MADISON, Wis. — Brendan Kelly popped in the game tapes this offseason and didn’t like what he saw from himself in 2011. Kelly, a starting defensive end at Wisconsin, noticed he was a step slow at times and missing legitimate sack opportunities in the backfield.
He wasn’t alone.
“A lot of us d-linemen sat down and looked at the film from last year and saw those sacks that we just missed,” Kelly said. “We really took a hard look at ourselves, especially on the d-line, to put pressure on the quarterbacks.”
Kelly and the rest of Wisconsin’s defensive linemen believe they’ve found some answers as the Badgers prepare to open the 2012 season. Specifically, a healthier, more athletic, explosive and deeper unit could provide Wisconsin with the firepower that was lacking a year ago.
For starters, the Badgers return defensive end David Gilbert, who played well through the first four games last season and appeared on his way to a breakout year, recording three sacks, 3.5 tackles for a loss and a forced fumble. But he broke his right foot during practice in the week leading up to Wisconsin’s Big Ten opener against Nebraska, and when he tried to rush his return in December ahead of the Rose Bowl, he broke the foot again.
As a result, Wisconsin lost its fastest, most feared pass rusher on the outside for the final nine games.
“Whenever you take a guy out of the mix like that,” Badgers co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said, “you can’t just plug another guy in and replace him and expect things to continue.”
Wisconsin surrendered stomach-churning Hail Mary touchdown passes in successive weeks to Michigan State and Ohio State, in part because both opposing quarterbacks had plenty of time to wind up and deliver. And without Gilbert’s services during the Rose Bowl against Oregon, the Ducks ran wild for 345 yards, including touchdown runs of 91, 54 and 64 yards.
Gilbert is now fully healthy and expected to provide much needed support up front.
“The defense can always use a starter,” Gilbert said. “When one is not there, you’re going to notice. I took it as time to coach the young guys. The things you teach, you get better at yourself. I firmly believe in that. I took that as an opportunity to get our team better, get myself better.”
Joining ends Kelly and Gilbert as starters will be tackles Ethan Hemer and Beau Allen, who tallied four sacks last year and could be in for a big season.
“Beau Allen is playing at another level than he ever has right now,” Wisconsin defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. “If he continues to improve, we may have the best pass rusher inside that we’ve had since I’ve been here, and he’s 330 pounds.”
The Badgers lost defensive tackle Jordan Kohout, who quit during the offseason after suffering two minor strokes from migraine headaches. Still, they should have enough depth to overcome the loss. Sophomore tackle Warren Herring, junior end Pat Muldoon, junior end Tyler Dippel and sophomore end Konrad Zagzebski all could get playing time to keep the line fresh.
Kelly said the defensive linemen spent the offseason strength training to increase explosiveness off the line of scrimmage, which could help in some statistical areas of weakness. Last season, Wisconsin ranked 60th in rushing defense, allowing 152.8 yards per game on the ground. The Badgers also tied for 54th in the nation with 25 sacks as a team.
Kelly added that he’s tried to find other ways to disrupt a play if he cannot sack the quarterback. He is roommates with Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips and often picks Phillips’ brain about the best ways to get inside a quarterback’s head.
“Sacks are one thing, but pressure is another thing,” Kelly said. “If you can close the pocket and make the quarterback feel uncomfortable, if you can hit his arm, if you can grab his hip, if you can pull him down once after he throws it — stuff like that is important.”
Badgers cornerback Devin Smith said the change on the defensive line already is evident during fall practice, most notably in the speed department. And that improvement makes the rest of the defense run much smoother.
“You can really tell throughout the practices how quarterbacks are continuing to be rushed and the ball is coming out a lot quicker,” Smith said. “It helps us as defensive backs to make plays on the ball and make plays on the back end.”