Five Wisconsin Badgers to Watch in 2020: Defense

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Kocorowski

Nearly one month has passed since Wisconsin's 2019 season came to a close in Pasedena with a 28-27 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. With three Badgers declaring for the NFL Draft, more exhausting their eligibility and another few who have entered the transfer portal, roles will change and opportunities will arise for others to step up in 2020.

We are still months away from spring practices kicking off, though the team has already begun winter conditioning. That being said, presents a way-too-early list of five players to watch on the defensive of the ball. Earlier this week, we mentioned a handful of players on offense to keep an eye on heading into next season.

When spring sessions come nearer, will feature another set of articles highlighting players to hone in on for those sets of practices.

Izayah Green-May/Jaylan Franklin/Spencer Lytle

Wisconsin's defense returns key starters on the defensive line and in the secondary. However, the biggest question lies with how Jim Leonhard's unit replaces the pass rushing production of two redshirt seniors -- outside linebacker Zack Baun and inside linebacker Chris Orr.

Looking at Baun in particular, he led the team with 12.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss during a fifth-year campaign that garnered consensus second-team All-America and first-team All-Big Ten honors. 

Like replacing the production seen at running back with the departure of Jonathan Taylor, this could likely be a scenario where multiple players step up. Redshirt junior Noah Burks emerged as the starter opposite the Brown Deer, Wis., native last season, racking up seven tackles for loss and two sacks. He will be a prime candidate for contributing going into his final year in the program, but who else will emerge?

Izayah Green-May displayed his athleticism during fall camp, working with the first-team defense and eventually starting in the season opener against South Florida. However, what became known as a thumb injury stunted his redshirt sophomore season. He eventually played in 11 games, recording five tackles and one sack. 

Like Green-May, Franklin recorded a sack in the Wisconsin season opener (though in mop-up time), but he showed an ability to pass rush in that contest. He was listed at 222 pounds on Wisconsin's 2019 roster. As asked earlier this month, can both continue to develop physically and emerge further next season?

Spencer Lytle, a former four-star recruit by Rivals, enrolled early last year and bulked up to 223 pounds from a listed 204 during spring ball. He redshirted this season, but with Baun, Tyler Johnson and Christian Bell no longer in the program, how does he work into the rotation in the position group?

During player availability on Dec. 19, Baun was asked to assess of some of the younger, returning outside 'backers, in particular Franklin, Green-May and Lytle.

"To compare them to myself when I was a freshman, I'd say they are far, far ahead," Baun said. "Coach (Bobby) April's been doing a really good job, and they're just smart guys. Especially Spencer in particular, is a smart guy. They just need to get there physically. It's more of a physical development than mental for them."

Leo Chenal

Now looking at inside linebacker, Orr claimed consensus second-team all-conference honors in a redshirt senior campaign that saw him place second on the defense in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (14). Now with him gone, a starting spot will be open next to Jack Sanborn, who as a sophomore led Wisconsin in tackles (80).

Mike Maskalunas walked on to UW and now will enter his final season in Madison in 2020, but many will look at the second-year player In Chenal. He physically looked the part coming into college as an early enrollee and played in 11 games during his freshman year, recording 20 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. 

Now with a year of seasoning under his belt and continuing to work under the tutelage of assistant coach Bob Bostad, the 2018 WFCA small school offensive and defensive player of the year could help fill in the sizable gap left by Orr.

Semar Melvin

The South Florida native played in only four games to retain his redshirt during his first year at UW. There is depth at the cornerback position in terms of Badgers who have starting or significant game experience, but from my perspective, Melvin popped out during the truncated playing time. 

He started two key games when Wisconsin kicked off its defense in its nickel subpackage at the end of the season at Minnesota and against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game. In essentially a "baptism by fire" situation, Leonhard trusted the Fort Lauderdale (St. Thomas Aquinas) product. After the win against the Gophers, Faion Hicks and Tyler Biadasz both hugged Melvin in the postgame interview area.

The competition at corner will be intriguing to watch in 2020, especially with the rotations and combinations Leonhard deploys during spring and fall camps. Melvin, fellow South Florida natives Hicks and Rachad Wildgoose -- along with Caesar Williams, Donte Burton, Deron Harrell and Alexander Smith -- have game time experience. Can freshmen James Williams and Dean Engram, both of whom did not play at all last year, also receive reps and develop after a redshirt season?