Wisconsin Football Practice Notes: How Will the Defense Change Under Mike Tressel?

Madison, Wisconsin — Shortly after Mike Tressel was hired as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, he met with reporters and acknowledged the challenge of trying to “connect the elite” between what worked for the Badgers under Jim Leonard and the new system he wanted to implement. Tressel knew it would take two months before spring practice, and possibly more time, to decide the best way to strike that balance.

“It’s definitely the defense here that we’ve been able to recruit great players for, and it’s proven to be exceptional in the Big Ten Conference,” Tressel said in January. “So we’ll hold on to a lot of that. But we’ll also give some of that, as you call it 3-3-5, although I think it’s a unique 3-3-5 that might give a different vibe to people who weren’t ready for it.”

During Wisconsin’s first spring training on Saturday, much of the defensive calling seemed to reflect what players are used to under Leonard, with the unit operating in a 2-4-5 scheme for much of the day. But as the Badgers’ second team got underway on Tuesday, it became clear that Tressel was ready to flex his defensive muscles as he gradually applied more of his system while still playing to the players strengths.

Wisconsin unveiled several interesting looks that brought a variety of lineups and pressures in a day that was generally dominated by defense. Here are some key takeaways from Tuesday’s open practice (follow-up here on Saturday’s first spring practice for the Luke Fickell era):


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Three forms of safety seem dangerous

The safety is one of the strongest combinations of defensive positions in Wisconsin due to the experience of Travian Blaylock, Hunter Wohler and Kamui Lato. Blaylock played in 25 career games and was in starting position before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last spring. Wohler started last season as a starter but broke his left fibula, while Lato played 12 games.

All three players were used at the same time on Tuesday in a three-man defense that featured six defensive tackles and could cause a lot of trouble. Latu made a great pass hanging up a throw to tight end Jack Eschenbach down midfield from Mordecai Tanner. Often deployed deep at linebacker, about seven yards from the ball, Wohler displayed the versatility, athleticism, and instincts that made him a four-star in-state in the 2021 recruiting class.

Wohler can play deep in the field in coverage, as he did when he defended an incomplete pass from Mordecai that was intended for Eschenbach. He can play under them, which he accomplished with perfection in a “robber role” on Mordecai’s pass in skeletal drills for running back Braylon Allen over the middle. Not seeing Mordecai Wohler fall in the penalty area, Wohler intercepted the pass and returned it for a potential touchdown in the highlight of the day. Wohler also made a nice coming play to stop running back Chez Mellusi in the backfield.

Leonard regularly advocated the value of versatility as a defensive coordinator and used Wohler all over the field. According to Pro Football Focus, Wohler played on the line or in the penalty area for 96 defensive snaps last season, while lining up at safety or free corner for 117. Wisconsin used six defensive tackles on the field on 6.3 percent of its shots last season, which ranked 48th nationally, according to TruMedia. Under Tressel, Cincinnati has used six defensive backs on 1.2 percent of their shots, which ranks 86th.

Tressel appeared at various times on Tuesday to take advantage of 3-3-5, 2-3-6 and 3-2-6 defense formations. The sheer volume of options available to him makes it difficult for the offense to identify which players are filling windows and which players are attacking. This is the main reason why Cincinnati ranked second nationally in pass defense during the 2021 College Football Playoff season.

More defensive nuggets

Another interesting development from Tressel was his use of outside linebackers. Rodas Johnson and Isaiah Mullins, as well as James Thompson Jr. and Geo Baez, earned first-team defensive snaps. But outside linebacker CJ Goetz was pitched to stand as the third player on the line, while outside linebacker Darryl Peterson was in more typical linebacker depth.

Outside linebacker TJ Bollers has also been used on the line in a two-point situation as Goetz has with the reserves. Goetz is listed at 235 pounds, while Bollers have gained 17 pounds in the season to take him to 268 pounds. This defense could allow him to better use his athleticism and strength to get around tackles up front. Outside linebackers Jeff Petrovski and Caden Johnson, who trained with the second-team unit on Saturday, did not participate in team practices on Tuesday.

No. 1 Wisconsin defense continued to feature Maima Ngongmita and Jordan Turner at inside linebacker. Alexander Smith and Ricardo Holman played cornerbacks, with Boston College’s Jason Maitre going in the slot.

A few young cornerbacks stood out on Tuesday, which is an encouraging sign as Wisconsin continues to build depth there: freshman starters Avion Jones and Akhiori Laid, as well as true freshman Jonas Ducluna. Jones chose to walk quarterback Marshall Howe during a 1-on-1 drill that matched a wide receiver on a defensive back.

