MADISON, Wis. - There's no point beating around the bush here: the Badgers need to find some players to step up on the defensive line this spring.
Just like at tight end the Badgers have lost multiple seniors who saw a lot of playing time during their careers: Beau Allen, Pat Muldoon, Ethan Hemer and Tyler Dippel combined to play in 207 games over the last four seasons. Hemer and Allen also deserve some kind of "iron man" award, because both players played in each of Wisconsin's last 54 games from 2010-2013.
They left behind some pretty big shoes to fill, and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will look for players who fit the prototypes for his scheme to replace them. Allen, Hemer, Muldoon and Dippel all played admirably in a 3-4 defense after working in a 4-3 scheme over the last three seasons, but Aranda said he had to simplify some parts of his scheme to put them in the best position to succeed.
"I think [with] all of those guys leaving, those strengths leave, so this year's team is not last year's team," Aranda said on national signing day of the departing seniors from his front seven. "We will be slanting, stunting, and blitzing more, we'll be smaller and I think we'll be more athletic, we'll be quicker and faster but … the stoutness and everything is not going to be there because that was a special group of guys."
With that in mind, here's who I'll be watching this spring as the Badgers continue their switch to a true two-gap 3-4 defense:
Herring likely to succeed Allen at nose guard
Warren Herring is the odds-on favorite to start in the middle of Wisconsin's defense this season. At 6-foot-3 and weighing 294 pounds Herring is about 31 pounds lighter than Allen was last year, but that does fit in with Aranda's vision of quicker and faster players. Herring has already shown a nose for the football as well. He was tied for second on the team with four sacks and played in all 13 games as Allen's primary backup. It's not the same as brining back a full-year starter from last year, but both Allen and defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a said they liked the progress Herring made in his first year playing as a 3-4 nose guard. Herring has also moved around a lot since joining the team: he has also played as a 4-3 defensive end and a 4-3 defensive tackle, so getting another year at the same position could give him a big boost moving forward.
The Badgers will need to find a backup to Herring, though. Kauha'aha'a likes to rotate his players when possible to keep them fresh late in games, so the Badgers will likely need one or both of Bryce Gilbert and Arthur Goldberg to take their game up a notch. At 6-foot-2, 305-pounds Gilbert is a little closer to Allen's body type, and Goldberg will need to show the coaching staff he's ready to contribute or else incoming freshman Jeremy Patterson might pass him up for playing time this fall.
Help wanted at defensive end
The Badgers have one veteran player returning at defensive end in senior-to-be Konrad Zagzebski. A 6-foot-3, 278-pound lineman from Weston, Wis., Zagzebski has played in 30 games during his career, and is a safe bet to start at one of the defensive end spots in 2014 after he cracked last year's two-deep behind Ethan Hemer.
The other spot is a little trickier to figure out, though. Of their four remaining defensive ends only two of them, Jake Keefer and James Adeyanju have seen any playing time: a combined 12 games played over four non-redshirt seasons. Keefer missed all of the 2013 season after tearing his lateral meniscus during fall camp last year, although he did get in some work during Wisconsin's bowl practices and looked to be moving around pretty well.
Keefer will likely compete with James Adeyanju for the second starting defensive end job, although both players will likely need to have gained some weight after they both weighed in at 265 pounds last fall.
Other players like Logan Schmidt will likely compete for back-up roles this year. Schmidt is an interesting candidate because he is listed at 6-foot-4, 278-pounds, which is closer to what teams usually look for size-wise in a 3-4 defensive end, but might not be as big of a factor in his favor if Aranda is committed to playing quicker and faster players on the defensive line.
Keep and eye on Chikwe Obasih and Alec James this spring, too. Both players needed to put on some weight during their redshirt seasons, so it will be interesting to see where the Badgers list them this spring. James is rumored to have moved from outside linebacker to defensive end, so we'll see if that move pays off for the Badgers down the road.
Projected depth chart:
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.