)
2) Skyler Bell (RS FR)