Better or Worse: Previewing Wisconsin's defense in 2022
Wisconsin had a very productive year on defense in 2021 under Jim Leonhard.
The Badgers finished the year with 2nd-least points allowed per game in the B1G with 16.4 per game. They also led the conference in overall yards allowed per game (240.8).
For the majority of the regular season, Wisconsin looked dominant as ever. But they looked lost against Michigan and Notre Dame, allowing 38 and 41 points in 2 of their 4 losses. Following blowout losses in back-to-back weeks to fall to 1-3, Wisconsin only allowed 20 or more points on defense 2 more times before the end of the season.
After losing 8 starters to the NFL Draft, Wisconsin will need to make up some ground. The Badgers only have 3 returning starters on defense heading into 2022.
With that being said, here are some predictions for how Wisconsin’s defense will look this season:
Pressuring the QB: Worse
It’s only natural that the Wisconsin pass rush should take a decline after losing the likes of Leo Chenal, Jack Sanborn and Matt Henningsen to the NFL Draft. However, while those players aren’t returning, they didn’t lead the team in sacks last season.
That title goes to junior LB Nick Herbig, who led the Badgers with 9 sacks. The return of Noah Burks into the linebacker rotation should soften the blow as well. Here is Herbig shedding his blockers to get to the quarterback against Arizona State last year:
— DLineVids (@dlinevids1) December 31, 2021
If Herbig and Burks can have breakout seasons, they should have a chance to eclipse double-digit sack totals. The OLB rotation will also see CJ Goetz, Darryl Peterson, TJ Bollers, Kaden Johnson and Aaron Witt competing for snaps.
The Badgers will also have some new faces at inside linebacker. Jordan Turner and Tatum Grass most likely will be the ones to try and fill Chenal and Sanborn’s shoes. It’ll also be interesting to see how new ILB coach Mark D’Onofrio will use them.
While the pass rush for Wisconsin should be worse, there’s a chance for some new faces to make their mark.
Run defense: Even
Wisconsin lead the nation in rushing yards allowed last season, but they will have to make up for the departures of Matt Henningsen, Bryson Williams and Michael Balistreri on the defensive line. Although changes will be made on the line, the Badger run defense should be fine.
They still have some returning pieces who could post some great numbers. DE Isaiah Mullens and NT Keeanu Benton are still around to lock down the D-line.
Benton showed his ability to disrupt the offensive line many times last season:
Yea, this could’ve been a pick.
But look at Keanu Benton work on a play that won’t show up on the stat sheeet
— Ben Kenney (@benzkenney) September 5, 2021
The Badgers will once again be led by defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej, who was a key reason why Wisconsin allowed just 64.8 rushing yards per game last season. It will be interesting to see how he plans on using Rodas Thompson, James Thompson, 2021 Oregon transfer Isaac Townsend and others now that Henningsen and Williams are gone.
It’s time for some Nick Herbig praise as well. Not only did Herbig lead the team in sacks last season, but he also had the 3rd-most total tackles with 61. His efforts, combined with the strong D-line that Kolodziej will muster up, should be a tough group to run the ball on.
All in all, the Wisconsin defensive line should be one of the more reliable aspects of their 2022 defense, much like it was last season.
Wisconsin had the 6th-best passing defense in the nation and lead the B1G with 175.6 passing yards allowed per game. With how much they lost in the secondary, Wisconsin’s passing defense should be worse this season.
Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams have now gone on to the NFL. It looks like Dean Engram will be moving to WR. Plus Donte Burton and Deron Harrell have hit the transfer portal. While losing those guys could hurt, head coach Paul Chryst went ahead and picked up 3 new corners from the transfer portal. The return of veteran safety John Torchio following his breakout season in 2021 should help mend the secondary as well.
This clip of Torchio in the Las Vegas Bowl last season shows off his ball hawking ability:
Yes, we see you John Torchio!
— SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl (@LasVegasBowl) December 31, 2021
Cedrick Dort Jr. (Kentucky), Jay Shaw (UCLA) and Justin Clark (Toledo) should all be fine additions.
Dort has a ton of experience under his belt, appearing in 44 games for the Wildcats. Shaw should also be a great help with his experience. One of the highlights of his 2021 season was being tied for the most interceptions on his team with 3. Clark doesn’t have as much experience as Dort or Shaw, but was a solid and reliable contributor for the Rockets with 5 interceptions and 114 total tackles during his time with Toledo.
Wisconsin fans should see the same level of production, if not better, out of their secondary if all of these players play up to their potential.
Special teams: Slightly better
The Badgers will have 1 more season with Andy Vujnovich as their punter. He averaged 46.4 yards on 46 punts for Wisconsin in 2021, and should be a reliable option once again. Vujnovich won’t be the problem for Wisconsin’s special teams this year, that’s for sure.
Given that Jim Leonhard is still running the show in Madison this fall, Wisconsin should yet again have another solid defense.
There are some areas that Wisconsin could do better in, like many teams, but the Badgers will be a tough defense to break. If QB Graham Mertz struggles early on like he has in the past, Wisconsin’s defense should get even more attention than usual.
Despite losing some talent to the NFL, Wisconsin has reloaded thanks to the transfer portal and the overall depth it has at multiple positions.
The Badgers defense should be fun to watch once again.