MADISON, Wis. — By most any measure, Wisconsin produced one of the elite defenses in all of college football during Dave Aranda’s first season in charge as defensive coordinator. The Badgers ranked No. 7 in total defense (305.1 yards per game), sixth in scoring defense (16.3 points per game) and fifth in rushing defense (102.5 yards).
The problem, of course, is that just when you begin to build something special in college, players use up their eligibility and force wholesale changes that can leave entire units in flux.
Aranda’s task will be putting the pieces in place to a Badgers defense missing five of the team’s top seven tacklers and several other key contributors. Where those pieces fit one month before spring practice begins remains to be seen.
"It’s wide open," Aranda said last week on National Signing Day. "I think every year, you’re always open to playing the best people."
Linebackers Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong, Conor O’Neill and Brendan Kelly, as well as safety Dezmen Southward are all gone. So is starting nose guard Beau Allen and defensive linemen Pat Muldoon, Ethan Hemer and Tyler Dippel. Redshirt junior Tanner McEvoy, who played safety last season, will move back to competing for the quarterback spot, coach Gary Andersen said.
Last season, those 10 players accounted for a total of 385 tackles, 16 sacks and eight forced fumbles.
So, how in the world does Aranda replace that type of production?
For starters, Andersen already has announced three position changes on defense that could help fill in the gaps. Michael Caputo, the team’s leading returning tackler (63 total tackles), will move from safety to outside linebacker. Joe Schobert will move from outside linebacker to inside linebacker, and Alec James will switch from outside linebacker to defensive end.
Warren Herring should take over for Allen as the starting nose guard, while Derek Landisch, Marcus Trotter and Vince Biegel are poised to see significant snaps as linebackers.
Aranda cited Caputo, Herring and Landisch as leaders that had emerged during the offseason.
"Those are the three that really come off the top of my head," Aranda said. "I think it’s a good feeling. I think they’re hungry and I think they’re willing to work and they’re willing to go the extra mile to get back on top. I think those last two games sting and they still sting. As a coach, you want it to sting."
The biggest question of all, Aranda acknowledged, was what Wisconsin would do in the secondary. With Southward using up his eligibility, McEvoy moving to quarterback and Caputo moving to outside linebacker, there are plenty of reps to go around for other players in 2014.
Backups Leo Musso and Nate Hammon return at safety, while Sojourn Shelton, Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean return at cornerback.
"There are two corners returning that will play a lot of football," Andersen said. "But the bottom line, our third corner last year was Dez that came down, and our fourth corner was an outside backer covering people. So those corners know there’s open spots for them to come in. Those four or five men in a position to compete as a corner or as a safety is very, very important."
Aranda said the competition for playing time in the secondary would be fierce. Wisconsin also signed safeties Serge Trezy (Orlando, Fla.), Austin Hudson (Tampa, Fla.) and Lubern Figaro (Everett, Mass.), as well as cornerbacks D’Cota Dixon (Oak Hill, Fla.) and Derrick Tindal (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.).
"Those spots are very much open," he said. "Then we have our nickel spot, which is open. Last year was the only year in my coaching career that nickel was played by a safety. Generally, that’s a corner’s job to play man-to-man on the slot and that type of thing. We just didn’t have the guys, so Dez was the best available. Dez did a great job. We’re trying to build it to where we can have the three corners on the field and be flexible enough to if we need to play a safety. But I’m looking forward to getting guys that we’re bringing in."
Aranda has a history of developing 3-4 defenses that wreak havoc on opponents. As the defensive coordinator at Utah State in 2012, the Aggies ranked eighth in scoring defense and were in the top 15 in sacks and total defense. In 2010 at Hawaii, his defense led the country in turnovers caused (38).
If Aranda has his way, Wisconsin’s defense will be able to create the same kinds of issues in 2014 by playing with more speed. Finding the right players to fit that scheme over the next few months will be paramount.
"Around this time a year ago today, I’m thinking we’re going to slant and stunt and blitz and everything," Aranda said. "And then the further we go and I get to see the guys that we’ve got, we were not so good going that way. We were much better just playing base. To be honest with you, doing what they were doing the previous three years. That’s what they were good at. So we had a stretch there where we were really playing well, we were doing less than we had ever done. Just playing base. I think all those guys leaving, those strengths leave.
"So this year’s team is not last year’s team. We will be slanting, stunting and blitzing more. Smaller. I think we’ll be more athletic. We’ll be quicker and faster. The stoutness and everything is not going to be there just because that was a special group of guys. You ID what you have and then you try to maximize as best you can."