April 23, 2010

Post spring camp: Defensive line

MADISON - When spring camp started midway through March, there was no question defensive line coach Charlie Partridge was hoping to find a stable of eight players that could rotate freely throughout the position.

Now that spring camp is finished, it seems as though the position is closer to achieving that goal.

When thinking of the defensive line, the play of J.J. Watt immediately comes to the forefront. He is simply the most important, and most heavily relied on, player at the position.

As one of only a couple players with experience returning, Watt is going to be a focal point for opposing offensive lines and that is a true compliment to the way the junior has progressed throughout his stay in Madison.

With his size, 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds, Watt is simply an athletic force at the defensive end position. And perhaps more importantly, Watt is simply focused on getting better. That's all he wants to do.

"I'm trying to be a leader and I'm trying to step in and pick up from what O'Brien (Schofield) and Chris Maragos left behind," Watt said early in spring camp. "We need a guy like that. We need a guy that guys can look to and say, 'Hey, I want to follow him. I want him to lead our team into battle.'

"I'm trying to be the guy every single day for our team out here and hopefully these guys follow the work ethic in the weight room, on the field and in the classroom."

Physically, Watt is one of the better defenders against the rush on the team. His big frame and quick feet allow him to close holes fairly quickly and plug any momentum an opposing runner may have had. As far as his pass rush goes, there can still be work done.

That's not to say he's struggling with pass rush, it just shows he has room for improvement with his step off the line, leverage techniques and quickness to the backfield. Should he put everything together, it seems as though Watt has all the potential in the world to become one of the better defensive linemen to go through the UW system in quite some time.

"One of the biggest things I'm trying to work on is my pass rush because I was a little disappointed in it last year," Watt said. "The first thing is my first step off the line. I'm definitely trying to work on that.

"Every single day, if I can get a little bit better on my pass rush and keep improving in the run game I'll be just fine,"

One of the more intriguing aspects of the defensive line is the other defensive end position. Throughout camp, David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu participated in an interesting position battle.

It's interesting simply because both players will receive plenty of reps during a given game, so jockeying for position as a starter shot to the forefront. Now that camp is complete, it seems as though Nzegwu has secured a slight lead heading into fall camp.

He is also the roommate of Watt and the two have a strong bond with one another, one that demands excellence both off the field and on it.

"J.J. is a really great motivational person," Nzegwu said. "He's going to be there along with me."

The work ethic in that apartment seems to be one of its strong suits. Watt is already a shoe in at the defensive end position, but he isn't happy with that and isn't settling with simply having that label.

Nzegwu, a player trying to make a name for himself, follows that Watt rhetoric.

"I saw what OB did last off-season going into the spring and he was a hard worker," Nzegwu did. "He did a lot of off-season stuff to help him throughout the season and throughout the spring. I'm trying to mimic as much as I can. It's hard to mimic what OB did, because he did a great job. I'm just starting earlier with what he did.

"I think as an overall player myself, I've improved a lot."

Gilbert, who battled with Nzegwu throughout camp, is also an intriguing prospect. At only 18 years of age, it seems as though Gilbert was fitted with a grown mans body. He's thick, strong, fast and very athletic. Gilbert, along with Nzegwu, will provide a great amount of speed off the edge for a defensive line trying to fill the void left by Schofield.

"They are capable to smooth the transition," Partridge said. "To replace what OB did for us in that fifth year of his is going to be challenging to say the least. But you know how it is in college football. Kids graduate and we need kids behind them to get better and do anything they can to produce within the scheme."

Badger fans can fully expect to read and hear a lot about the development of both Gilbert and Nzegwu as the battle that started this spring will continue later this fall.

Before moving inside and focusing on the defensive tackles, it's important to note the fact that Brendan Kelly and Tyler Westphal made it through spring camp without many major setbacks.

Though, at this point, they don't seem to be a legitimate threat to factor into the defensive line rotation in the fall.

"They have to come a long way," UW head coach Bret Bielema said following the spring game. "Brendan Kelly has never really been a guy that's been able to stay here consistently just do to injuries. Tyler has had the same thing, some inconsistencies, due to injury. It's nothing to their fault, they've just been a little snake-bitten in that category.

"For us, right now, they're not in the picture from a playing standpoint unless they really make a big jump in the summer to be in that rotation."

Inside, three players stood out during spring drills. Patrick Butrym, who likely solidified his spot as a starter, was probably the most consistent of the crew. That, however, should come to be expected from a junior that has accrued plenty of experience over his career.

Besides him, Jordan Kohout made strides inside that have him a legitimate starting threat as the season inches closer. Should he get stronger over the summer and add a couple of counters to his arsenal, Kohout should have most tools necessary to be a fine defensive tackle in the Big Ten.

After starting his career with a couple speed bumps, Kohout has really settled into the playbook and seems comfortable with his role as a redshirt freshman.

"It was nice knowing that the coaches can trust me and I can be in there, do the work and make plays," Kohout said. "Coach Partridge, he was telling me that he knows I can make plays and I finally started showing up, which was really nice. I'm proud of myself and just have to keep moving forward every day."

Other than Butrym and Kohout, Ethan Hemer made some strides during his first spring drills on campus. At 6-foot-6, 291 pounds, Hemer has all the size needed to play a legitimate role in the rotation. As a rather raw prospect, though, he still has some work to do before he receives the multitude of reps he will likely get later in his career.

There are plenty of dark horses at the position, though.

Can Eriks Briedis stay healthy long enough to make a strong push at playing time? Is Anthony Mains finally starting to develop a mean streak that will allow him to utilize his tall frame as a defensive end? Where will Tyler Dippel find a home on the defensive line? Can Warren Herring build on his first spring as a collegiate football player? And how will Pat Muldoon recover from a devastating knee injury?

There are plenty of tools in place for the defensive line to be successful, it's just a matter of whether all the pieces will fall into place.

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