Badgers put out ads for Watt’s replacement
In 2009, defensive end O’Brien Schofield blossomed into a first-team All-Big Ten Conference performer who helped UW overcome the loss of all four starters on the line.
In 2010, defensive end J.J. Watt blossomed into a first-team All-America performer to help UW overcome the loss of Schofield.
Who, if anyone, will blossom in 2011 to overcome the loss of Watt?
“Losing J.J. obviously is a big loss,” first-year co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said of Watt, who recorded seven sacks, 21 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries, nine passes broken up and three forced fumbles. “But we have a lot of guys coming back that should step up and hopefully replace that production.
“It is too early to tell who that guy is going to be. But coach Partridge does a great job and it is somebody else’s time. It is the next man in. Somebody will rise up and be the leader of the group and be a playmaker.
“If not, they do what they need to do collectively.”
Based on the number of returning defensive linemen and the results of spring practice, UW will have to beat opponents with quantity.
Partridge, who came to UW before the 2008 season, enters camp Friday expecting to be able to use as many as six tackles, led by fifth-year senior Patrick Butrym, and at least three ends, with fifth-year senior Louis Nzegwu and junior David Gilbert possessing the most experience.
Partridge, promoted in the off-season to co-defensive coordinator, said replacing Watt’s productivity will be accomplished by committee.
“The guys who have a lot of reps under their belt...their production has to increase,” he said. “In my mind it is those guys increasing their production together to try and accommodate for what J.J. did.”
One wild card at end is Brendan Kelly, a 6-foot-6, 255-pound redshirt junior who has seen his playing time limited and development stunted by a string of injuries. He played in three games as a freshman in 2008 before suffering a broken hand, which ended his season.
He played sparingly in eight games in 2009 because of a groin injury that turned out to be more serious than the UW medical staff first thought. That injury—Kelly learned several muscles had been torn from his pelvis—led to three surgeries and no playing time last season.
Despite the missed playing time, Kelly was the third end in the spring and Partridge predicted he could eventually move up the depth chart.
“If he is healthy, he is fighting for a starting position,” Partridge said.
Nzegwu needs to elevate his play and possesses the athletic ability to do so. He generally was in the proper position in the scheme last season and finished third on the team in tackles for loss (7˝) and eighth in total tackles (46). However, too often Nzegwu appeared hesitant, which resulted in missed opportunities for big plays.
Gilbert made a splash on special teams as a freshman in 2009 but was quiet on defense last season (21 tackles, 1˝ for loss).
“I think all three of us can contribute in our own ways,” Kelly said. “We all have strengths. We all have weaknesses. The best part is that we’re all friends.
“Whether it is those two starting and me coming in or me and Louis (starting) or me and David (starting) .?.?. whatever the game plan is I think we’re going to be happy with where we’re at.”
Partridge faces fewer questions on the inside.
Butrym has steadily developed into a solid player and leader in the locker room. Now he must post better numbers than he did last season (28 tackles, 2˝ sacks).
Based on spring practice, Partridge could pair redshirt sophomore Ethan Hemer, redshirt sophomore Jordan Kohout or sophomore Beau Allen with Butrym.
Kohout (22 tackles, 1˝ for loss) started the first seven games last season. He suffered an ankle injury in Week 7 against Ohio State, missed the next week at Iowa and couldn’t dislodge Hemer from the starting lineup.
Hemer (21 tackles) started the final six games and generally held the point of attack well enough to complement Butrym.
Allen didn’t post big numbers (15 tackles in 13 games), but he came on late and looked better in the spring after dropping from 340 pounds to 316. He enters camp listed at 310 pounds.
“The other three are really battling for that spot and it is fun to see,” Partridge said. “One day it’s Kohout. One day it’s Hemer. One day it’s Beau Allen.
“It is a good problem to have.”