What they need, they agree, is a nickname. A nom de gridiron, like the Fearsome Foursome or the Four Horsemen, that will make them more famous collectively than they are individually. If only there were a budding Grantland Rice who would provide defensive tackles Anttaj (Taj) Hawthorne and Jason (JJ) Jefferson and defensive ends Erasmus (Raz) James and Jonathan Welsh with a similarly alliterative or equestrian appellation. But as Wisconsin's four starting defensive linemen sit around a cluttered coffee table in the off-campus house that three of them share, numerous suggestions--Gun Line, Red Line, Mosh Pit, James Gang--are dismissed. Finally James, the Big Ten sack leader, says with a shrug, "How about ... the University of Wisconsin Defensive Line?"
It's not tattoo material, but it does have a certain blunt simplicity that appeals to each member of the best front four in the country. The Badgers' line is known for doing those defensive tasks deemed the most fundamental in college football--tackling, run stuffing, quarterback sacking and ball stripping--with such clock-punching regularity that while these four seniors haven't (yet) captured sportswriters' imaginations, they do wear down opposing offenses and win football games. Wisconsin is 9--0 and fifth in the BCS rankings thanks primarily to its defense, which is allowing the fewest points in the nation (9.1 per game). That unit's strength is its four down linemen. As the Badgers close out their schedule with two road games, at Michigan State and Iowa, with a Rose Bowl berth (and possibly more) as the prize, Wisconsin's fortunes depend on those four continuing to spend their Saturday afternoons wreaking havoc in the opponent's backfield. "Having those guys up front gives us all kinds of flexibility," says Badgers coach Barry Alvarez. "We know we can get pressure with our base [defense], so we're not rolling the dice with the blitzing game. They are the best group I've had."
In a conference known for its big uglies, Wisconsin lately has had bigger, better uglies than most: Two years ago consensus All-America nosetackle Wendell Bryant was a first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals. Next spring all four members of the current line are likely to be drafted, two of them, Hawthorne and James, in the first round. Combine the experience up front with a solid secondary led by senior All-America safety Jim Leonard and senior cornerback Scott Starks, and a ball-control offense featuring senior tailback Anthony Davis and sophomore quarterback John Stocco, and the Badgers have as good a shot as any of the remaining unbeatens at finishing the season without a loss. If that's the case, they'll have a strong argument for playing in Miami--for the national championship at the Orange Bowl--rather than in Pasadena come January. "None of us has ever been 9--0 at anything," says Hawthorne. "Ever. In any sport."
The first intimation of just how good this year's Wisconsin line might be came at the start of summer two-a-days, when James demonstrated that he had recovered from a dislocated hip, which had sidelined him all of his junior season, and that he had gained what Alvarez calls "quality weight." Unable to work out his lower body because of his injury, the 6'4" James had hit the weight room during his convalescence and added 20 pounds of muscle to bulk up to 265. "I knew he was going to come back stronger," says his mother, Evrine Walters. "The child was so depressed [when he was out], because he wanted to play so bad." In the August heat James's swim move was practically breaking arms, and his speed--he runs a 4.7 40--was embarrassing the Badgers' offensive line. Alvarez met with defensive line coach John Palermo and told him to downplay how well James was progressing. Palermo told reporters that the kid was inconsistent and had yet to prove he could stay healthy. Meanwhile he told James privately, "You're going to be hearing us talk some crap about you. Don't believe it. You're doing great."
The return of a stronger, more explosive James--and Alvarez's media spin job--allowed Wisconsin to surprise a few early opponents. In the conference opener against Penn State, Raz knocked quarterbacks Zack Mills and Michael Robinson out of the game, prompting Robinson's mother to publicly wish that James himself would be injured. "That was uncalled for," says Raz, who was born in Saint Kitts and still speaks with a bit of an island lilt. "What she should wish for is a better tackle to protect her son."
As he piled up sacks--he had seven in the first six games--James complemented the 6'3", 320-pound Hawthorne, probably the best nosetackle in the country, and the Badgers' line evolved into what first-year defensive coordinator Bret Bielema calls "the heart and soul of our defense." What's more, Bielema says, they're "a great bunch of guys, quality guys."
Hawthorne was the only blue-chip recruit among the group. "There wasn't a school in the country that didn't offer him a scholarship," says Tony Martone, Hawthorne's coach at Hamden (Conn.) High. "This place was a circus." What had recruiters laying siege to southern Connecticut was Taj's combination of size, speed and attitude. "When he stepped out on the field, he was the meanest kid I've ever seen. He just knew where to hit kids," Martone recalls. That contrasts sharply with Hawthorne's off-the-field persona; he's the soft-spoken type who will suddenly surprise you with an incisive, and cutting, comment. "Taj is the clown of our crew," says Welsh. "You can't take him seriously." Hawthorne, says Palermo, is the most laid-back of the four. "He lives day to day. Jonathan and JJ, those guys have planned out everything. [The four of them] are very different people. That's probably why they get along so well."
