Junior defensive end J.J. Watt raised a few eyebrows at the start of the University of Wisconsin football team’s spring practices when he went where few people would dare to go and vowed the team’s defensive line won’t be a weakness this year.
That’s the same line that lost three senior starters, including all-everything defensive end O’Brien Schofield.
It’s the position that has no seniors and 13 first- or second-year players (out of 19 overall); the unit with one defensive tackle — junior Patrick Butrym — who has played a down at this level.
“You lose four of your five traveling defensive tackles and you lose O’Brien Schofield,” defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. “That’s a lot to try and fill. But I’m happy with the way the kids have progressed.”
The Badgers faced similar questions a year ago and Watt sees no reason why the line can’t exceed expectations again.
“The media and all that, they see stuff from the outside,” Watt said in the spring. “What we see is a Wednesday 6 a.m. workout. We see guys watching tons of film at night. We see guys working out in the weight room and trying out new moves every single day. We see guys staying after lifts. When you put in all that type of work and that type of preparation for the season, you’re not going to let yourself down by being a weakness.
“Trust me, we’re not going to let the defensive line be the weakness.”
Watt has seemed to be on a personal mission ever since to back up those words with his actions. Coaches and teammates praised the leadership he has shown since last season ended.
“Nobody’s going to replace O.B. as a leader or a football player on our team,” Watt said. “He was obviously a huge asset to us, but I’m going to do everything in my power to try and replace him and step into the leadership void we have. Anything I can do to help our team out.”
Perhaps the best thing the defensive line has going for it is Partridge, the third-year coach whose relentless attention to fundamentals paid huge dividends last season.
UW coach Bret Bielema called Partridge “one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around.”
“I wouldn’t count coach Partridge out,” Butrym said. “He’s a great coach. I can’t sing his praises enough.”
The Badgers led the Big Ten Conference in run defense in 2009 and ranked fifth nationally, allowing an average of 88.2 yards per game. That was down from 133.3 yards per game in 2008.
They didn’t allow a Big Ten team to rush for 100 yards against them and allowed just 2.9 yards per carry.
“If we can provide a strong defensive line, the rest of the defense will follow,” Watt said. “That’s really what we’re trying to do.”
UW also tied for the Big Ten lead and tied for 10th nationally in sacks with 37, led by Schofield’s 12. That’s an area Watt focused on most in the spring.
“Last year, my pass rush wasn’t up to snuff,” said Watt, who was third on the team with 4½ sacks. “O.B. had most of the sacks for our defensive line, so I really want to step up my game in that area.”
The spring battle between junior Louis Nzegwu and sophomore David Gilbert to start at end opposite Watt should continue in camp.
Bielema is encouraged by their progress.
“They look great,” Bielema said. “They definitely made a nice step in the right direction.”
Butrym showed flashes in the spring of becoming more of a playmaker, which the defense needs.
“It’s good to see him produce, not just hold the point (and) hold the gap,” Partridge said. “To get him to do that and then escape and make a couple plays, we need that.”
Redshirt freshman Jordan Kohout has emerged as the other starting tackle and must continue to progress.
“He’s gotten a little bit better fundamentally each day,” Partridge said. “There’s still a number of things he needs to work on, but his approach has been pretty good for a second-year college player.”
The Badgers are committed to maintaining a rotation inside, so redshirt freshman walk-on Ethan Hemer or incoming freshman Beau Allen could get on the field. The other option is Watt, since the depth at end is better.
“J.J. doesn’t want to hear this, but he’s always the wild card if we get into a pinch,” Partridge said. “We want to keep him at that strong side D-end, but if we get to where we have to (move him inside), then we’ll do what we have to do to win football games.”