Wisconsin Badgers Seniors to Shine in 2020: Defense

Jake Kocorowski

Spring practices start up in just about a month or so for the Wisconsin Badgers, and AllBadgers.com will be there to cover whatever sessions are open to the media. That includes practice reports, interviews, videos, photos and more!

We will go position-by-position once March kicks off, but for now, let's focus more broadly on some of the returning Badgers on both sides of the ball. Despite losing Quintez Cephus, Jonathan Taylor and Tyler Biadasz in their early declarations for the NFL Draft last month, Wisconsin returns many seniors for the 2020 season.

AllBadgers.com breaks down a two-part series we will call "Seniors to Shine" for next season. Last week, we discussed which upperclassmen could make an impact on offense. On Wednesday, let's discuss a defense that most notably needs to find replacements for leaders Chris Orr and Zack Baun.

Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk

In 2018, injuries ravaged the Wisconsin defensive line with Rand's Achilles injury, Loudermilk missing four of 13 games, and Olive Sagapolu losing the rest of his senior campaign after a dislocated shoulder at Northwestern. With young players needing to play -- the defense overall took a step back that season from a 2017 unit that was among the nation's best in several categories.

Healthy for most of 2019, Rand and Loudermilk helped not just the line but the rest of the defense in ascending to be among the top defenses in the FBS. 

With the scheme Wisconsin deploys, the defensive line's stats will not necessarily pop out compared to other positions. Rand contributed 27 tackles, three for loss, along with a sack and forced fumble in 2019; Loudermilk was not far behind with 24 stops, five for loss, along with three sacks and five pass breakups, and two forced fumbles. That being said, their importance to the success of the whole defense cannot be understated.

Entering their final seasons in Madison, they will be called upon to anchor the line. With Baun and Orr's pass rushing presence gone, perhaps their numbers could be called upon more as well when needed.

Eric Burrell

With Scott Nelson missing 13 games last season due to a left leg injury suffered at South Florida, Burrell stepped up and asserted himself as a prominent role on the defense. He finished fifth on the team in tackles (55) while also tying for the team lead in interceptions (three). He broke up six passes and forced a couple of fumbles.

The Wisconsin defensive backfield is stacked with players with game experience heading into 2020 at both cornerback and safety. Looking at the latter position, Burrell, Nelson, Reggie Pearson, Collin Wilder, Madison Cone, John Torchio and Tyler Mais all played at some point last season. 

That being said, his returning physical presence and ability to make plays bodes well for the team overall heading into spring ball.

Caesar Williams

Leonhard's cornerback room also boasts plenty of Badgers who have seen snaps on the field: Williams, Faion Hicks, Rachad Wildgoose, Deron Harrell, Donte Burton, Semar Melvin and Alexander Smith.

In 2019, Williams led the team in pass breakups (11) on way to recording 35 tackles, 4.5 of those for loss. Arguably his highlight of the season came on consecutive third and fourth downs early in the fourth quarter at Minnesota where he denied Gophers wide receiver Tyler Johnson on goal line passes.

Once again, competition within the position group should help its members raise up their game play further, and Williams should have an opportunity to make his final year as a Badger memorable. 

Noah Burks

Baun's 12.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss likely will not be replaced by just one player alone on this defense. That being said, Burks will be one of the few Badgers called upon to continue to keep pressure on opposing offenses.

He assumed a starter's role last season after Izayah Green-May suffered a thumb injury and finished the year with 36 tackles, seven for loss, and two sacks. His most memorable play came in the second conference game against Northwestern as he returned an interception 68 yards for a touchdown.

The outside linebacker room will be without Baun, Tyler Johnson (exhausted eligibility) and Christian Bell (transfer portal) in 2020. Green-May, Jaylan Franklin, Spencer Lytle and other younger players in the position group will join Burks in working to replace Baun's production. 

Others to Watch

  • Inside linebacker Mike Maskalunas. I know everyone talks about Leo Chenal at the position group with Orr exhausting this eligibility, but Maskalunas will likely vie for a greater role in Bob Bostad's room heading into his final season. The walk-on played in all 14 games in 2019, recording 16 tackles and a forced fumble.
  • Safeties Collin Wilder and Madison Cone. Leonhard has shown he has been willing to rotate in his defensive backs during games. Wilder worked in at safety and started the conference clash with Northwestern as Burrell and Pearson accumulated second half targeting penalties the week prior. The Houston transfer tallied six pass breakups in 14 games. Cone also saw some time in the slot when UW went to nickel packages on way to participating in 10 contests last season.
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