In switching from a 4-3 defense to the 3-4, the Badgers are doing a lot more than just swapping out a defensive lineman for an extra linebacker. The 3-4 requires each player to change where they line up and it asks them to change their mindset and per-play goals.
You'll see this subtle but important change the most on the defensive line this year, where the Badgers have a wealth of experienced options to choose from. Seniors Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, and Pat Muldoon should all return to their starting roles if they can stay healthy, but the Badgers still have a few things to sort out during fall camp.
How will the defensive line handle the new scheme?
This is one of the most important questions the Badgers need to answer on defense this fall. Allen, Hemer, and Muldoon have 56 career starts between them, but the Badgers used a 4-3 scheme during their previous seasons on campus. They combined for 76 tackles and 15.5 tackles for loss last season, but the 3-4 scheme isn't designed to get the defensive line a lot of glory statistics like tackles, sacks, and TFLs.
Allen, Hemer, and Muldoon are more important to the defense as space-eaters in the 3-4. Instead of focusing on blowing by offensive linemen to get to the quarterback, Wisconsin's defensive line will need to focus on tying up multiple offensive linemen at one time. If they can do that effectively, it will open pass-rushing lanes so linebackers like Chris Borland can get to the quarterback instead. The defensive line will be doing the dirty work, but it's work that needs to be done if the Badgers want their scheme to click.
Making the switch from straight pass-rushing to eating up space and stopping the run is just as much a mental change as it is a physical one. In talking with the players during the spring it didn't seem like any of them would have trouble changing their focus, but it's something to keep an eye on this fall.
What do the Badgers do after this season?
The Badgers are uniquely equipped to run the 3-4 in Gary Andersen's first year as head coach. Scheme switches like this can take time, because head coaches usually only recruit players who fit in to their preferred scheme. The Badgers are lucky that Allen, Hemer, and Muldoon all fit in to a 3-4 scheme, but they'll be looking for a whole new set of starters this time next year after they've graduated.
So while you might not see some position battles on the defensive line's first team this year, keep an eye on how the second and third teams shake out in fall camp. Konrad Zagzebski, Warren Herring, Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, and Bryce Gilbert will all battle for spots in the two-deep this fall, and the Badgers are adding some new blood to the mix with four-star recruit and Brookfield, Wis., native Chikwe Obasih arriving on campus.
A few of those players will see action on the field this season, and getting some good reps in this year could help the Badgers when they make their big transition before the 2014 season.