Wisconsin Football: Defensive two-deep entering fall camp

Badgers inside linebacker Jack Sanborn celebrates a tackle during the first half against Michigan.Mjs Uwgrid Uwgrid22 01869
Badgers inside linebacker Jack Sanborn celebrates a tackle during the first half against Michigan.Mjs Uwgrid Uwgrid22 01869 /

Fall camp is underway and the Wisconsin football defense returns a great deal of experience coupled with heightened expectations for the season ahead. Many, myself included, are picking Wisconsin as the favorite to win the Big Ten West.

The defense has been the heartbeat of the Wisconsin football program for years now, and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard looks to take this unit to new heights.

With so many spots already spoken for, opportunities to make an impact will be tough to come by for some of the younger players. However, the team isn’t without young talent pushing for additional reps. It will be interesting to see how things unfold, so today we take a look at where the two-deep stands entering camp.

Defensive End

1. Matt Henningsen (RS Sr.)
2. Rodas Johnson (RS So.)

1. Isaiah Mullens (RS Jr.)
2. James Thompson (RS Fr.)

The defensive line is the position with the most uncertainties and inexperience on the Wisconsin football defense. Henningsen has gotten plenty of playing time over the years and should be a plug-and-play option. However, Mullens is expected to start opposite of him and has received very few snaps in his career. Mullens is incredibly strong and could very well be the answer at the position, but right now we just don’t have enough of a sample size to go off of.

Behind the projected starters is a plethora of inexperienced options with some upside. This defensive line is going to need more than one of these young players (Thompson, Johnson, Townsend, Jarvis) to step up and play their way onto the field, especially in a defense that requires the defensive lineman to eat blocks and free up the linebackers to make plays. This is a position to monitor closely during camp because reliable players in the trenches are necessary for this defense to reach its full potential.

Nose Tackle

1. Keeanu Benton (Jr.)
2. Bryson Williams (Sr.)

Nose tackle is a position of strength for this defense. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Keeanu Benton leave school early and enter the NFL draft, he’s that talented. Benton is a playmaker at a position where that’s hard to come by, and sometimes it seems as though his contributions go unnoticed. I guess that’s the price you pay for doing the dirty work at nose tackle.

Behind Benton is Bryson Williams, who has played a lot of football for the Badgers. He is a consistent option and someone they can truly rely on. Don’t be surprised if he gets snaps at defensive end to better utilize him on an inexperienced defensive line.

Inside Linebacker

1. Jack Sanborn (RS Sr.)
2. Mike Masalunas (RS Sr.) or Tatum Grass (RS So.)

1.Leo Chenal (RS So.)
2. Maema Njongmeta (RS So.) or Tatm Grass (RS So.)

The inside linebacker tandem for the Wisconsin football team is as good as any in the entire nation. Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal will once again be relied upon heavily to disrupt and make plays for this defense.

Behind the 1, 2 punch is actually really strong depth. Maskalunas has been a contributor for the Badgers over the past couple of seasons, and Njongmenta has flashed as a high upside option for the future. Tatum Grass has also been mentioned as someone who could be ready for an expanded role.

It may be difficult for the reserves to earn many snaps due to the starters playing on almost every down. The Badgers are set at the position and will look to get some younger options experience when possible.

Outside Linebacker

1. Nick Herbig (So.)
2. Aaron Witt (So.)

1. Noah Burks (RS Sr.)
2. C.J. Goetz (RS Jr.)

By Wisconsin’s standards, the outside linebackers were not as productive last season as we’ve become accustomed to. Due to an incredible amount of depth, I expect that to change this year. Nick Herbig looks to be a star in the making, and Noah Burks is a dependable option with plenty of experience.

It’s only safe to assume the Badgers want more sacks/pressures, so if someone isn’t getting the job done there is a long line of players waiting for their chance. Goetz, Witt, and Lytle are all young players on the verge of consistent playing time that I believe can contribute. Then there is Green-May who has been a starter in the past but can’t seem to stay healthy enough to be relied upon. He’s absolutely capable of playing if he can stay on the field.

This is going to be a vicious battle to watch during fall camp because there are only so many snaps to go around. This is a good problem to have if you’re Jim Leonhard, but more splash plays are going to be the difference between the Badgers being a great defense and an elite defense.


1. Faion Hicks (RS Sr.)
2. Alexander Smith (RS Jr.) or Donte Burton (RS Jr.)

1. Caesar Williams (RS Sr.)
2. Dean Engram (RS So.) or Deron Harrell (RS Sr.)

The cornerback room for the Wisconsin football team might be the most experienced group of the bunch from top to bottom. Many of these players have appeared and played meaningful snaps in games. Jim Leonhard has shown us time and time again he isn’t afraid to rotate guys in to keep his corners fresh.

This is a really solid, assignment sound group of corners. Expect this group to get the job done and force turnovers when the pass rush is in full force. The sum of this group is greater than its parts.

Free Safety

1. Collin Wilder (RS Sr.)
2. John Torchio (RS Jr.)

Strong Safety

1. Scott Nelson (RS Jr.)
2. Travian Blaylock (RS Jr.)

Nelson and Wilder are going to be your starting safeties this season. Behind them is where things are a little bit murky. Not for lack of talent, just lack of exposure. There were contributors that both left early for the NFL and transferred out of the program. This leaves the door open for younger players to make a name for themselves and earn playing time.

On paper one would think that Torchio and Blaylock have the inside track on the backup spots due to longevity in the program and familiarity in the defense. However, Preston Zachman seems to have found a home at safety after a position change. Don’t be surprised if he uproots someone on the two-deep and is given opportunities to earn playing time. Not to mention, incoming freshman Hunter Wohler is immensely talented and if he can pick up the playbook fast enough he’s another player I think will be hard to keep off the field.

Jim Leonhard likes to play multiple safeties and he won’t be without options this year, it’ll just be a matter of who steps up and forces their way onto the field.