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How Will Wisconsin Football Address its Weakness on Defense for the 2023 Season?

With Wisconsin football set to begin fall camp, the Badgers coaching staff must get some answers at one key position for the defense to live up to its high expectations.



Wisconsin badgers football
Nov 26, 2022; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; A Wisconsin Badgers cheerleader carries the Wisconsin flag following a score during the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin football begins fall camp on August 1st down at UW-Platteville. This date marks the official beginning of the Luke Fickell era in Madison — and with that comes a tremendous amount of excitement. 

Last season finished with a disappointing 7-6 record and a 24-17 Guaranteed Rate Bowl Victory over Oklahoma State, which could have been even worse considering the mid-season firing of long-time head coach Paul Chryst

Entering 2023, the Badgers return the third most production of any Big Ten program, coupled with a top 10 transfer portal haul. Because of this, Wisconsin football enters as the favorite to win the Big Ten West in its final season. Should that come to fruition, UW will earn its way back to Indianapolis for the first time since 2019. 

But for that to happen, Wisconsin’s defense will need to play up to its elite status again under new DC Mike Tressel. One of the few reasons I’m skeptical of that happening is one position group that leaves us with more questions than answers entering the season. 

Can the Wisconsin Football Defensive Line Produce Difference Makers? 

Wisconsin football star nose tackle Keeanu Benton departed for the NFL this offseason and was selected in the 2nd round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was the only game wrecker on the defensive line last season, accounting for 28 pressures, the second most on the team — trailing only Nick Herbig

That leaves the Badgers without a focal point on the defensive line this season. 

Returning are Isaiah Mullens (RS SR), Rodas Johnson (RS SR), James Thompson Jr. (RS JR), and Gio Paez (RS SR). From that group, only Thomspon (13 pressures) graded out as an above-average defensive lineman, according to PFF — and the eye test reflected something similar. 

There is plenty of value in having myriad bodies able to log snaps without being net negatives on the field. But the four players mentioned above totaled 33 pressures between them — leaving a lot of disruption on the table and possibly nobody to fill that role. 

Does Wisconsin Football Have an Answer? 

Wisconsin football knew they needed to make an addition at the defensive end, considering Mike Tressel likes to have his D-ends get after the QB. So, the Badgers brought in Darian Varner from Temple to give them a different body type with pass-rushing ability

Varner is coming off a breakout sophomore season where he registered 35 tackles, 24 pressures, 7.5 sacks, and a forced fumble en route to First-Team All-AAC honors. According to Pro Football Focus, Varner received a 72.7 pass-rushing grade this past season — which would have been second among the Badgers’ defensive linemen last season. He missed spring practice, but if all goes well in fall camp, he could be a potential solution. 

The only other player that could become a plus pass-rusher at defensive end is James Thompson Jr., who did some nice things as a backup for Wisconsin football last year. 

Suppose UW is going to live up to its defensive potential. In that case, this position group needs to make significant strides — because right now, just being average makes it a hole preventing Wisconsin from playing with the big boys

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Dillon Graff is a Substack newsletter best-selling author, publisher of AllBadgers, and the owner of, your go-to source for in-depth coverage of the Wisconsin Badgers. His work has been featured in top media publications like USA Today's BadgersWire, Athlon Sports, Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits, Bucky's 5th Quarter, and FanSided.