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July 29, 2011

Defensive line deeper than ever

CHICAGO - Patrick Butrym had to stop mid-sentence at one point while answering what turned out to be a series of questions regarding UW's defensive line during the 40th annual Big Ten meetings in Chicago Friday morning.

"You guys are getting me too excited," the senior defensive tackle said.

Take your time, Patrick, because there's a lot to get excited about.

The defensive line is as deep as it's ever been. There are legitimately four defensive ends (Louis Nzegwu, David Gilbert, Brendan Kelly and Pat Muldoon) that will vie for a starting spot. A fifth player, Warren Herring, is nipping at their heels.

Take it inside and there are four guys (Butrym, Jordan Kohout, Ethan Hemer and Beau Allen that can also legitimately consider themselves a viable starting prospect. The UW defensive line has never been deeper during the Bielema tenure.

"That's funny," Butrym said. "Every year that I've been around everybody has always been worried about us. J.J. is gone so we need to find, I don't want to say one playmaker, but guys that can produce. Somebody needs to make plays, whoever it is, during a critical part of a game because he had a knack for those types of things. We're deep and we return a lot of guys. We have great chemistry at our unit.

"Honestly, the thing I like about us even though you bring up the fact that we have a lot of experience, is we have a disappointment and chip on our shoulder about it. We need to start making plays ourselves."

So much has been written and said over each of the past two seasons focusing on the need for a playmaker at the defensive line position. Two years ago O'Brien Schofield rose from relative unknown to first-team All-Conference. Last year, J.J. Watt was in that capacity.

This year, because the defensive ends have had so much success in each of the past two seasons, it's only fair to look directly at Nzegwu and Gilbert with similar expectations.

Are they realistic?

"Those guys are definitely moving themselves along physically," Butrym said. "They handle their details and you never hear anything about them where they're doing things that wouldn't be in line with what everybody else is doing. I'm really looking forward to seeing those guys play this year, especially Louis because it's his senior year.

"Those guys are primed for a big year."

In talking to Bielema during Friday's portion of Media Days, it became apparent that he expects anywhere between four and six defensive tackles to compete for a spot in the regular rotation. Couple that with the fact that there seem to be four or five defensive ends ready to contribute and suddenly there are anywhere from eight to 11 players vying for playing time at the defensive line.

"How many guys can you really play before you start throwing guys out of a rhythm?" Butrym asked. "It's not a bad problem to have at all. I'm not the coach. I just play."

Let Bielema answer that one.

"I think defensive tackle play now in our league is paramount," Bielema said. "You want guys weighing 300 pounds so they can plug up that middle, but they've got to stay fresh. I've played defensive tackle and I wanted to play the whole game. In retrospect I was probably better in the games when I went about half the plays and kind of split it with another guy. That's what we've kind of gone with now.

"We really need to sub our defensive interior players to make ourselves good for four quarters."

Last season, Wisconsin was especially stout against the run. Opponents only averaged 3.9 yards-per-carry throughout the season and only a handful of players toppled the 100-yard mark. Though the interior defensive line was pretty good at slowing down the run, it didn't do much against the pass. Most of that damage came from the outside, namely the two most productive ends, Watt and Nzegwu.

That should be a personal challenge for Butrym and company this season.

"You talk about the explosion quotient," Butrym said. "The tackles-for-loss and sacks. I think that's what we need to get. We need to start getting after the quarterback. It's not a glorious position sometimes because a lot of what you do is make plays for the guys behind and next to you. We can push the pocket and get a defensive end to sack, but also get sacks ourselves and get hits on the quarterback. That's one thing we really need to do.

"We just need to take a pass-rush course that's at the quarterback and also make plays. That's one thing that we've really tried to focus on since we've got back from Christmas break."

With a stable of young and capable guys alongside him, particularly at his position, and with the way they've been working throughout their time in Madison, especially this summer, it's understandable why Butrym got excited when talking about the defensive line.

"Hemer and Kohout started and Allen played as a true freshman," Butrym said. "He probably averaged 25 snaps a game which is extremely impressive at a position as physical as defensive tackle. The improvement that you usually see from a player from freshman to sophomore year is pretty impressive. Those guys work so hard and I can't wait to see the year that they have.

"I think we all want to make plays so bad now that J.J.'s gone and I think they need us to. That's been the biggest focus of ours."


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