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Wisconsin spring football: defensive line overview

A look at where the Wisconsin Badgers are along the defensive line following spring ball.

The Wisconsin Badgers officially concluded spring camp last Friday night and now head into the summer months preparing for the fall.

While spring football is generally a time for self-improvement and overall development, the 15 extra practices also provide players the opportunity to step up and show the coaching staff that they warrant playing time come fall.

While the Badgers were confined to the McClain Center with ongoing renovations to Camp Randall, the defense under Jim Leonhard was flying around and making plays. 

Over the next two weeks, All Badgers will take a position-by-position look at some of the general takeaways from the spring and what it could mean for each position group come fall.

Previously covered positions:

After wrapping up the offense last week, today we kickoff our look at the Wisconsin defense. 

Up first, the defensive line. 

With Matt Henningsen off to chase his NFL dreams with the Denver Broncos, defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej and the Badgers came into the spring looking for his replacement at defensive end.

Based on the practices I saw, I think Wisconsin has multiple players that should be able to step up and help fill his spot.

Redshirt junior Rodas Johnson is the odds on favorite to earn the starting spot after rotating in extensively last season and recording seven tackles in 12 games with a strip-sack against Notre Dame in Soldier Field. Johnson's quickness off the line makes him a potential asset as a pass rusher next season. However, this spring he was in and out of the lineup with an injury, which also gave some younger players a chance to earn significant reps and build depth at defensive end.

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Redshirt sophomore James Thompson Jr. was consistently making plays when I was in attendance, and at 6-foot-5, he is a physically imposing player. He routinely got into the backfield and did a great job of clogging running lanes against the first and second-team offensive lines. While Johnson is probably the starter, Thompson Jr. should give the Badgers a starter-quality reserve to add to the rotation.

Two other defensive ends that stood out this spring were Isaac Townsend and Cade McDonald. Both primarily worked with the second group, but they each showed flashes and proved ready to help out if needed. Head coach Paul Chryst specifically mentioned Townsend as a player who took advantage of extra opportunities during his final press conference of the spring, and I think Townsend would be the fourth defensive end in the two-deep right now.

Defensive end Isaiah Mullens is an unquestioned starter at this juncture, and although he did not participate in all 15 practices, I think he looked like a veteran ready to become an even bigger playmaker as a senior. His size and strength make him stout against the run, which he again displayed this spring.

Shifting to the other position in Wisconsin's 3-4 defensive front, there is little question that Benton is the best defensive lineman in the room and is poised to be a disruptive force next season from his nose tackle spot. The Badgers were careful with him throughout the spring and instead focused on letting some of the younger players get reps at the position.

The player that gained the most from Benton's absence from team portions was redshirt sophomore, Ben Barten. A converted offensive lineman, Barten signed with the Badgers in the 2020 class as a jumbo athlete that could play either side of the ball. This spring Barten received the bulk of the reps at nose tackle, and I thought that he held his own. At 6-foot-5 and a little over 300 pounds, Barten is a tall nose tackle, but he did a nice job eating up blocks during the practices I saw.

It will be interesting to see where Barten falls in the pecking order at nose tackle come the fall. Redshirt junior Gio Paez did not participate this spring due to an injury, and he is another player that is capable of backing up Keeanu Benton.

Then there is true freshman Curt Neal, who didn't take live team reps this spring as he recovers from a knee injury. He was a decorated recruit who chose Wisconsin over Ohio State in the end, so the simple fact that he was on campus and able to go through individual drills gives him a chance to factor into the equation at nose tackle next season too. Neal still needs to add more weight to his frame, but he is a player that the staff is very high on and possesses a lot of potential.

Overall, defensive line coach Ross Kolodziej has done a tremendous job rebuilding the depth along the d-line since taking over the role. The Badgers have several players at each position ready to contribute, and that is a testament to the development along the defensive line. Isaiah Mullens and Keeanu Benton are the leaders of the group, and that is unlikely to change before next season, but this spring showed that there is greater depth than in years past, and that is good news for the entire defense. 

Projected depth chart:

Defensive end: Isaiah Mullens (RS SR), Isaac Townsend (RS JR)

Nose tackle: Keeanu Benton (SR), Gio Paez (RS JR) or Ben Barten (RS SO)

Defensive end: Rodas Johnson (RS JR), James Thompson Jr. (RS SO)

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