MADISON, Wis. -Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge has stated he wants a stable of eight players to rotate through the Wisconsin defensive line. After losing three seniors from last season, the 2009 version of the position will adapt a new identity.
Following spring ball, it seems O'Brien Schofield, J.J. Watt, Daniel Moore and Jeff Stehle will open the season atop the depth chart.
Schofield, who is the quickest and most explosive player on the defensive line has seemingly stepped into the leadership void left open following last season. Always an emotional player, Schofield focused his efforts this spring on leading by example.
"It was important that I just lead by action first before I become vocal," Schofield said near the end of 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 through they've seen me play last year, it's always important to let those guys know you're on all the time."
At the end position, Schofield is explosive off the snap and typically beats his opponent with his speed rush. He isn't overpowering, but he does have the quickness to offset that and get around the edge of the offensive lineman. Hopefully for UW, he will be a consistent threat to get into the opposing backfield.
In addition to Schofield, Watt had one of the more eye-popping spring camps of anyone on the team. After sitting out last season due to transfer rules, Watt wasted little time showing his ability this spring.
He added 20 pounds to this already thick frame and just overpowered people on the offensive line both inside and coming off the edge. He was named the defensive scout player of the year last fall, and looks to be ready to carry over that drive and determination to the field this upcoming season.
"I feel improved upon myself," Watt said. "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."
Watt also has a knack for the ball. On several occasions throughout spring, Watt was able to bat down balls at the line of scrimmage. That ability, and his brute strength will be essential this fall.
At this point, Brendan Kelly, David Gilbert and Anthony Mains will also likely see action in the rotation at the end position. By coming into spring early, Gilbert, who has a great frame that will allow him to continue to grow, was able to get a jumpstart on learning the basics of the position. If he continues to progress as quickly as he did this spring, he will see plenty of reps this fall.
On the interior, Daniel Moore and Patrick Butrym engaged in a camp long battle for a shot with the starting unit. Both have added weight to their bodies and seem to be stronger than they were last fall.
For Moore, the real challenge this spring was moving from the end position back into the interior tackle spot. After coming in last spring following junior college as a defensive end, Moore is beginning to feel comfortable inside.
"This is a completely different monster at this level," Moore said when asked about playing inside earlier in his career. "Playing inside, on false step; wrong hand placement is the difference between a lost gap and getting reached."
The battle between Butrym and Moore will likely extend through fall camp before each receive plenty of reps when the season starts. Then throw in Jordan Kohout, who had an impressive spring camp as a early enrollee, and this tackle rotation could be relatively deep.
At the other tackle position, it seems Stehle has a strong hold on the starting spot. Throughout camp, it was obvious Stehle was playing with more intensity than he had in the past and that likely helped his intangibles. With his big body, he has an ability to plug plenty of gaps with run defense and get a decent push up the middle in the pass rush.
But perhaps the most underrated benefit of the spring was the chemistry between Partridge and his entire line. By being with the team for an entire year, all the players know what to expect from him and are all on the same page.
"One good thing about this d-line that we have right now is everybody has been coached by coach Partridge," Schofield said. "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."
Projected Depth Chart:
-J.J. Watt, SO.
-Brendan Kelly, FR.
-O'Brien Schofield, SR.
-David Gilbert, FR.
-Anthony Mains, FR.
-Daniel Moore, SR.
Patrick Butrym, SO.
-Jordan Kohout, FR.
-Jeff Stehle, SR.
-Dan Cascone, SR.
-Eriks Briedis, FR.
As compared to this time a season ago:
The most important thing is the defensive line was able to stay mostly healthy throughout spring. The most serious injury at the position was Louis Nzegwu's knee injury that kept him out for half of camp, but every one else was able to stay healthy and compete throughout.
At this time a year ago, the line was decimated. Mike Newkirk, Matt Shaughnessy, Dan Moore and Jason Chapman all missed significant time that didn't allow for much unit cohesion during spring ball.
This season, the depth is great. There are legitimately eight guys that can play at a high level without a drop off. It was obvious that fatigue played a major role down the stretch of games last season, but with such a deep unit this year, that should not be the case.
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