Since becoming the head coach of the Wisconsin football program, Luke Fickell has completely rebuilt the coaching staff, recruited like a madman, and hit a few home runs in the transfer portal.
Optimism surrounding the football program is the highest I’ve seen in over a decade, and understandably so.
It’s important to note that none of what’s happened matters if it doesn’t translate into wins this fall, but before that happens, let’s explore one potential area of concern–does UW have enough pass-rushers in the stable to make life difficult on opposing QBs in 2023?
Can Wisconsin Football Generate Enough Pass-Rush?
According to PFF, the Wisconsin football defense generated 209 pressures this past season, good for roughly 16 per game.
Of those 209, 62 came from Nick Herbig and Keeanu Benton, both of which declared for the NFL draft. Those two players were the heartbeat of the defense and accounted for over half of the team’s sacks (15.5) and nearly 30% of the Badgers’ total pressures.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 12, 2022
Under new defensive coordinator Mike Tressell, he intends to run a hybrid defense mixing the Badgers 3-4 with his patented 3-3-5 alignment.
Which begs the question, where does UW get its pass-rush from without its two most disruptive options in 2023?
Wisconsin Football Returns Both Starting ILBs
Thankfully, UW returns both of its starting inside linebackers, Maema Njongmeta and Jordan Turner, next season. The ILB duo developed into an impactful pairing in the heart of the Wisconsin football defense, leading the team in tackles and finishing third and fourth in pressures, registering 25 and 23, respectively.
Njongmeta finished second on the team in pass-rush win rate, registering an elite 35.7%.
Another name worth monitoring is Jake Chaney, who’s entering his third season with the program. The 5-foot-11, 230-pound ILB played 163 snaps last season and generated 10 pressures of his own. He’s a talented young linebacker with a knack for getting after the QB.
Wisconsin football should get plenty of pressure from its inside linebackers in 2023.
In 2022, Goetz finished with 62 tackles, 16 pressures, two sacks, and two pass deflections. His 16 pressures were good for fifth on the Badgers’ defense, and it’s also worth noting that he played the best ball of his career in the second half of the season.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound OLB had the second-highest PFF grade on the Wisconsin football defense among returning players (74.5) and is the most experienced pass-rusher on the team, having logged 883 career snaps.
Goetz is one of the Badgers’ top run defenders and tacklers in the front seven, and although he’s not known for his pass-rushing ability, his presence will help provide stability to an otherwise unproven room of OLBs.
Wisconsin Football Added Depth in the Transfer Portal
Wisconsin football needed depth on the defensive line and also the outside linebacker room, so the coaching staff went portaling and came out with Michigan State DE Jeff Pietrowski.
The 6-foot-1, 250-pound defensive lineman has 23 games of experience under his belt, primarily at DE, but appeared in only three games this past season because of a lower-leg injury he suffered in September.
In 2021, Pietrowski registered 33 tackles, 24 pressures, 5.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery as a sophomore. Per PFF, he earned a 78.7 defensive grade as a run-stopper, which for reference, would have been the highest among Badgers DL in 2022.
Given the lack of proven options, I anticipate he’ll get a look at outside linebackers in 2023. If the younger players need more time, C.J. Goetz could have an experienced running mate who can stop the run.
Varner, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound DL, 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 (good) this past season. He offers tremendous versatility for coach Tressell, showing the ability to play with his hand in the ground of rush coming off the EDGE.
Defensive Line…Not So Much
Without star nose tackle Keeanu Benton, the Wisconsin football team doesn’t have anyone on the defensive line that offers a ton of pass-rush.
I’ll keep this one short and sweet, Rodas Johnson and James Thompson Jr. have the potential to be disruptive and have even shown flashes in their respective careers.
However, while serviceable and good at taking up blocks to free up linebackers to make plays, Isaiah Mullens and Gio Paez offer a limited amount of pass-rushing upside.
I don’t see Wisconsin football fielding a defensive line that strikes fear into opposing QBs.
Young Players Could Step Up
After several years of Wisconsin football hitting big on the recruiting trail at OLB, it’s time for one of those names to take the next step.
The trio of Darryl Peterson, Kaden Johnson, and T.J. Bollers all have a high pedigree as prospects. However, none of them have turned that into production.
Peterson got his feet wet in 2023 as the Badgers third OLB, playing 165 snaps. He registered 11 pressures on the season and a disappointing 14.7 pass-rush win rate. Per PFF, Peterson finished with a 64.1 grade (average) as a pass-rusher.
There’s no denying that 6-foot-1, 245-pound OLB has the highest upside in the room, but that needs to translate onto the field next season for Wisconsin football to be disruptive and get after the opposing team’s QBs.
Johnson also gained some valuable experience, playing 99 snaps last season behind Nick Herbig. He finished with 15 tackles and six pressures and flashed the athleticism necessary to make an impact if the Minnesota native puts it all together. Johnson looked like someone still “thinking” too much rather than playing freely.
If one of the young, talented options can claim a starting spot this spring/fall, the Wisconsin football team should feel good about its pass-rush, even though it might not have a star player like we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.
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