As the University of Wisconsin football team prepares to kick off the 2021 season, the Wisconsin State Journal is offering an unprecedented inside look at this year's roster.
From players breaking down their teammates' performances in camp and what to expect this season, to beat reporter Colten Bartholomew sharing his expertise on key position battles and players to watch, we've got Badgers fans covered.
In the sixth part of our position-by-position breakdown series, UW offensive lineman Tyler Beach discusses this year's defensive linemen as we take an in-depth look at the group:
Projected starters (Nose, Ends) — Ht.; Wt.; Yr.; Hometown
Keeanu Benton — 6-4; 317; Jr.; Janesville, Wis.
Matt Henningsen — 6-3; 291; Sr.; Menomonee Falls, Wis.
Isaiah Mullens — 6-4; 297; Jr.; Columbus, Ohio
Bryson Williams — 6-2; 290; Sr.; Lincoln, Neb.
Rodas Johnson — 6-2; 286; So.; Columbus, Ohio
Gio Paez — 6-3; 310; So.; Los Angeles, Calif.
James Thompson Jr. — 6-5; 290; Redshirt Fr.; Cincinnati, Ohio
Isaac Townsend — 6-5; 275; So.; Arvada, Colo.
Cade McDonald — 6-6; 278; Redshirt Fr.; Houlton, Wis.
Michael Balistreri — 6-4; 276; Sr.; Grafton, Wis.
Tommy Brunner — 6-3; 254; So.; Milwaukee, Wis.
Mike Jarvis — 6-4; 274; Fr.; Medford, N.J.
The Badgers were solid on the defensive line last season, but that performance didn’t turn into tackles for loss or sacks. UW had just four of its 36 TFLs and two of its 11 sacks come from defensive linemen in 2020. Senior Isaiahh Loudermilk had 2½ TFLs and two sacks before getting drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fifth round of the NFL draft.
UW’s scheme isn’t always designed for defensive linemen to make those plays behind the line and 70% of the team’s snaps were played in nickel last season, meaning only two linemen were on the field. But defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard repeatedly has said more production is expected out of this group.
“We're trying to expand the roles that they have, put them in the best position to win, rather than just saying, ‘This is your job and we're going to play around you,’” Leonhard said this spring.
Keeanu Benton (above) has been a force on the interior since joining the team in 2019, but the amount of nickel the defense has played has limited his ability to impact games. He started training camp with the top group of linemen in nickel, and if he can provide more interior pressure, it’ll lighten the pass-rush load asked of the inside linebackers. He could be a bowling bowl on stunts who draws a lot of attention.
Bryson Williams has battled through numerous leg and knee injuries in his UW career and has been mostly a backup since getting hurt against South Florida to start the 2019 season. He has been dedicated to a better diet that helped him shed nearly 40 pounds over the last year before bulking up for the season, and position coach Ross Kolodziej said he’s the most sudden and quickest he’s seen him.
Getting Matt Henningsen (above) back from a torn biceps will add an experienced playmaker to the front. How Henningsen takes advantage of starter’s snaps after being a rotation player over the past two seasons will be something to watch, but his combination of quick feet and upper body strength make him a tough player to block one-on-one.
Isaiah Mullens and Rodas Johnson both are big-bodied athletes who bring speed off the edge and are strong enough to take on double teams. They may form a rotation with Henningsen similar to the Loudermilk-Henningsen-Garrett Rand trio that worked well over the past two seasons.
Isaac Townsend, a transfer from Oregon, quickly integrated himself with the Badgers in summer workouts. He’s one of the fastest players in the front seven, but being limited by injury early in camp may have delayed his chances to start the season in the rotation.
Some of the young talent at the position is still raw, but James Thompson Jr. (above left) — coming off a season-ending Achilles injury — had a strong camp and could find his way into the second unit.
Leonhard and Kolodziej, who’s in his first year in the role, ideally will be able to rotate players across the line to keep them fresh, something Leonhard has emphasized at almost every level of the defense.
Ready to make a leap
Thompson showed coaches enough last year in practice to earn reps late in the blowout win against Michigan, but he injured his right knee in that game. His long arms help him separate from blockers and he has good stop-and-start quickness. He was able to participate in the Badgers’ summer workouts after missing the spring, and he’s shown good burst off the line in fall camp.
With an older group, UW will need to stock up some recruits in the next two cycles to be ready for the current players’ departures. Mike Jarvis was the only defensive end prospect brought into the 2021 class. UW has an oral commitment from Curtis Neal, likely the nose tackle of the future, in the 2022 class as well.
15 | Pressures last season by defensive linemen on the roster in 2021, per Pro Football Focus.