A little over a week away from their date with the Tigers in Houston, the Badgers defense ready themselves for the challenge from one of the SEC's toughest programs.
MADISON -- Since 2010, Wisconsin has faced the following opponents in its first game of the season: UNLV (twice), Northern Iowa and Massachusetts. Their combined records for the years they played the Badgers: 10-38.
Come Aug. 30 on a big, national stage at NRG Stadium in Houston for the Advocare Texas Kickoff, the No. 14 Badgers will take on SEC heavyweights and No. 13 LSU. In the past four seasons, head coach Les Miles and his program have won 44 games and played in the 2012 BCS National Championship game. This year, the Tigers boast plentiful but inexperienced talent at several key offensive positions including quarterback and wide receiver. The Badgers' defense and its senior leaders, themselves experiencing winds of change with nine major contributors no longer with the program, look to evolve.
The defense's personnel losses from last year include eight players in the front seven of Aranda's 3-4 defense. Gone are Chris Borland, Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and Dezmen Southward -- all now competing in the NFL -- among others who helped make the Badgers' defense a top-10 squad in rushing yards per game (fifth) and total defense (seventh).
Though there are questions for the untested defense -- the projected front seven has a combined 11 starts -- there are a few that return who;ve made significant contributions. Back are senior linebackers Derek Landisch, who's played in 38 games, and Marcus Trotter, who filled in for an injured Borland at Iowa and Illinois in 2013 and led the team in tackles both games.
Trotter knows every day in camp counts, as he feels the pieces are falling into place as players continue to adapt to new schemes being installed by defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. His defensive teammates are excited to take the field, focusing on each practice and trying not to lose sight of the Tigers, who return four starters to the offensive line led by senior left tackle La'el Collins.>
Fellow senior Warren Herring believes the defense is coming along, and its collective work ethic is paying off.
"It's going well," said Herring, who will be seen as both a nose guard and a defensive end in certain packages according to Andersen's comments on Thursday.
"There's a lot of guys working hard, getting better. I feel like we're going to be prepared come the 30th."
LSU lost starters at two major skill positions. Gone are wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry -- taken in the first and second rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft, respectively -- along with quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who was drafted in the sixth round.
A young but very talented group of receivers, led by sophomore Travin Dural and supplemented by hyped 2014 commits Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, will have to replace a combination of Beckham and Landry that combined for 136 receptions in 2013. Similar to Wisconsin's situation at quarterback for most of camp, Miles stated sophomore Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris could both find the field next Saturday. Jennings has some, but limited, game experience from last year, earning victories against Arkansas and Iowa in the Tigers' final two games.
The running backs, like Wisconsin's duo of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement, are talented and deep. Seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will be complemented by true freshmen Darrel Williams and Leonard Fournette. Fournette, listed at 6'1, 230 pounds, and rated one of the best high school recruits for the 2014 class overall, is expected by many to become a go-to back for the Tigers at some point this season.
With no game film on this year's LSU team, along with the young talent that appears to be making noise down in Baton Rouge, how have the Badgers prepared? Trotter said the schemes and tendencies are similar to Wisconsin's own offense, which along with studying the Tigers' 2013 game film and preparation from the scout-team offense, has given the defense some good looks as to what to expect.
"Their system is a lot like ours, too, in terms of offensively," Trotter said.
"Even just going against our offense this whole camp, we're getting ready going against them. They're very, very similar in terms of pound-by-pound football, so I think we're definitely getting looks. Even though in the first game they always throw some crazy gadgets here and there, but every offense has their base scheme -- they always do."
Returning three of its four starters, the Badgers' secondary was the least hit by defensive turnover. Gone is Southward, but cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary, along with junior safety Michael Caputo, come back to secure the defensive backfield.
Caputo was a pleasant surprise at safety last season, starting 12 games and earning All-Big Ten honorable mention from the media. During the offseason, he's worked on improving his coverage skills and become a surer tackler. He knows a program like LSU will not just rebuild but reload each season with its stock of talent.
"LSU, they're always going to have weapons," Caputo said.
"They're always going to have guys that can run 4.4 [40-yard dash] speed. They'll have good quarterbacks, good running backs. We wouldn't prepare for them any different if it was last year's team." -Mike Caputo, on LSU
"They're always going to have guys that can run 4.4 [40-yard dash] speed. They'll have good quarterbacks, good running backs. We wouldn't prepare for them any different if it was last year's team. We're just going through the same processes. It'll be different now that they have a lot of young guys, and it's the same for them. We have a lot of young guys. They don't know our style of play, if you will, because we have some many inexperienced guys and things like that at more athletic positions."
Wisconsin's defense has its young influx of talent as well. Opposite Caputo on the first-team defense is true freshman Lubern Figaro, who's flashed this fall camp. Also expected to see some time at safety is sophomore Leo Musso, fifth-year senior Peniel Jean and another true freshman, Austin Hudson.
Caputo believes the safeties and secondary have jelled well with the first-team defense, and all know they need to play at a high level to face not just LSU, but any of their other opponents this season.
"There's no first-string, second-string, third-string," Caputo said.
"Everyone needs to play at the first-string level because one play, one guy goes down, the next guy has got to come in and expect to be the exact same, you know what I mean -- expect to do well, perform at a high level.
"Everybody needs to come, and I think we're getting to that point."
Injuries have hindered some playing time for the linebackers, as both Trotter (hamstring tightness) and his twin, Michael (concussion), along with Landisch (hamstring) and sophomore Vince Biegel (head injury) have been hampered by some ailments during the first two weeks of camp. The inside and outside linebacker positions might have the least amount of depth on Wisconsin's team outside of the two-deep.
When healthy, though, the quartet of starters in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 scheme-- which includes sophomore outside linebacker Joe Schobert -- has a very high potential to become playmakers. Trotter expects production out of his experienced position mates, along with leadership to help its defense through the up and downs of the game.
"We have the ability, we have the skill, we have the brains to do it, so I think we have the production to do it," said Trotter.
Leadership from the upperclassmen is part of the recipe for a solid defense. Herring recorded four sacks in 2013 despite only starting one game, but saw plenty of action as the reserve nose guard behind Allen. Joining him on the front line is senior linemea Konrad Zagzebski. The 6'3, 277-pound linemen from Weston, Wisconsin, played at end for most of camp but will also transition to nose guard in Herring's place at times -- a move Herring said exemplifies Zagzebski's role as a leader to step in wherever needed.
Yet, the defense's success will also depend upon the younger players stepping up. Herring's also pointed to others on the defensive front three, among them redshirt freshmen Chikwe Obasih and Alec James, along with sophomore nose guard Arthur Goldberg, as linemen who've stepped up and taken it upon themselves to improve every day during camp.
"Yeah, most defintely, but that can only go so far," Herring said, referring to the senior leadership on this Badgers defensive line.
"The young guys have to wanna work at it and wanna get better at it as well, and that's what they do. They do it everyday. They come out with a great attitude and they continue to get better. They're definitely rising above expectations for this fall camp."
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