Thursday, August 30, 2007

Wisconsin Badgers 2007 Football Preview: the Defense and Special Teams

The season looms ... time runs short ... not much time for a preview. Sorry.

Your starting defensive tackles: Jason Chapman, Mike Newkirk, and Nick Hayden. On the depth chart, Chapman and Hayden are listed as the starters, but these three will rotate in throughout the course of the game. They will batter running backs who dare test them and will rush the passer with furious aplomb. A fearsome unit last year, the DTs will improve, hopefully when it comes to penetrating the opposing line. Backing up the starting rotation are two guys who've never seen the field as Badgers, redshirt freshman Brandon Hoey and redshirt sophomore Jeff Stehle. Hopefully Chapman, Newkirk, and Hayden stay healthy. (This will become a theme on defense, as you'll see.)

Your starting defensive ends: Kurt Ware and Matt Shaughnessy. Shaughnessy is a rising star, picking up second-team All Big Ten honors last season, his sophomore year. Shaughnessy started seven games as a freshman and has been impressing ever since. Ware, on the other hand, is a fifth-year senior whose story was supposed to be about overcoming injuries and valiantly winning his position in the face of adversity. Then Jamal Cooper got kicked off the team and the keys were simply handed over to Ware. The fact that he has recently recovered from knee surgery is disturbing. After the starters, the cupboard is pretty bare; note this article, which has Mike Newkirk stepping in as backup end. Ouch.

Your starting linebackers: Jonathan Casillas, Elijah Hodge, and DeAndre Levy. Another damn fine unit, these guys will be fun to watch this season. Casillas plays on the weakside and was an all-conference pick last year, making 83 tackles (12.5 for a loss) and being fast fast fast. Levy, a junior, led the team in sacks last season with six last season. Hodge is the spottiest of the starters but only because the position he takes over (middle linebacker) was capably filled by Mark Zalewski last season -- he wasn't plugged in with great frequency.

Again, the backup situation is not promising, with true freshman Blake Sorenson the primary backup on the strongside, unused Culmer St. Jean backing up Hodge, and unproven junior Jaevery McFadden filling in behind Casillas. Maybe one or more of these guys will prove themselves as the season goes along, but an early injury to one of the starters might prove disastrous.

Your starting cornerbacks: Allen Langford and Jack Ikegwuonu. Again, you know these guys. Ikegwuonu was All-Everything last year, exactly the sort of corner you don't want to go up against, and one of the primary reasons Wisconsin had the #1 defense against the pass in the nation (imagine Brandt from the "Big Lebowski" saying that last part). Allen Langford broke out last year after having been merely average, doing well enough to pick up honorable mention when the all-conference awards came out. Coverage is expected to be good this season. And, mirabile dictu, we have experienced backups at the position; fifth-year senior Ben Strickland and true sophomore Josh Nettles will spell Jack and Allen, and the depth chart actually lists true freshman Aaron Henry as Langford's primary backup, so he must be pretty solid.

Your starting safeties: Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant. And now we come to the sketchy part of the defense. Both of these guys were hurt last year and will be thrown into the fire early. This will be the first significant action Carter and Pleasant will have seen in their careers. Evidently they both outplayed the (slightly) more experienced Kim Royston, which might be an indication that the backups aren't quite ready for prime time either. I fear for this unit.

Your specialists: kicker Taylor Mehlhaff and punter Ken DeBauche. What can I say, both are great at what they do. Mehlhaff was 15-for-20 on field goal attempts and made all 47 PATs he tried. DeBauche averaged over 41 yards per punt. There is no need to worry about this unit. The return game is not yet set, but look for lots of contributions from the receiving corps -- Jefferson, Swan, Gilreath -- and look for them to improve upon last year's efforts.