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Wisconsin Football Defensive Line Room Season Outlook & Player Expectations

A quick look at the Wisconsin football defensive line room heading into fall camp and analyzing their individual expectations for the season.

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Wisconsin Football defensive end Rodas Johnson
Apr 11, 2023; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin defensive end Rodas Johnson (56) is shown during practice Tuesday, April 11, 2023 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. Mandatory Credit: Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

With fall camp just around the corner for new head coach Luke Fickell and the Wisconsin football program — BadgerNotes continues our rollout of position previews. We’ve already done QB, RB, WR, TE, and OL thus far. 

But I want our position previews and season outlook write-ups to be different than a regurgitated version of what every outlet is putting out. 

I want to approach this breakdown by establishing individual player expectations heading into the season so we can more effectively evaluate each player at the end of the season—that way, we can avoid being a prisoner of the moment. 

So, let’s review the breakdown of how we define player expectations:

  • No expectations (walk-ons, true freshmen, practice bodies).
  • Low expectations (roster fillers, third team players, next man up situation).
  • Moderate expectations (key backups & role players *how well are you playing the role asked of you).
  • High expectations (core players of the team you expect to make a big impact in their role or statistically). 

Let’s continue our series with the Wisconsin football defensive lineman

High Expectations 

  • Isaiah Mullens (RS SR)
  • Rodas Johnson (RS SR)
  • James Thompson Jr. (RS JR)

I’m placing Isaiah Mullens, Rodas Johnson, and James Thompson Jr. in the high-expectations group for the Badgers this season. This high expectations declaration has more to do with their status as players assumed to play prominent/starting roles for Wisconsin football and less to do with what I think their impact on the field will be. 

Mullens returns to UW for a sixth and final season in Madison. In seven games last season, the 6-foot-4, 303-pound DL registered 11 tackles, eight pressures, two QB hits, and 1.5 TFL.

Yes, those numbers don’t jump off the page, but stat stuffing isn’t his game. 

The Ohio native has played 651 snaps in his Badgers career and is strong as an ox, allowing him to eat up blocks in the trenches and free up linebackers to make plays. Mullens isn’t going to make a significant impact, he’s JAG, but those are also important to have on the roster. 

Then you’ve got Johnson as a preferred starter at defensive end, who finished his junior season with 23 tackles, 6.0 TFLs, and a sack while registering a 61.6 PFF grade (average). 

I’ll admit, I think there is some potential for Johnson to be a slightly above-average starting defensive end this season — he’s had a few moments –, but it’s hard to envision a breakout coming this late in his career. 

Finally, the final player in this tier is Thompson Jr., who played 379 snaps last season for the Badgers. Consistency was an issue, but he had moments where he could potentially grow into an impact player on the defensive line. Can Mike Tressel pull that out of him?

Thompson Jr. appeared in 13 games last year, making seven starts and totaling 22 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, and a fumble recovery. The Ohio native also posted the only above-average PFF grade on the Wisconsin football defensive line outside of Keeanu Benton (72.9). He was a quality run defender and is athletic enough to take a step as a pass-rusher potentially. 

To meet expectations, everyone in this group must be a rotational defensive lineman this fall and be no worse than a net neutral on the field. Expectations from this group aren’t crazy high, and with the new coaching staff coming in, this room could look very different a year from now. I’m the least confident in handing out expectations from this room as any other position group because I don’t see any returning difference-makers on the roster from last season

Wisconsin Football D-Lineman With Moderate Expectations

  • Gio Paez (RS SR)
  • Darian Varner (RS JR)

I’m lumping fifth-year senior Gio Paez and Temple transfer Darian Varner in the moderate expectations group because they’re both likely to see the field in some capacity this season.

First, after watching his available tape, I’d like to preface this by saying I’m very high on Varner. The new Wisconsin football coaching staff likes to get after the QB with their defensive lineman, and they thought highly enough of his skill set to flip him from Virginia Tech out of the portal.

If Varner had practiced this spring and held his own, I almost assuredly would have lumped him in the top group — I just don’t want to put him in the high expectations group strictly off eye test.

Varner is a 6-foot-3, 255-pound DL 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. He offers tremendous versatility for coach Tressell, showing the ability to play with his hand in the ground of rush coming off the EDGE.

Personally, Varner is someone I could see being one of the top three defensive linemen in snaps played because he can get after the QB in different ways. I’m prepared to eat my words for placing him in moderate expectations because I like his game and his fit in this defense a ton.

Then there is Paez, who has waited his turn and now has a chance to make an impact in three down-lineman defensive fronts. At 6-foot-3, 319 pounds, Paez made 12 tackles, one for loss in 10 games last season for the Badgers. He’s better as a pass-rusher and disrupter than he is in run defense, although neither is anything to write home about.

Paez is a serviceable body that can provide depth, but I’m not expecting much more than that (this is still valuable to any team).

To meet expectations, these players need to provide meaningful depth and be rotational pieces for Wisconsin football this fall. In the case of Varner, I’d love to see him used as a pass-rushing specialist, at the very least.

Wisconsin Football D-Lineman With Low Expectations

  • Isaac Townsend (RS SR)
  • Cade McDonald (RS JR)
  • Curtis Neal (RS FR)
  • Ben Barten (RS JR)
  • Mike Jarvis (RS SO)

In this low-expectations group, I will put Isaac Townsend, Cade McDonald, Curtis Neal, Ben Barten, and Mike Jarvis.

I’m going to spare you the deep analysis on this group and just say that nobody in this tier has shown anything significant yet, and it would be wonderful if someone took a noticeable step forward in their development so Wisconsin football doesn’t have to go portaling in the offseason for help.

Neal and McDonald are players I think have a chance to be more than JAG, but this year will go a long way in establishing where their future lies. Neal has a real opportunity to prove himself at nose tackle due to the lack of bodies.

To meet expectations, everyone in this tier needs to hold their ground, be ready if needed to be in the two-deep following injury, and take big enough steps forward so they could compete for snaps next season.

No Expectations 

  • Tommy Brunner (RS SR)
  • Manny Mullens (RS SO)
  • Gabe Kirschke (RS FR)
  • Jamel Howard (FR)

Finally, I’ve got walk-ons Tommy Brunner, Manny Mullens, Gabe Kirschke, and scholarship freshman Jamel Howard in the no-expectations group. 

Wisconsin football has a strong tradition of walk-ons becoming contributors, but I don’t see any of them breaking out of this tier. In the case of Howard, anything is possible. 

The new coaching staff busted their ass to bring the 320-pound nose tackle back into the fold, and as I mentioned before, there aren’t many nose tackles on the roster. Howard could undoubtedly find himself a niche role from day one. However, I’ll never expect anything of a true freshman — that’s unfair. 

To meet expectations, this group needs to focus on the weight room, their assignments, and development. I have high hopes for Jamel Howard in the future


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Dillon Graff is a Substack newsletter best-selling author, publisher of AllBadgers, and the owner of BadgerNotes.com, 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.

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