CHICAGO — Perhaps this is obvious, but you don’t play nose guard in the Big Ten without being a big boy. It requires a special skill — and body composition — to constantly slam into 600 pounds of human resistance on the offensive line, control two players and deal with multiple gaps in the middle of the football field.
Bigger, then, is usually better.
Unless, that is, you are Wisconsin nose guard Warren Herring, whose offseason routine called for just the opposite plan. No more fatty foods like pizzas and burgers. Hello, chicken, salad and vegetables.
"I can cook," he said this week at the Big Ten media days. "No matter what I cook, it’s going to be good. It’s going to be worth it."
Herring certainly hopes the sacrifice will be worth it for his senior season. A year ago, he began the season with a playing weight of 298 pounds. Yet even he recognized the troubles such weight could give him on the field. Though he was much more stout, he also did not necessarily possess the same quickness a leaner player would have.
"I was afraid to step on the scale," Herring said. "I thought it was going to pop like a can of biscuits."
Last season, Herring served as a backup to the 330-pound Beau Allen and provided a nice change of pace in the Badgers’ 3-4 defense. With Allen now with the Philadelphia Eagles, the starting spot belongs to Herring. But this year’s defense is expected to be more explosive in Year 2 under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, creating far more pressure on quarterbacks. In 2013, Wisconsin recorded 26 sacks, which ranked sixth out of 12 teams in the Big Ten.
Given the nature of the changing scheme, the coaching staff asked Herring to drop weight to 285 pounds in the offseason, and he obliged. Now, he has left open the possibility of playing some defensive end — a position he came in playing as a freshman.
"I’m going to have a big role," Herring said. "But I’m looking forward to it, being able to be versatile. I’m a very versatile player, and I think that’ll help out as well."
How much of an impact will Herring have this season? Given personnel issues, the answer could be a lot. Presumed backup nose guard Bryce Gilbert left the program, and he was the only other nose guard on the team to have any playing experience, having appeared in 25 games.
Arthur Goldberg likely will open fall camp as the No. 2 nose guard now. Incoming freshman Conor Sheehy is the presumed No. 3 nose guard, with fellow freshman Jeremy Patterson behind him. None of those players has taken a snap in a college game.
The coaching staff experimented with putting Herring on the end of the defensive line during the spring. But given the departure of Gilbert and the lack of experience behind Herring, Badgers coach Gary Andersen said Herring was "definitely the nose guard" to start the season.
"The development for him to get out and be involved in some pass rushing situations or even play some defensive end for us will completely rely on where do we sit with the other nose guards?" Andersen said. "Is Jeremy going to come in and play that? Is Goldberg going to play there? Is Conor Sheehy going to come in and play to where we feel like we have the ability to get Warren off the field? I’ve challenged Warren. We talk about it all the time.
"We’ve got to be able to get to the point where Warren can comfortably play 50 snaps at a high level. Some may not say that’s a big number or whatever. I think it is for a nose guard. I think it’s a big number to play. Warren says he wants to play 70, so I hope he is (ready). But we’ve got to find somebody that can get him off the field and help him."
Last season, Herring recorded 17 tackles, including six for a loss, and ranked tied for second on the team in total sacks with four. He showed great promise during Wisconsin’s late-September game against Ohio State, tallying a career best two sacks and three tackles.
With a trimmer frame and more opportunity, Herring expects his production to rise when the Badgers need him most.
"I anticipate being on the field as much as they need me to, whether that’s 60 snaps a game or 20 snaps a game," Herring said. "I’m hoping it’s not 20. I’m hoping it’s more like 60. Just doing what I can to help the team out. We lost a 330-pound nose tackle that can do everything for you. He was athletic. He could make plays. He could stop you in the backfield. But I expect to play a lot being a senior. But not just that, it’s having some experience of being a leader."