J.J. Watt

This year, the question during fall camp is how the Badgers can replace J.J. Watt (99), the right-place, right-time playmaker who was the 11th overall pick in the draft.

M.P. KING - State Journal archives

Two years ago, everyone wondered how the University of Wisconsin football team would replace the pass rush of defensive end Matt Shaughnessy, a third-round NFL draft pick.

Hello, O’Brien Schofield.

Last year, those same people wondered how the Badgers would replace the big-play ability of Schofield, a fourth-round pick who would have gone much higher had he not blown out his knee before the draft.

Hello, J.J. Watt.

This year, the question during fall camp is how the Badgers can replace Watt, the right-place, right-time playmaker who was the 11th overall pick in the draft.

Hello ... umm ... well ... that’s to be determined.

Co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge, who coaches the line, has some ideas on the subject of whether the Badgers will find an “eraser” among a deep group of linemen this season, but he doesn’t have any answers. Not yet, anyway.

“There’s guys that are peeking around the corner,” Partridge said Wednesday. “Louis (Nzegwu) is showing flashes of that and so is Pat Butrym. Those are the two that are showing flashes of being guys that I think can really help by becoming those erasers.”

Partridge is getting used to these discussions. Every year people wonder if the line is going to measure up and every year it is one of the more productive areas of the team. But can the line be as good as last year without a true playmaker who can defeat double-teams, draw attention from others and make up for mistakes at other positions?

“Yeah, we’ve had some production,” Partridge said. “Last year it was really through committee at three positions and J.J. was extremely productive. Whether it’ll be by committee as much this year or we have the true eraser ... remains to be seen.”

A word to the wise: Don’t expect a dip in production from the line. Fewer big plays up front? Maybe. But overall production? Not likely.

For one thing, Partridge has a track record in developing a number of consistent producers and finding at least one big-play specialist. Second, except for Watt, everyone who contributed last season is back. Finally, the Badgers have 12 or 13 guys with the potential to play a role this season, making it one of the deepest areas of the team.

Partridge’s first task is to select the eight or nine players who will be in his rotation. Currently, Butrym, Ethan Hemer, Beau Allen, Jordan Kohout and Kyle Costigan are the top five tackles, with Eriks Briedis close behind. At end, the top six are Nzegwu, David Gilbert, Pat Muldoon, Brandan Kelly, Tyler Dippel and Warren Herring. Konrad Zagzebski has also earned a second look during camp.

“I think everyone knows how I operate here,” Partridge said. “I’m looking for that group of eight and, truth be told, I’d like to have three guys that are tackles and three guys that are ends that I consider No. 1s, where I have no problem really rolling those guys through.”

According to Partridge, Muldoon is pushing Gilbert for a starting spot opposite Nzegwu, the only senior at end. Partridge also is anxious to see what the oft-injured Kelly can do when he gets healthy because he made some plays during spring practice.

Butrym, the only senior tackle, and Hemer are returning starters inside and Kohout and Allen played a fair amount last season. The surprise is Costigan, who spent time with the second team Wednesday.

Since they can’t all play at once, the real problem is replacing Watt, who had seven sacks and 21 tackles for loss last season. It wasn’t just Watt’s numbers, either. He always seemed to make a big play just when the Badgers needed it most.

“I think one guy coming down and making that charge play — the Iowa sack when they were driving down at the end of the game, there were a number of times in the Ohio State game — that’s hard to replicate,” Partridge said. “You’ve got to hope that guys, by working their tails off, can step up, whoever’s in the game. But to point to one guy and say, ‘I need you to do it on this play,’ I think that will be hard to do.”

If anyone can do it, Partridge believes, it’s the two seniors. Nzegwu has demonstrated big-play ability but not with any consistency. Butrym is in the best shape of his life and therefore more explosive, but it’s hard to make a ton of big plays from the inside.

If nothing else, Partridge knows how good he’s had it the last two years with Schofield and Watt.

“To say I wasn’t spoiled, I’d be putting my head in the sand,” he said. “Those two were special. But I do think we have a chance for a couple of guys to become special here.”

If that’s the case, you can say hello to another strong UW defense.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.