MADISON, Wis. — To say Chikwe Obasih came from out of nowhere on Wisconsin’s defensive line would not be an entirely fair statement. The guy was a force at Brookfield Central High, a first-team all-state pick and one of the top recruits in Wisconsin.
Even last year when he wasn’t playing, head coach Gary Andersen remembers Obasih being the toughest guy on the scout team, knocking people back into last week. So no, Obasih’s development this spring — from third-stringer to presumed starter at defensive end — did not surprise those who have seen him put in work since he joined the program.
"We knew he was on scout team last year, but we knew what kind of player he was," Badgers linebacker Vince Biegel said. "We knew he was going to be a key contributor for us this year. He’s going to be a great player for us in the future. I’m excited to see him as a pass rusher and, as he improves, what kind of things he can do for us."
Where Obasih goes from here remains to be seen, but the redshirt freshman certainly is off to a stellar start. He has taken especially well to defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense, even though he played in a 4-3 in high school.
Obasih said he thought coaches noticed him because of his knowledge of the playbook and ability to grasp what spots he needed to be at on the field. But he isn’t willing to reflect just yet on his ascension into the starting rotation.
"It’s something, but I set high standards for myself," Obasih said. "The coaches set high standards for myself. I know where I can be. But I’m not there yet. Not near enough. I’ll be working for that over the summer."
So, what does he want to improve?
"Footwork and technique on my own," Obasih said. "My biggest flaw is my pad level. As spring went on, I started to get lower. As spring started to get toward the end, I started rising up again. That’s something I need to work on. Flexibility, getting low, speed off the edge."
Obasih will serve as a key component to a re-tooled front seven that has lost most of the team’s leading tacklers. Gone are linebackers Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong, Conor O’Neill and Brendan Kelly. So, too, is starting nose guard Beau Allen, along with defensive linemen Pat Muldoon, Ethan Hemer and Tyler Dippel. Those eight players combined for 318 tackles, including 35 tackles for loss and 16 sacks.
Aranda has said for the past two months that he expects next season’s defense to be much faster and more explosive, which should create more pressure on quarterbacks and force turnovers. Obasih, at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, appears to fit exactly the mold for which Aranda has been searching.
"He’s developed pad level," Andersen said. "He’s developed the ability to play with his hands. He controls his feet very well. And now his mind has cleared. The waters have calmed. So his ability to react to what’s coming his way after spring break just kind of really developed and gave him the opportunity to get in position to make plays.
"And then he was the toughest guy last year on the scout team day in and day out as far as just coming out and knocking around. As light as he was then, he just kept on fighting and battling. So he has a toughness that we learned he had a year ago, and that’s just continued to grow."
Obasih could pair with Konrad Zagzebski at the end positions alongside nose guard Warren Herring. With linebackers Biegel, Joe Schobert, Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter all returning, Obasih believes the entire defense is highly underrated.
"I feel like this defense will be special," Obasih said. "People are saying it’s a rebuilding year, but that’s not fair to Zags and Warren and both the Trotters and Landisch. It’s not fair to them. We can’t be labeled that. We have to go out, compete with the best and try and accomplish something this season."
Added Biegel: "I think from the beginning of the spring to right now, guys have immensely improved from the d-line, from the linebackers. Yes, there’s still work left to go. I think we’re going to be trying to develop ourselves this offseason to be those playmakers this fall."
Front and center in that group will be Obasih, who is far from satisfied.
"I’ll be trying to have something shine out during the fall camp," he said.