When it was reported that Phil Longo would be coming from North Carolina to Wisconsin as new coach Luke Fickell’s offensive coordinator, it was pretty obvious there would be a significant change on that side of the ball. That may have somewhat overshadowed the likely changes coming to a defensive unit.
It’s a group that has been among the best in the country since 2013. That was the year that Gary Andersen and Dave Aranda brought the 3-4 defense to Madison, a scheme that the defensive coordinators after Aranda – Justin Wilcox (2016) and Jim Leonhard (2017-2022) – also employed. But with Fickell now in charge, and Leonhard and all his defensive assistants no longer around, a transition is underway.
How different it looks remains to be seen. At Cincinnati, Fickell and new defensive coordinator Mike Tressel ran a 3-3-5 scheme and had a lot of success, most notably in 2021 when the team finished fifth in the country in scoring defense and second in passing defense. But during his introductory press conference in late November, Fickell made clear they wouldn’t blow it all up to run a certain scheme.
“If you really study us and what we have done, we’ve adjusted and adapted to whatever we needed to do,” Fickell said. “We would be out of our minds to think you just come in and scrap and change something.
“They’ve done an unbelievable job at what’s been created here. Our job is to come in here, adapt, adjust, and enhance what it is that we’ve got and we will do that.”
Tressel spoke with the media Thursday for the first time and was peppered with questions about their plans for the defense. While he wouldn’t get into specifics, Tressel did say that the 3-3-5 scheme they used at Cincinnati wouldn’t necessarily look drastically different than Wisconsin lined up in its base 3-4.
“We’re getting ready to figure out the way to mesh these together,” Tressel said. “My job is to not give you too much details, so people don’t know what to prepare for. But certainly, the defense here is what we’ve been able to recruit great players to and has proven phenomenal in the Big Ten conference, so we’re going to hold on to a lot of that.”
With not knowing exactly how it’s going to play out, here’s our stab at what Wisconsin’s defensive depth chart could look like entering spring practice:
Wisconsin brings back all its defensive ends that played a role in 2022 and brings in transfer Darian Varner. The Temple product is a significant addition, as he was a first-team All-AAC pick in 2022 after racking up 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. No Wisconsin defensive lineman has had more than 6.5 sacks since the Badgers went to a three-man front in 2013.
While the defensive ends seem to be in good shape, nose tackle is a little bit of a concern with the loss of Keeanu Benton. When he wasn’t on the field this season, it was very noticeable.
Neal has a ton of upside and was a bit of a coup for the Badgers when some teams recruiting him backed off when he tore an ACL his senior year of high school. He’s not the mountain of a man that Benton was but he’s strong and quick enough to be a problem inside. Paez has waited his turn behind Benton and will also be in the mix.
This group may not be complete, either, as Wisconsin is continuing to pursue defensive linemen in the 2023 recruiting class.
Starters: Daryl Peterson (RS SO), Kaden Johnson (JR) Backups: TJ Bollers (RS SO), Aaron Witt (JR) Others: Ross Gengler (JR) 2023 recruits: Christian Alliegro, Jordan Mayer
While Benton is the biggest loss for Wisconsin, Nick Herbig isn’t too far behind. He led the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss and won’t be easily replaced. But the duo of Peterson and Johnson were solid down the stretch when Herbig missed time and could grow more confident now that they are out of his shadow. Bollers was buried on the depth chart but is a freak athletically. Witt has missed the last two seasons due to injury but is an intriguing option as a pass rusher, if healthy.
CJ Goetz would also factor in here if he decides to return for a sixth year after collecting 61 tackles and nine tackles for loss.
The Badgers get the entire group back led by Njongmeta. In his first year as a starter, the senior-to-be paced the defense with 95 tackles, while finishing with the second-most tackles for loss (11.5) and third-most sacks (3.5). He’s expected to jump into a leadership role on the team with the departures of Herbig and Benton.
Turner split time early in the season before eventually locking into a starting role, while Chaney was used heavily on third down. All three fit nicely into Tressel’s scheme that favors fast and quick inside linebackers.
Starters: Alexander Smith (6th year SR), Ricardo Hallman (RS SO), Jason Maitre (6th year SR
Backups: Max Lofy (JR), Avyonne Jones (RS FR), Al Ashford (RS SO), Amaun Williams (JR)
2023 recruits: Amare Snowden, Jonas Duclona, Jace Arnold, AJ Tisdell
After missing half the season with an injury, Smith instantly became the Badgers No. 1 cornerback upon his return. Getting him back for a sixth year was huge with the departure of Jay Shaw, Cedrick Dort and Justin Clark.
Hallman started in Smith’s place and had his moments, though an ugly end to the Michigan State game marred some of his brighter spots. Maitre could slide into the nickel role held by Dort after coming in from Boston College, though Max Lofy is also an option there. Jones, Ashford, and Williams figure to fight for spots in the two-deep, with a talented group of incoming freshmen sure to challenge them.
Losing John Torchio hurts, as he led Wisconsin’s secondary in tackles, interceptions, and pass breakups. But Latu and Wohler should give the Badgers a very nice 1-2 punch. Both are physical enough to play up near the line of scrimmage, while Wohler’s range in the deep half of the field could allow Tressel to be aggressive elsewhere.
Brown, like Wohler when he was a freshman, played on a ton of special teams this year and will likely find a role on defense as a sophomore.
True freshman Braedyn Moore is an intriguing piece as the highest-rated recruit in Wisconsin’s 2023 class.
Travian Blaylock, who was running with the starters last spring before tearing an ACL, would also factor in if he decides to return for a sixth year.
Van Zelst was fantastic after taking over the field goal duties full-time, going 11-for-14 and hitting all three of his attempts over 40 yards. That included a career-long 47-yard kick in the bowl game.
An injury limited Calvaruso in his first year with the program but he has a huge leg that could be a weapon when healthy. Lahm handled kickoffs after Calvaruso went down and was solid.
Starter: Gavin Meyers (JR) Backup: Jack Van Dyke (SR)
With Andy Vujnovich exhausting his eligibility, the Badgers need a new punter. Meyers served as the backup this year, while Van Dyke split his time between kicking and punting this season.
Bowden will return for his third year as the long snapper.
Starter: Dean Engram (SR) Backups: Chimere Dike (SR)
Wisconsin needs to be better here, as Engram averaged just 5.5 yards per return this season. Certainly, not all of that is on him.
Starters: Chimere Dike (SR) Backups: Keontez Lewis (JR)
With Isaac Guerendo in the transfer portal, Dike stepped up to fill the kick return role in the bowl game and nearly took one back for a touchdown. Depending on his role on offense, he could be an option moving forward. Same goes for Lewis.