Looking ahead to the Badgers in 2015: Defense and special teams

Linebacker Vince Biegel has lived up to the hype as one of the top linebackers in the state out of high school.

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Wisconsin’s defense thrived during its second year under coordinator Dave Aranda. The Badgers ranked fourth in total defense, fourth in pass defense, 17th in scoring defense and 23rd in rushing defense. But four starters on the front seven are gone, and now the Badgers will try to retool once again.

On Thursday, we examined the position battles on offense for next season. Here, we take a look at what to expect on defense and special teams. The secondary should be one of Wisconsin’s biggest strengths, while a new coaching staff will have to find a replacement for two stellar inside linebackers. Who is in the mix at all the position groups? Read on:

Statistics won’t really show the impact seniors Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski had on Wisconsin’s defensive line, but their contributions will be missed. Herring, a nose guard, recorded 17 tackles, including two for a loss, but was a steadying presence and ate up space in the Badgers’ 3-4 scheme. Zagzebski, a defensive end, finished with 18 tackles, with two for a loss and one sack.

Herring missed five games last season because of a knee injury, which proved to be beneficial for backup Arthur Goldberg. He started in Herring’s place and wound up with more tackles than any other player on the line (25). Goldberg had not played in a college game before 2014 but will now enter 2015 as a redshirt junior and one of the leaders of the unit. His backups likely will be Conor Sheehy, who impressed as a freshman and saw the field in limited action, and Jeremy Patterson. Patterson was 6-foot-3 and 326 pounds as a true freshman and has the body type to be a force in the middle if he can gain some explosiveness.

Wisconsin will rely on Chikwe Obasih and Alec James to be go-to defensive ends. Obasih was a full-time starter and finished with 21 tackles, 1.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries. James added eight tackles in his first season of play. Both Obasih and James will be redshirt sophomores.

One of the oldest players on the line will be redshirt senior James Adeyanju, who has bided his time in the program and has appeared in 16 career games without a start. Adeyanju tallied eight tackles on the season. But he showed great promise against Western Illinois in Week 2 when, in one quarter alone, he registered five tackles and recovered a fumble. During a three-play sequence, he recorded two of those tackles and then scooped up the fumble that led directly to Wisconsin’s final touchdown.

Jake Keefer will be another redshirt senior in the mix for playing time. He finished with eight tackles and a sack and should provide needed depth at the end position. Another player with potential will be redshirt freshman Billy Hirschfeld, a 6-6, 271-pound Hartland Arrowhead product.

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Wisconsin is bringing in a solid group of defensive linemen, including Nate Howard (St. Louis, Mo.), Jake Pickard (Milburn, N.J.) and David Pfaff (Mequon, Wis.).

The Badgers very well could have the best bookend linebackers in the Big Ten with Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert on the outside. So let’s start with the positive there. Schobert finished fourth on the team in total tackles (69), third in tackles for a loss (13.5) and fourth in sacks (3.0). He has proven to be one of the hidden gems on this roster, particularly considering he was one day from heading to North Dakota of the FCS before the Badgers offered him a last-minute chance to play at Wisconsin. Biegel, meanwhile, has lived up to the hype as one of the top linebackers in the state out of high school. He recorded 56 tackles, a team-high 16.5 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks.

It will be hard to pry those two players off the field, but the Badgers could have some options if necessary. Jesse Hayes, who will be a redshirt senior, finished the year with four tackles and 1.5 sacks. He has appeared in 16 career games without a start. Another player to keep an eye on could be Jack Cichy. He took a redshirt season but seriously challenged for playing time in fall camp before fading. Cichy performed well enough to make the team’s initial two-deep depth chart as a field linebacker behind Schobert. He then moved back to the No. 3 boundary linebacker behind Biegel and Hayes and opted to save a year of eligibility.

If you’re looking for an incoming freshman to have a potential impact, Dominic Sheppard could be that player. The 6-2, 226-pounder from Miami chose Wisconsin over scholarship offers from Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame, among others.

At inside linebacker, Wisconsin loses starters Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter, as well as Marcus’ twin brother, Michael. Marcus Trotter ranked second on the team in total tackles (93), was third in tackles for loss (12.0) and was among the most intelligent players on the entire defense. Landisch finished third in tackles (84), second in tackles for loss (16.0) and first in sacks (9.0). He was so impressive that he earned first-team all-Big Ten honors.

If there is any position defensively that should create cause for concern next season, it’s inside linebacker. Leon Jacobs figures to earn one of the starting spots after recording 28 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He has played in 27 career games and made his first start last season to replace an injured Marcus Trotter.

Who will join Jacobs as the other inside linebacker? D’Cota Dixon could be the answer. He appeared in three games in 2014 before shutting down for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. When he went down, he was listed as the No. 2 inside linebacker on the depth chart behind Marcus Trotter. One other inside linebacker prospect is incoming freshman Nick Thomas (Bradenton, Fla.). Thomas will graduate high school early to enroll at Wisconsin in time for spring practice.

Looking ahead to the Badgers in 2015: Offense

In a word, Wisconsin’s cornerbacks will be loaded. The Badgers return all four of their most valuable pieces at the position, paced by Darius Hillary. Hillary led all cornerbacks on the team with 41 tackles and three sacks and finished with five pass breakups. He played with such consistency that it quickly became clear he was Wisconsin’s top cornerback over Sojourn Shelton, and coaches took note of Hillary’s play, naming him a second-team all-Big Ten selection.

