MADISON - When it comes to Wisconsin's defensive line entering the 2011 season, there is one word that summarizes it's character and substance better than the rest.
There are truly six, eight or 10 players that could conceivably break into Charlie Partridge's rotation. And for most of those guys, playing time isn't even that foreign of a subject.
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"How many guys can you really play before you start throwing guys out of a rhythm," UW senior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. "It's not a bad problem to have at all, but I'm not the coach. I just play."
Not only does Butrym play, but he plays well. He's a leader on a defensive line that could actually be a strength as a unit instead of one that features one outstanding player while the rest fall into a supporting role.
J.J. Watt isn't around anymore. It's time for the defensive line, collectively as a whole, to step up to the plate and make things happen together.
"Every year I've been around everybody has been worried about us," Butrym said. "J.J. is gone. We need to find, not necessarily one playmaker, but a bunch of guys that can produce. Somebody needs to make plays at the critical time in games. He (Watt) had a knack for those things. We're deep and we return a lot of guys. We have a lot of chemistry within our unit and we just return a lot of guys.
"The thing I like about us, even though you bring up the fact that we have experience, is the fact that we're disappointed and have a chip on our shoulder."
That's a collective chip on their shoulder. From Burtrym, Jordan Kohout, Ethan Hemer and Beau Allen on the inside to Louis Nzegwu, David Gilbert, Pat Muldoon, Brendan Kelly and Warren Herring on the outside, the 2011 version of the UW defensive line is as deep as it's ever been.
Every single one of the players listed above, outside of Herring who redshirted a season ago, has game experience. Every single one of them, though they'll compete against each other as individuals throughout camp, comprise one piece that will eventually complete the defensive line puzzle.
"I think that's the key for us," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "J.J. Watt was obviously a great player that had great production, but we're probably as solid at the defensive tackle position as we've ever been. It's not even a question."
The burning question
Will one, or both, of the projected starters at defensive end rise to the occasion?
You can't replace what J.J. Watt did a year ago. You just can't. He was way too dynamic as a player and way too special for someone to simply fill in his role without thinking twice about it.
You can, however, still find a solid contributor at the defensive end position, that will essentially keep what has become a position of strength riding the momentum that has been built up each of the past two seasons.
It's on Nzegwu and Gilbert, the two most seasoned veterans at the position, to take it upon themselves and get to that level. They're both physically gifted and they're both clearly loaded with talent, but until they expand their game starting with the fundamentals, neither will be anything other than a complimentary player.
That's what will need to happen for them to take the next step. They'll need to become more consistent in both rushing and passing situations. They'll have to become more explosive off the line and they'll both have to develop a go-to move that will allow them to eventually wreak havoc in the backfield.
Can one of the two, or both, rise to the occasion and become a special player? I think so. Will it happen? That remains to be seen.
On the rise
By the end of last season Allen was receiving approximately 25 reps per game. Considering he was a true freshman that's pretty impressive. Now that he's trimmed himself down considerably - the team lists him at 310 pounds as opposed to 340 - he will probably be more explosive than he's ever been. We already knew he was one of the stronger players on the team, so compound that with his newfound burst and quickness and he could quickly become a special player from the inside.
Muldoon, like Allen, started getting more involved with the rotation as the season wore on. He finally regained health and confidence in the knee he suffered a torn ACL months earlier and it was showing up on the field. He's powerful, quick at the point of attack and pretty fundamentally sound for a player that hadn't played much during his collegiate career. Assuming he stays healthy, Muldoon will be a major contributor to the defensive end position in 2011.
The most interesting man
He's another player that got reps as a true freshman. Unfortunately for him, he underwent some pretty harrowing groin injuries that had him questioning whether or not he would ever play the game again, and if he did, whether it would be at the same level. Well, fast forward a couple seasons, and it seems as though Kelly could be one of the bigger surprises throughout the Big Ten.
He faired well during spring camp and proved he has the ability to stay healthy for that amount of time. So if that continues UW will add a much needed speed rusher to an already deep defensive end position. It's just all about staying healthy.
Kyle Costigan was tabbed the strongest freshman ever to grace the UW program. He was bench pressing 440 pounds when he first got onto campus.
Bielema on a slimmed down Beau Allen:
"I think he came back from summer break at 338. I think he's down to 310 pounds now. He looks great. He was upstairs in the hallway and I kind of did a second look. It was from behind so I couldn't see his face. He's got that big old ass that is really good for defensive tackles. He just really trimmed up. I really think he might take a big jump."