2015 Badgers season preview: Defensive front seven

Badgers defensive end Arthur Goldberg played in all 14 games and made six starts last year.

Jeff Hanisch/Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

 

This is the third in a series of four previews examining Wisconsin’s football team by positions. Today’s grouping: defensive front seven (defensive line, linebackers).

Defensive line

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6

Projected starters: defensive end Arthur Goldberg (redshirt junior), nose guard Conor Sheehy (sophomore), defensive end Chikwe Obasih (redshirt sophomore).

Key backups: defensive end Jake Keefer (redshirt senior), defensive end Billy Hirschfeld (redshirt freshman), defensive end Alec James (redshirt sophomore), defensive end Zander Neuville (redshirt freshman), nose guard Jeremy Patterson (redshirt freshman), nose guard James Adeyanju (redshirt senior)

The breakdown: Wisconsin loses plenty of leadership with the departures of Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski. But there is a fair amount of experience on the defensive line to keep the Badgers among the Big Ten leaders on that side of the ball.

No starting position on the defensive line has officially been earned, but Goldberg figures to have a prominent place at defensive end. A year ago, Goldberg saw extensive action at nose guard after Herring sustained an injury in the season opener against LSU. Goldberg played in all 14 games and made six starts. He played at his best in some of the team’s bigger games last season. He recorded a career-high five tackles against both LSU and Iowa and registered four tackles with a tackle for loss against Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

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Sheehy began the spring as a defensive end but left spring as the team’s top nose guard. That’s quite a feat for a player who is only a sophomore and recorded a total of two tackles last season. Playing nose tackle is one of the most important positions in Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense because it requires the player to be selfless, to occupy double teams so the defensive ends and linebackers can tackle the ball carrier. Statistics, in other words, are not generally indicative of that player’s success.

Sheehy will have a lot on his plate given that Goldberg, who filled in at nose guard last year, has moved to defensive end. Backup nose guard Jeremy Patterson, meanwhile, is raw and has yet to play in a college game.

Last season, Obasih finished with 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He ranked second on the team with four quarterback hurries. And he did it all, he said, without ever really understanding how to play with proper technique, using his athleticism instead to force his way into the backfield. With a year of starting experience under his belt and improved technique, he should be even better in 2015. During the team’s spring game, he recorded four tackles with a team-best 2.5 sacks for a loss of 27 yards. He also forced two fumbles and recovered one.

Best position battle: One player to watch is defensive end Alec James, who was in constant competition for playing time with Obasih. James played in all 14 games last season with two starts at end and should be a big factor in 2015.

Linebackers

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 9

Projected starters: outside linebacker Joe Schobert (senior), inside linebacker T.J. Edwards (redshirt freshman), inside linebacker Leon Jacobs (junior), outside linebacker Vince Biegel (redshirt junior)

Key backups: Jesse Hayes (redshirt senior), Garrett Dooley (redshirt sophomore), Jack Cichy (redshirt sophomore), Ryan Connelly (redshirt freshman), Keelon Brookins (redshirt sophomore), D’Cota Dixon (redshirt freshman), Nick Thomas (freshman), Ty DeForest (freshman)

The breakdown: Despite the fact T.J. Edwards and Leon Jacobs have much to prove in a new role this season, optimism abounds for Wisconsin’s linebacker group. Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch ranked second and third in total tackles last season, but there is no reason Edwards and Jacobs can’t have similar success in their absence.

Jacobs has played in all of the team’s 27 games the past two seasons. During the Badgers’ spring game, he finished with eight tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Edwards said Jacobs "has a great knack of formation recognition" and can call out what will develop before the play. That element is essential for any good linebacker, and it’s something Chris Borland and Trotter both had the past two seasons. Jacobs should be the next in line to continue that trend.

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Edwards has yet to play in a game at Wisconsin, but his development over the past year has been stunning. He ascended all the way into a starting inside linebacker spot during spring ball and was a menace to the Badgers’ offense, putting himself in the right spot to intercept passes and finding ways to scoot into the backfield for tackles. Expectations for him seem especially high for the foreseeable future.

Schobert was a force last season in his first year as a full-time starter at outside linebacker. He ranked fourth on the team in total tackles (69) and was third in tackles for loss (13.5). He also led the Badgers with seven pass breakups, five quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. In his career, he has played in 32 games with 15 starts and should help Wisconsin once again have one of the top linebacker units in the Big Ten.

Biegel, meanwhile, finished sixth on the team in total tackles (56), first in tackles for loss (16.5) and second in sacks (7.5). He also added two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and four quarterback hurries for good measure. There are perhaps no greater bookends in the Big Ten at outside linebacker than Schobert and Biegel, who both appear in line for special seasons.

Best position battle: One name to remember next season could be D’Cota Dixon. He’s been off the radar since undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery after appearing in only three games last season. But the fact he was such a valuable player as a true freshman speaks to his talent. Keelon Brookins played in seven games last season, and Jesse Hayes played in 12 games. Wisconsin’s depth at linebacker, then, should be solid in 2015.

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