The real head scratcher was the play of Shelton one year after a breakout freshman season in which he recorded four interceptions. For whatever reason, Shelton was not the same player as a sophomore and didn’t tally a single interception (then again, neither did the rest of the team’s cornerbacks). Shelton may have put too much pressure on himself to excel. He acknowledged at midseason that his goal was to pick off eight passes, which would surely have put him among the national leaders. He finished with 33 tackles and six pass breakups but has to develop more consistent play. Shelton said he thought his rollercoaster season would be good for him in the long run so he can get back to the player he was in 2013.

Devin Gaulden will be a key contributor as a senior for Wisconsin. He recovered nicely from ACL injuries to play in all 14 games last season, including five starts. Gaulden finished with nine tackles and could see an even bigger role next year. And the other cornerback, Derrick Tindal, will be a year older and wiser. As a freshman, he tallied 10 tackles and a sack. Tindal had a difficult year personally with the death of his mother, but he had the support of teammates to help him through.

Wisconsin’s only significant loss at safety is Peniel Jean, who became a key contributor after switching from cornerback. He finished with 59 tackles and led the team with two interceptions. In his career, he appeared in 45 games with nine starts.

But the good news for the Badgers is that Michael Caputo still has one more year of eligibility. Caputo is one of the toughest guys in the Big Ten and one of the most versatile. He can play all over the field and led the Badgers in tackles in 2014 with 106. His leadership in the back end was critical to the team’s success.

Lubern Figaro was among the surprises of the season because he earned a starting safety spot as a true freshman. He played in 13 games with seven starts and tallied 24 tackles with an interception. Like most freshmen, his season was filled with ups and downs. But the experience will no doubt prove valuable over his next three seasons.

Two names to watch will be Austin Hudson and Serge Trezy, both of whom should impact the program in 2015. Hudson played in all 14 games as a freshman and finished with 19 tackles. Trezy, meanwhile, was supposed to join the team for the start of last season but missed the first semester because his transcripts had not been cleared. Trezy reportedly runs a 4.29 40-yard dash and initially wanted to play running back in college. But the Badgers offered him a scholarship as a defensive back, and he could thrive there.

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One more name worth mentioning is Leo Musso. Musso will be a redshirt junior who has appeared in 25 games with one start. He earned the first crack at a starting safety spot during fall camp in 2013 before being beaten out for the job.

Of course, one of the most intriguing questions entering the season is what Wisconsin’s coaching staff will do with Tanner McEvoy. Are his days as a quarterback numbered? Will he play some wide receiver to help out with depth? Or will he return to safety, where he played exceptionally well in 2013 and also in the Outback Bowl against Auburn? McEvoy is 6-6 and capable of defending anybody on the field. He recorded 27 tackles at safety in 2013 and had five more tackles against Auburn.

As long as Rafael Gaglianone is healthy, the Badgers are all set. Gaglianone came into fall camp last season and stole the show from the first practice, when he buried all five of his field-goal attempts. That carried over into the season. He made a 51-yard try in his debut against LSU, a 50-yarder against Iowa and finished 19 of 22 overall. He drilled his final 14 field-goal attempts and should have all the confidence in the world entering his sophomore season.

Andrew Endicott handled the kickoff role nicely. He booted 90 kicks, with 28 going for a touchback. Endicott, who will be a junior, has played in 24 games and should maintain his job as the kickoff man next season.

Drew Meyer will be a senior, and he simply has to improve his punting average. He averaged 41.5 yards per attempt as a redshirt freshman in 2012. In 2013, he averaged 38.6 yards per punt, and last season he averaged 37.4 yards — which ranked 104th out of 108 qualifying punters in the FBS.

Unfortunately for Meyer, the numbers have dipped in other areas as well. In 2012, he pinned opponents inside the 20 on 36 occasions, compared with 19 last year and 18 this year. He also had 14 punts of at least 50 yards in 2012, six in 2013 and five in 2014.

Maybe some of Meyer’s struggles had to do with the coaching staff asking him to do too much. The staff wanted a rugby-style punter, and that is not Meyer’s strong suit. As a result, third-string quarterback Bart Houston filled that role, though not without some up-and-down punts. One has to imagine the new coaching staff will shelve Houston in that capacity.

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Is there another punter who could challenge Meyer? Maybe P.J. Rosowski will emerge. As a high school senior at Stoughton in 2013, he averaged 41.3 yards on 39 punts. Beyond that, it’s possible the coaching staff could bring in a walk-on or two.

Kenzel Doe handled almost all of the kick and punt returns in 2014. He returned 24 of 25 punts and 28 of 31 kickoffs. Now that he’s gone, the Badgers will have to find someone else to fill that role.

Who will take over this important spot? Someone with speed and the hands necessary to avoid fumbling, of course. Maybe that person will be senior-to-be A.J. Jordan. He did return one punt for 24 yards last season. The only other players to handle a kickoff outside of Doe were Natrell Jamerson, Dare Ogunbowale and Troy Fumagalli.

Jamerson or someone such as Krenwick Sanders could be an interesting option. Both players are speedy wide receivers with good hands. Tailback Corey Clement has been back for kickoffs before, but one has to believe the staff will want to limit him given his increased role as the primary running back.

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