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March 11, 2014

Badgers raising the speed limit

MADISON, Wis. - It is impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when Dave Aranda knew that his defense needed to get faster. But Wisconsin's defensive coordinator said he knew something had to change after the Badgers' controversial 32-30 loss to Arizona State last fall, where the Sun Devils gashed Aranda's defense through the air.

The problem was that there wasn't much Aranda could do in the middle of the season to upgrade his defense's speed. The Badgers tried to get more athletes on the field later in the season by moving quarterback Tanner McEvoy to safety and shifting Michael Caputo closer to the line of scrimmage as a hybrid safety-linebacker, but in the end there was no getting around their defensive line. Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon and Ethan Hemer were big, stout, and effective, but just weren't fast enough where Aranda could call plays the way he wanted to.

"It's about the players," Aranda said Monday after practice. "You love the schematic part of it and you love the matchups and you love attacking protections, the bells and whistles- but it's about what your players can do."

In short, the Badgers couldn't chase down runners in the backfield or get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Aranda said that his 2013 defense finished with fewer negative plays (sacks and tackles for loss) than Wisconsin's 2012 defense did, despite bringing pressure about 33 percent more often last year.

But now, with six of last year's front seven starters gone, the Badgers are diving headfirst into a schematic change that rivals last year's switch from a traditional 4-3 front to Aranda's two-gap 3-4 defense. No less than nine defensive players have switched positions during Wisconsin's offseason, with every move following the same pattern to achieve the same goal: get faster at every position.

So far several former safeties have moved down to play outside linebacker, outside linebackers have moved either inside or down to the defensive line, and cornerbacks have moved back to safety. As such Alec James and Garret Dooley are now playing as smaller defensive ends, and Michael Caputo, Keelon Brookins and Michael Trotter are playing as outside linebackers, among other changes.

Aranda's strategy is new to Wisconsin, but the second-year coordinator said it has worked before. Playing with smaller and quicker players is nothing new to Aranda or head coach Gary Andersen, who used the same model at Utah State in 2012. Aranda and Andersen's 2012 defense was particularly lighter than last year's defense at nose tackle, defensive end and at inside linebacker- three spots where the Badgers are not so coincidentally trying to get leaner and faster.

Going small on defense is a somewhat risky strategy, considering the Big Ten Conference's history of producing big, physical teams that run downhill behind big running backs and bigger offensive linemen- exactly like Wisconsin's own offense. Aranda said stopping good running games will be a top concern as his defense slims down and speeds up, but he seemed confident that his unit will have a knack for defending power offenses when the 2014 season kicks off this fall.

"I think one of the advantages we have is our [own] offense," Aranda said. "If you go around the country … the teams who are good against the spread … usually their offense runs the spread. They see the tempo every day, they see the pace of things- the bubble screens, the zone reads. I think there's some transfer there. I think that's in our corner."

But in changing how they determine "prototypical size" at each position, the Badgers are also adapting to the changing face of college football as a whole. More teams are ditching the pro-style offense in favor of spread-to-pass attacks that feature multiple receivers, so much so that pro-style acolytes like former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema and Alabama head coach Nick Saban have advocated for rule changes that would force college football's fastest offenses to give defenses a breather.

In lieu of rule changes, defenses need to adapt or die.

"Defense is based on what the offense does. That's how we do it," safety-turned-linebacker Michael Caputo said. "If they come out with all athletic guys at receiver we're not going to throw in some big guys, we're going to put in a lot of defensive backs. It's really just trying to get better guys on the field to play against teams like Northwestern and Ohio State. Football is getting faster. It's getting a little more horizontal instead of downhill."

As part of the transition the Badgers also had to make sure their support programs were on the same page. Head strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon said he and his staff gave honest opinions when the coaching staff asked about how players like James and Dooley would fit at new positions, and said that as a whole his offseason training program didn't have to change much at all from last year.

"For us really it was staying within our philosophy, staying within the program," Simon said. "[We] just maybe [increased] the workload as far as fast-twitch muscle activation and speed development for some of the guys."

And from Simon's standpoint the Badgers already had speed on their roster. He highlighted players like James, Chikwe Obasih, Brookins and other players in Wisconsin's 2013 signing class who will see more of the field in their second year on campus, giving them a chance to show just how athletic they can be.

"As a whole there was great speed in the wheelhouse, and now it's just letting some of that speed out and run," Simon said.

In the end the Badgers are taking a calculated risk in moving away from the bigger, slower players who were the building blocks of their past 4-3 defenses. Aranda wants faster players because he thinks they will create more big plays, as well as allow him to call a more diverse game and bring pressure from unexpected spots.

If it works the Badgers could reap the benefits right away in 2014: they have a weaker conference schedule that won't make them play Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan. If they play their cards right in the Big Ten West they could find themselves with a chance to compete for another Big Ten Championship and a potential spot in the first-ever College Football Playoff.

If it doesn't work the warning signs will show up right away. The Badgers are scheduled to play LSU in their first game of the season at Reliant Stadium in Houston on Aug. 30. Wisconsin's smaller, quicker front will have to take on an LSU offensive line that is set to return four of five starters who tipped the scales at nearly 315 pounds on average last year.

Only time will tell if the overhaul gives Aranda the speed, sacks and tackles for loss he is looking for, or if the Badgers will go back to the drawing board this time next year.

John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.

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