Part of their success, they'll tell you, is that they've played together for so long that they have an intuitive feel for each other, which helps them watch each other's backs. "When I'm getting double-teamed," says Hawthorne, "I know that means Raz is getting singled and has a good chance of making the play." When the Badgers are struggling, as they were against Purdue on Oct. 16, the four will remind each other that the team is looking to them. In that 20--17 win it was James who came through, sacking quarterback Kyle Orton in the second quarter and forcing a fumble. "We know it's on us," says James. "Our linebackers are young, so we need to take a little bit of the pressure." (James sprained his left ankle in that game and missed the following win over Northwestern.)
Off the field they are almost as close-knit, running stunts for each other when trouble looms. "If one of us is getting into a situation we shouldn't be in," says Taj, "like there's some alcohol involved and it's getting kind of hectic, the police might show up or something, you'll feel a hand grab you by the back of the shirt, pulling you away, getting you out of there."
"Damn shizzle," says Welsh, watching an Illinois defensive tackle fall down on a play.
"That's so sorry," adds Jefferson.
The four are in a darkened room on the eighth floor of the Wisconsin football complex, watching tape of the Minnesota offense in preparation for their game with the Golden Gophers. They gather here most early afternoons, helping each other identify an upcoming opponent's tendencies, trying to anticipate where the double teams will come from and which tackles are most likely to chop block.
Minnesota, averaging 220 rushing yards per game, would pose quite a few challenges. Welsh reminds the crew that the Gophers like to run misdirection plays, pulling linemen and then blocking low against the pursuit. Watching video with the front four is a little like watching a comedy in a foreign language: You don't quite get the jokes. A play that strikes the casual observer as banal--four yards between the tackles--will elicit thigh-slapping mirth. When asked why, Welsh explains, "The tackle got turned the wrong way--"
James cuts him off, "He ended up on his ass."
A Minnesota off-tackle counter against Michigan that goes for a touchdown is rerun a dozen times from three different angles. Hawthorne points out that the Wolverines' defensive tackle was in the right place. "It's not on him. Linebacker's supposed to be there."
"In our scheme," Jefferson assures them, "we'd have a linebacker in the gap."
They are an exceedingly confident bunch, and Minnesota, featuring tag-team running back combo Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III, doesn't worry this group of gridiron cineasts.
"Look at Kyle Orton. Before playing us, he was on Cold Pizza,he was on Best Damn Sports Show, he was on every Heisman list," Raz says. "Now he's on my highlight tape."
Welsh busts out laughing. "Oh, shizzle."
James would add to his highlight tape in the Badgers' 38--14 victory over the Golden Gophers last Saturday, earning two quarterback hurries while playing only passing downs on his still-tender ankle. His linemates had a pretty good day too. The first defensive series was typical of the season: On first down Jefferson held Barber to a three-yard gain; on second, Hawthorne and Jefferson stuffed the middle, forcing Barber to cut outside, where defensive back Robert Brooks stopped him cold; on third, James stunted to the inside, knocking down the pass and the passer, Bryan Cupito. Wisconsin ran up a 31--7 halftime lead behind Stocco and Davis while holding Minnesota to just 21 rushing yards on 10 carries. Hawthorne sat out the second half. "That defensive front is stout," said Gophers coach Glen Mason afterward. "You win championships with defense, and that's got to be one of the best in the country." As for James's ankle, it seemed fine as he charged across the field to take possession of Paul Bunyan's ax, awarded to the winner of the annual rivalry.
back at the house on Butler Street, three members of the University of Wisconsin Defensive Line--Hawthorne has gone out for dinner--sit on the sectional sofa, eating pizza and playing Madden 2005. James has just fed a live rat to his six-foot boa constrictor, Cujo. His room is a mass of laundry spread on the floor next to his queen-size bed. There is an empty bottle of Hennessy on his nightstand and brochures for Hummer SUVs beside the Toshiba wide-screen. Do his linemates resent that James is already figuring how to spend his impending NFL signing bonus?
"I'd be doing the same thing," says Jefferson, a business major. Such disparities are a fact of life in big-time college football. While your roommate might be planning to buy a $60,000 SUV, you're scheming, like Welsh, how to get a few thousand more miles out of your Sentra.
They are all here on scholarships, trading their athletic prowess for an education, the opportunity to play in front of 80,000 fans on fall Saturdays, the chance to shine so that they might make it to the next level. They've each made the solitary journey undertaken by young minority athletes--Jefferson from Chicago, Welsh from Houston, Hawthorne from Hamden, James from South Florida--on the road to success. They don't talk about it much with each other, Welsh says, but that experience, too, is a tie that binds the four of them. "It's not us against the world," says Welsh, "but we all have this same history. We just kind of look at each other and know it." Jefferson nods in agreement as he stands up to make sure the door to James's bedroom is shut so that Cujo can't get loose in the apartment if it slithers out of its cage.
"How about the Snake Pit?" a reporter suggests.
James shakes his head. "The University of Wisconsin Defensive Line. We'll stick with that."
"Before playing us, Kyle Orton was on Cold Pizza, he was on Best Damn Sports Show, he was on every Heisman list," says James. "Now he's on MY HIGHLIGHT TAPE."