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Where Is the Wisconsin Football Defense Better or Worse Entering the 2023?



Wisconsin Football; Badgers fall camp practice.
Wisconsin Badgers defensive end Isaiah Mullens (99) runs through a drill during fall training camp at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023.

The Wisconsin football program will be without Badgers legend Jim Leonhard as its defensive coordinator for the first time since 2017. But the Badgers aren’t without a competent replacement — Mike Tressel may run a different scheme — but he was highly successful at Cincinnati working alongside Luke Fickell.

Known for running a 3-3-5 scheme, Tressel faces the unique challenge this offseason of “meshing the elite,” meaning how does he blend Wisconsin’s size and pass-rushing ability with his propensity to run a heavy man coverage system?

Much like our offensive exercise, we’re going to examine which defensive position groups have evolved or declined over the last calendar year.

Let’s begin.

Defensive Line

The Badgers defensive line was a strength in 2022, largely because Keeanu Benton was an absolute game-wrecker at nose tackle. Rodas Johnson, James Thompson Jr., and Isaiah Mullens each showed flashes and were competent rotation pieces but never provided a genuine compliment to Benton. 

In 2023, with Benton off to the NFL, there’s nowhere for this group to go but down. Johnson, Thompson Jr., and Mullens are all back in the fold, and Wisconsin football also added transfer Darian Varner into the mix. This group can still be solid this season but won’t likely produce a ton of playmakers, so I have to go worse for that reason. 

Verdict: Worse

Wisconsin Football Inside Linebackers

Wisconsin has a storied tradition of producing exceptional inside linebackers — but 2022 was the first season where it got good — not great play at ILB in a few years. Maema Njongmeta was really good, Jordan Turner showed flashes and came on strong at the end, and Jake Chaney showed some serous playmaking ability. 

The best part? They’re all back in 2023. 

The depth and experience of this position group should make it one of the most important and productive position groups on the roster. I like the top trio quite a bit and think they’re poised to make some noise this season. 

Verdict: Better

Wisconsin Football Outside Linebackers 

In 2022, the Badgers had an absolute star at outside linebacker in Nick Herbig to get after opposing quarterbacks and wreak havoc on offensive lines. But UW didn’t get a ton of production alongside him from CJ Goetz, Darryl Peterson, or Kaden Johnson

This brings me to my glass-half-empty answer: I think the outside linebacker room will be worse in 2023. Goetz, Bollers, and Peterson are all positioned to see the field this season. Johnson and Jeff Pietrowski could also work their way in. Wisconsin football has enough talent here to create pressure — but there isn’t a DUDE in this room for the first time in a while. 

Verdict: Worse


The Badgers brought in three transfer defensive backs last offseason to slot into the starting lineup — and they were fine. Nothing more, nothing less. 

In 2023, there have been changes, getting back a healthy Alexander Smith and new players, such as Ricardo Hallman, stepping into key starting roles. But the depth wasn’t there — so UW went portaling and brought in Jason Maitre, Nyzier Fourqurean, and Mike Mack II to help round out the two deep. There are also a few talented freshmen that could work their way into the rotation. 

While the secondary has potential, it may take time for the new players to develop chemistry and experience. Overall, the position group is one that I view as an upgrade but will entirely depend on its starters’ health. 

Verdict: Better


Wisconsin football had a similar safety group last season — but injuries ravaged the position group and forced them to make do with whatever was healthy. Travian Blaylock missed the entire season, and Hunter Wohler missed a good chunk because of injury as well. Kamo’i Latu emerged as a heat-seeking missile on the backend that was a difference maker. They were good last season — but could have been better. 

In 2023, they return everyone from last year and are completely healthy, rolling into week one. The Badgers also have up-and-coming safety Austin Brown, who could also factor into the mix. With four playable, talented safeties — this room is definitely improved and even has a couple of third-team options to be excited about. 

Verdict: Better

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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.