Lyde, still wearing a non-contact yellow jersey as he returned to full strength from an ACL injury, got an impressive interception on quarterback Miles Burkett during a 7-on-7 drill. Lyde jumped in from behind to grab a pass intended for receiver Sir Cole Tunis. Duclona, ​​meanwhile, got regular snaps with the second-team defense after playing some second- and third-team snaps on Saturday. Duclona broke up a Braedyn Locke pass intended for receiver Markus Allen.

Wisconsin’s second-team defense featured the Bowlers and freshman Jordan Mayer joining early at the outside linebacker position, along with inside quarterbacks Jake Chaney and Tatum Grass. Jones and Ducluna were in the corner, with Amon Williams working the slot. Preston Zatchman and Austin Brown played safety.

The third team defensive linemen were Curt Neal and Tommy Brunner, with Kid McDonald also getting the picks. Brian Sanborn and Spencer Little were the third team inside linebackers. Neal, who was limited this past spring by an ACL injury, continues to make impressive strides. He had a solid day and made a nice move up front to dismiss Locke.

Offensive line changes

Offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. said Monday that he wants to look at Cincinnati transfer Joe Hooper as an option at center. Bicknell was true to his word, rocking the team’s second offensive line on Tuesday.

He moved Hooper from right guard to center in place of Dylan Barrett, who took the snapping position with the team’s third offense. JP Benzschawel rose from the team’s third right guard to the team’s second right guard. The rest of the team’s second offensive line remained intact, with Nolan Rocchi at left tackle, Joe Brunner at left guard and Trey Wedig at right tackle. Brunner’s physique simply stands out. He flattens Paez to the floor during an internship. He also sent Bicknell tumbling into the turf during practices on Saturday, which offensive coordinator Phil Longo posted to his Twitter account.

Wisconsin’s first-team offensive line was the same on Saturday, with Jack Nelson at left tackle, Tanor Bortolini at left guard, Jake Renfro at center, Michael Fortney at right guard, and Riley Mallmann at right tackle. Bicknell said Monday that Hooper and Wedig were well positioned to be part of the rotation, with Brunner also close.


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Quarterback rotation

Nick Evers’ decision to move from Oklahoma to Wisconsin in December helped start a transfer portal that created massive enthusiasm from the Badgers fan base. With two drills, Evers demonstrated his quick shooting and impressive arm strength on two throws. But otherwise he wasn’t a significant factor in the quarterback’s early run, as Wisconsin’s two biggest quarterbacks are still Mordecai and Luke, who handled the majority of the practice shots.

Evers made a very deep pass during skeletal drills, connecting with freshman receiver Tommy McIntosh about 40 yards down the left sideline with a fullback in coverage. He made a similar nice throw to receiver Chris Brooks Jr. on Saturday. However, Evers was not among the quarterbacks taking snaps during the team’s practice on Tuesday. Burkett and Howe even took two reservists ahead of Evers. It’s unclear why Evers didn’t take more shots, though it’s still early days as players try to make sense of Longo’s scheme. Longo and the two midfielders are due to be made available to reporters on April 12.

Attack highlights

Although the defense did well on Tuesday, there were still a few individual offensive plays that stood out. During the 1-on-1 drill, receiver Skylar Bell beat Maitre with a double body move that caused Maitre to fumble a 40-yard scoring pass from Mordecai. Receiver Keontez Lewis caught a 40-yard touchdown pass from Mordecai in an 11-on-11 team practice, though he appeared to rush Hallman for what was likely to be an offensive tackle.

Bell, Lewis, and Shimer Dyke remained the wide receivers with the team’s first offense, though Wisconsin once again employed a number of pass-catching options at receiver, tight end, and running back. The second overall team wide receivers were Brooks and CJ Williams with Will Pauling in the slot. Oklahoma State transfer Bryson Green was not fielded for his second consecutive practice.

With Wisconsin’s desire to drive speed, pass more and keep defenses off balance under Longo, it will be interesting to track how willing the Badgers are to use an empty backfield. Wisconsin still relies heavily on Allen and Melosi to carry the ball. But at one point on Tuesday, there were five players lined up to catch passes between wide receivers, tight ends, and a running back. Last season, Wisconsin ran 27 plays with an empty backfield, according to TruMedia, which ranked 97th nationally. Longo’s North Carolina team made 48 plays with an empty backfield, which ranked 63rd.

(Top photo by Hunter Wohler: John Fisher/Getty Images)


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