Better or worse? Previewing Wisconsin's defense in 2020
Wisconsin’s defense put together another impressive showing in 2019 and figures to make even bigger strides as a major strength of the team this season. Last year’s success is something college football fans have come to expect over the past decade from the Badgers. Aside from an uninspiring 2018 season, the last time Wisconsin’s defense ranked outside the top 20 in scoring came in 2010. The Badgers allowed 16.1 points per game last year, which placed them 10th in the country.
With the majority of Wisconsin’s defense returning, coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit is expected to excel in 2020. How will it measure up to last season’s results? Let’s compare the two.
Pressuring QB: Worse
While Wisconsin has quite a few pieces returning to a talented defense, it is losing key linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun. They combined for 33.5 tackles for loss and 24 of the Badgers’ 51 sacks in 2019. If there is a question to be had about the Badgers’ 3-4 defense this season, it could be getting to the quarterback.
Junior inside linebacker Jack Sanborn is the leading returner in sacks with 5.5. Also on the inside will be Leo Chenal, who played in 11 games as a true freshman and will be relied on even more in 2020.
Now, where is the production going to come from on the outside? That’s the unknown, but the Badgers need to fill the outside linebacker shoes of Orr and Baun, both of whom are getting ready for NFL training camps. Senior Noah Burks and junior Izayah Green-May will likely be the starters on the outside in Week 1. Burks played in all 14 games and finished with 7 tackles for loss and 2 sacks, while Green-May played in 11 games, adding 1 sack.
Wisconsin tends to reload very well at linebacker, especially on the outside, so maybe somebody else will break out and be the next star pass rusher.
The defensive line has shown plenty of ability to get after quarterbacks, and we may see more of that in 2020 with a very experienced group. Along the line, junior Matt Henningsen tallied 4 sacks last season, and senior Isaiahh Loudermilk added 3.
Run defense: Better
Wisconsin’s defensive line made huge strides last season after injuries crushed a struggling unit that lacked depth in 2018. Now, every contributor is back, which is huge for the Badgers’ ability to stop the run. This is a fairly deep unit on a defense that allowed 102.4 yards per game on the ground in 2019, which ranked 9th in the country.
Wisconsin’s defense typically features only 3 players on the line at a time, but defensive ends Loudermilk, Garrett Rand and Henningsen are all capable of being starters with sophomore Keeanu Benton plugging up the middle at nose tackle.
Leonhard will be able to mix in several players and rotate backups Bryson Williams and Isaiah Mullens when needed and not miss much of a beat.
Pass defense: Better
Wisconsin’s best defensive unit likely will be its secondary. Aside from Ohio State, the Badgers might have the best collection of DBs in the Big Ten, and most have tons of experience.
Senior cornerback Caesar Williams ended last season strong with an incredible performance against Minnesota to return the axe back to Madison. He will team with junior Faion Hicks as the other starting corner. Junior Rachad Wildgoose will see plenty of action this season as the Badgers’ 3rd cornerback.
Senior free safety Eric Burrell excelled in creating turnovers last season with 3 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries. The second safety position is not necessarily set in stone as junior Scott Nelson is returning from an injury that forced him to sit out nearly all of last season. Sophomore Reggie Pearson and seniors Collin Wilder and Madison Cone could be in the mix as well.
Special Teams: Better
We’re looking solely at punting, which Wisconsin should be able to improve on from last season. The net average was 36.1 yards, which ranked 11th among Big Ten teams in 2019.
Anthony Lotti booted 45 of Wisconsin’s 48 punts last season but made 2 huge errors in dropping the snap in the Big Ten Championship and again in the Rose Bowl. Both plays were big momentum swingers in eventual losses, and Lotti was benched in the Rose Bowl for Connor Allen. Both players are out of eligibility, and nobody else has college punting experience.
Redshirt freshman Blake Wilcox was expected to contend for the punting job, but he’s no longer a part of the team. Junior Conor Schlichting is the only punter listed on Wisconsin’s official roster.
With Wisconsin losing a few stars on offense, the defense should be the strength of this team. With tons of experience at all levels, the coaching staff has to be excited to see what this group can do. While getting to the quarterback will be the question heading into preseason camp, Wisconsin has plenty of evidence to show it can develop that next star who can get into the backfield on a regular basis. The Badgers should be expected to once again be a top 10 defense in college football.