The Badgers had another great defensive year. The line shut down the run per usual, and that began with Isaiahh Loudermilk, Keeanu Benton, and Garrett Rand. All three of those guys were responsible for clogging the gaps and occupying blockers for the linebackers. Loudermilk would go on to take home All-Big Ten honors. All three of those linemen were a complete, competent unit for Wisconsin, but now the Badgers must replace both defensive ends. Loudermilk declared for the NFL Draft and Rand has decided to retire from the sport. The defensive line is the only position group that is experiencing a great amount of turnover.
Benton is returning next season and is considered one of the best defensive linemen in the Big Ten. Now that both defensive ends have moved on, Benton will need some help on his sides if Wisconsin wants to continue its dominance against the run.
In the middle of the line, the Badgers are rock solid with Benton and Bryson Williams. Both have proven to be quality contributors up front.
On the outside, Matt Henningsen will most likely occupy one of the end spots. He’s made big plays the past three years and is entering his fifth year in the program. He’ll be the main guy the Badgers will rely on at the position to make more. Henningsen is due for a breakout year.
Isaiah Mullens is another guy who could receive a substantial amount of playing time. He played a decent amount in 2020 and it increased late in the year.
Prior to spring practice beginning, Henningsen’s status was uncertain due to a season-ending arm injury suffered last year. Off the transfer portal, the Badgers brought in former Oregon Duck, Isaac Townsend. Townsend is a former three-star recruit who was pursued heavily by power five schools such as Notre Dame, Boise State, Tennessee, and more before committing to Oregon.
He is a good athlete and has familiarity with Jim Leonhard’s 3-4 defense; this should speed up the learning process. Townsend has consistently worked to add weight during his time in Eugene, which is crucial to be a fit for the scheme. The expectation is for him to slide right into the defensive front. If he can keep bolstering his weight, he’ll have a better chance to make an immediate impact.
Townsend also comes to Madison with multiple years of eligibility left. In recent years, Jim Leonhard has been recruiting hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end prospects who have the ability to play multiple positions to go along with more traditional ends. Townsend has the potential to play either with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end or standing as a linebacker. While he is still an unknown, the ability to be another great defensive player for the Badgers is there. While Mullens and Henningsen are most likely the starters out of spring practice, Isaac Townsend is worth keeping an eye on.
I’m also expecting Cade McDonald and Rodas Johnson to be a part of the defensive line rotation. James Thompson Jr. should also be considered for snaps, but he is coming off a season-ending right leg injury. He currently is still rehabbing from the injury and will be unavailable to participate in the spring. To be a part of the rotation, he’ll have a lot of ground to make up in the fall.
On the recruiting front, the Badgers added three-star recruits in Ayo Adebogun and Mike Jarvis. They also added four-star recruit TJ Bollers. With the amount of experience the Badgers have up front, I suspect Adebogun and Jarvis will take a redshirt to learn the system before they see the field. They’ll be factors for rotation consideration next year at the earliest. Bollers is the only one in this group who has a chance at seeing snaps.
Overall, the defensive line will have a lot of new faces taking over. History says the Badgers have been good at replacing great defensive players and I’m not going to expect anything less. The Badgers return plenty of players who have been in the program and know the system. Jim Leonhard’s coaching prowess will have the defense playing at the standard that fans are used to.