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NCAA Football

2011 Badger football outlook: defense and special teams

Like the offense, the Badger defense lost key players to the draft and graduation after the 2010 season. But also like the offense, they retain a decent sized core of younger players. DE J.J. Watt, OLB Blake Sorenson, MLB Culmer St. Jean, SS Jay Valai and CB Niles Brinkley will all be missed, but one could make the argument that all of them but Watt came into the season with their fair share of question marks, so Badger fans shouldn’t be too concerned with the losses.

Wisconsin also lost defensive coordinator Dave Doeren, who left to accept the head coaching job at Northern Illinois. I’m unsure how much his loss will impact the defense, although head coach Bret Bielema seems to like his replacements, Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge. Especially if LB Chris Borland — who missed last season with a shoulder injury — is able to return, the Badgers might be able to duplicate or improve in 2011 after finishing 2010 as the 20th ranked defense in the FBS. Lets take a position-by-position look at the 2011 Wisconsin defense and special teams units.

Defensive Line
The Badgers only lost one player on this unit, but it was certainly an important one. J.J. Watt, who will likely go in the top 15 in the NFL draft in couple months, was easily Wisconsin’s best defender in 2010. He provided the brand of consistent and relentless penetration Badger fans haven’t seen since the days of Erasmus James.

Watt is impossible to replace, but the Badgers do return the other three starters on the defensive line. End Louis Nzegwu had an up-and-down year in 2010, but he did manage to finish third on the team in tackles-for-loss (7.5) and second in sacks (three). Whether or not Nzegwu is able to consistently pressure the quarterback will have a lot to do with how well this unit is evaluated at season’s end. Defensive tackles Patrick Butrym (junior) and Jordan Kohout (redshirt freshman) both played adequately in 2010, combining for 3.5 sacks, but they’ll both need to step up in 2011 to fill the void left by Watt. Kohout was a highly-regarded recruit coming out of high school, so look for him to break out in his third year with the team.

Sophomore David Gilbert and redhirt freshman Pat Muldoon will likely compete for the other starting end position. Gilbert is extremely athletic but undersized. Muldoon showed good burst in limited playing time in 2010.
2010 grade: B+
2011 outlook: marginally weaker

Linebackers
The performance of this unit will probably go a long way towards determining whether or not Wisconsin’s defense will be able to replicate the success they had in 2010. After the loss of Borland, things looked bleak for Wisconsin’s linebacking unit in 2010. However, seniors MLB Culmer St. Jean and OLB Blake Sorenson both exceeded expectations and were the top two tacklers for the Badgers last season. Sophomore OLB Mike Taylor also had a strong season, finishing second on the team in tackles-for-loss.

Obviously, Taylor will be back, but Borland’s status is still unclear. After suffering a torn labrum in 2009, his left shoulder was repaired in January 2010, but he re-injured it against Arizone State Sept. 18. Re-injuries are always a cause for concern, and I’ve heard from someone close to the situation the tissue in his shoulder is in pretty bad shape. Borland was the 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. If he returns at the level he played that season, he could very nearly replace Watt’s pass rushing presence by himself. If not, the Badgers will have no choice but rely on someone else to play the OLB opposite Taylor. Junior Kevin Rouse and redshirt freshman Ethan Armstrong both saw playing time in each game last season, so they figure to be the front-runners.

Junior Kevin Claxton will likely replace St. Jean in the middle. As a backup, Claxton recorded 24 tackles and two tackles-for-loss in a solid 2010 campaign.
2010 grade: B
2011 outlook: stronger if Borland is healthy and in form, weaker if not

Secondary
I think the improvement of this unit from 2009, when they were dreadful, to 2010 had a lot to do with Ash being promoted to co-defensive coordinator. He helped convert redshirt junior Aaron Henry from cornerback to free safety, freeing up a spot for junior Antonio Fenelus, who was named first-team All-Big Ten last season. Henry was named second-team All-Big Ten and senior Niles Brinkley received an honorable mention nod. One could make a strong argument for senior strong safety Jay Valai making one of those teams as well.

Valai and Brinkley are gone, but Henry and Fenelus figure to be two of the best at their respective positions in the Big Ten in 2011. Junior Devin Smith had a rough showing in the Rose Bowl, but had a solid 2010 season as a whole at the nickleback spot. He’ll likely move into a starting role in 2011. Strong safety Shelton Johnson wasn’t spectacular in limited playing time backing up Valai in 2010, but it’s probably a safe bet that Ash will have him ready by the beginning of the 2011 season. The Badgers should have one of the best secondaries in the Big Ten in 2011.
2010 grade: B+
2011 outlook: stronger

Coaching
Ash and Partridge have been impressive as assistants, but coordinating the whole defense will undoubtedly be tougher. They’ve got a solid and experienced group of players, but they’ll be hard-pressed to find a pass rush if Borland is unable to go. It will be interesting to see how the Badgers respond to their new coordinators.
2010 grade: B+
2011 outlook: ???

Special teams
The Wisconsin special teams were maddeningly inconsistent in 2010. There were certainly highlights. The four blocked kicks, David Gilreath’s touchdown on the opening kickoff against Ohio State and the two incredibly successful fake punts were all memorable. However, Wisconsin’s coverage teams ranged from mediocre to downright awful in 2010. Those units almost cost the Badgers a win against Arizona State. Phillip Welch was alright in 2010, but he missed a crucial chip shot in the Rose Bowl that might have won the game for the Badgers.

Welch and punter Brad Nortman both had middling numbers in 2010, and both will be back for their senior years in 2011. Both have strong legs, but need to improve on consistency and accuracy. All-time Big Ten return yardage leader David Gilreath is gone. Running back James White and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis may get looks at both return jobs. Diminutive incoming freshman Kenzel Doe is supposedly a return specialist.
2010 grade: C+
2011 outlook: same