July 23, 2009

Fall Outlook: Defensive Line

With Wisconsin's fall camp only a matter of weeks away, BadgerBlitz.com takes a look at the individual position groups. Today, our continuing series takes a look at the defensive line.

With three long-time contributors from a season ago gone following graduation, the defensive line has formed a new identity. With O'Brien Schofield as the lone returning starter, there are a decent amount of questions regarding the position heading into fall camp.

Departing Starters: Mike Newkirk, Matt Shaughnessy and Jason Chapman
Returning Starters: O'Brien Schofield
Top Reserves: Brendan Kelly, Patrick Butrym, Dan Cascone, Louis Nzegwu, David Gilbert and Jordan Kohout.

Post-Spring Depth Chart:

Defensive End:
So. J.J. Watt (6-6, 285)
Fr. Brendan Kelly (6-6, 240)

Defensive Tackle:
Sr. Daniel Moore (6-2, 278)
So. Patrick Butrym (6-4, 280)

Defensive Tackle:
Sr. Jeff Stehle (6-6, 291)
Sr. Dan Cascone (6-3, 296)

Defensive End:
Sr. O'Brien Schofield (6-3, 242)
So. Louis Nzegwu (6-3, 240)

Overview: One of the most impressive players throughout spring camp was J.J. Watt. After sitting out a season to comply with NCAA transfer rules, Watt proved he was ready and anxious to make an impact on the defensive line this season. He adds a great dimension of power and athletic prowess to a defensive line losing a lot of talent.

Though he can and did play both inside and out during spring camp, the UW coaching staff has Watt listed as an end on the post-spring depth chart. Joining Watt will be Schofield, the lone returning starter from a season ago, at the other end position. Schofield has the most consistent playing time experience of the entire position, and looks to be emerging as a leader by example.

"It was important that I just lead by action first before I become vocal," Schofield said during spring camp. "At times when I had to be vocal I was. I chose to take the role of showing action first.

"I think I will be more vocal after spring ball because I felt like I had to prove myself again to those guys. Even though they've seen me play last year, it's always important to let those guys know you're on all the time."

Finally, rounding out the starters are tackles Moore, a junior college transfer who saw playing time in a relief role a season ago, and Stehle, a veteran of the UW program. However, unlike a season ago, the tackle position seems to be deeper which will allow for less fatigue and hopefully a better product on the field.

The Pro: Schofield. As the quickest and most explosive player on the defensive line, Schofield will likely accrue plenty of attention from opposing linemen. He is not overpowering physically, but his quickness off the line offsets his lack of pure power. He is a prototypical rush end that should allow for other members of the line to make plays because he will draw that much attention.

The Rising Star: Watt. It was evident from the start of spring camp that Watt was going to be a beast on the defensive line. He has great brute strength that allows him to overpower most of the people lining up across from him. During the past season, Watt was dominating the scout team and it was that experience, as well as a newfound 20 pounds of muscle that has elevated his game to the level it is at now.

"I feel improved upon myself," Watt said during spring camp. "Especially in the weight room I feel a lot stronger. I feel like I can lock guys up better and I feel my weight a little bit better. I can use it a little bit more because I was a little lighter before."

Another dimension to Watt's game is his ability to seek out a pass and bat it down at the line of scrimmage. For opposing teams that like using the middle of the field, this should be a welcome advantage for UW. While Watt has great power, he will need to continue to improve and gain experience in actual game situations. It may not happen immediately, but down the road, Watt will be a key part of the success of the defensive line.

The Rookie: Gilbert. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Gilbert is relatively undersized for a Big Ten defensive end. However, his frame is one that suggests he has plenty of room to grow and not lose any of his quickness or elusiveness. As an early enrollee during spring camp, Gilbert proved he has a very high ceiling. He is quick off the ball and utilizes sound fundamentals to make a play on the quarterback or stay disciplined in his run gaps. It wouldn't be too far fetched to see Gilbert gain experience in a similar manner that former Badger Kirk DeCremer did.

Battle to Watch: Moore vs. Butrym. After coming to UW a season ago following a stint at junior college, Dan Moore was a bit hampered by a knee injury that kept him out the majority of spring camp in 2008. However, he recovered and played plenty of meaningful snaps last fall.

Entering spring, Moore was moved inside to make room for Watt on the exterior. Admittedly so, that took a bit of an adjustment period for him to get used to the switch.

"This is a completely different monster at this level," Moore said during spring camp. "Playing inside, one false step; wrong hand placement is the difference between a lost gap and getting reached."

Butrym also had an impressive go during spring camp and will definitely figure into the rotation when the season begins. Both Butrym and Moore added bulk to their frames following a new weightlifting program and look to be ready to continue their battle deep into fall camp.

Expectations: Last season, the defensive line struggled against the run, especially late in games. There were certain times when the line looked particularly fatigued and that speaks to the lack of depth at the position. Now, under second year defensive line coach Charlie Partridge, the depth looks to be much stronger.

"One good thing about this d-line that we have right now is everybody has been coached by coach Partridge," Schofield relayed during spring camp. "Some of the other guys had two other coaches before coach Partridge. It's hard to sometimes break tendencies and habits that you learn from other coaches.

"It's good that we're all going to be on and have the same fundamental technique."

Still, replacing three talented performers from last year's squad will likely take some time. However, with the bevy of players poised to break into the rotation, the same fatigue that hampered the unit last year may not be as severe. And in turn, the line may be in a position to be stronger, especially late in games.

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