Earlier this past week, we looked at my predictions for the Wisconsin offense in 2020. In this article, we’ll look at my predictions for the Wisconsin starting defense and other role players we can expect to see. The defense has fewer starters to replace than the offense. However, there will be competitions at every position. The Wisconsin defense is deep, talented, and should be one of the best defensive units in the Big Ten and the country.
Defensive Line- Garrett Rand, Keeanu Benton, Isaiahh Loudermilk
Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk are guaranteed to start on the defensive line barring injury. Both had solid 2019 campaigns and enter their senior years with a ton of experience. Both struggled with injuries early in their college careers. However, when both are healthy, they disrupt offensive lines and win the line of scrimmage and their individual battles more times than not. Nose tackle is where it gets interesting. Keeanu Benton was a true freshman last year and came in as a replacement for Bryson Williams due to injury during the season. He played in six games and showed off a ton of talent and potential for a young player. Because of the flashes and potential Benton showed, I give him the early season nod over Williams for the starting nose tackle position.
My favorite part about the defensive line this year is the depth. Bryson Williams returns this year as a junior and will receive a ton of snaps at nose tackle with Benton. Benton and Williams have the potential to make a fantastic 1-2 punch at nose tackle. I also like junior defensive end Matt Henningsen. Henningsen led the defensive line last season with four sacks and is great rotation player with Rand and Loudermilk. Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard is going to have five solid players on his defensive line this year. For a defense that was sixth in the country against the run last year, don’t be surprised if they end this season in a similar position.
Linebackers- Noah Burks, Jack Sanborn, Leo Chenal, Izayah Green-May
Linebacker will be the intriguing position of the entire unit. Chris Orr and Zack Baun were the leaders of this unit and are both now in the NFL. Sanborn was the leading tackler last year with 80 tackles. Sanborn will need to be the anchor of the position and the defense. The junior inside linebacker is getting early attention for the 2021 NFL draft.
Noah Burks recorded 36 tackles last year with two sacks and one interception. He brings a lot of experience to the position and should receive the nod as one of the starting outside linebackers. Joining him will be Izayah Green-May. Green-May was a starter last year before getting injured. I expect him to receive the early season nod opposite Burks. The other inside linebacker spot will be Leo Chenal. Chenal recorded 17 tackles and one sack as a true freshman last year. He got some valuable reps and should be lined up next to Sanborn because of his experience.
There are two young players I’m really intrigued to watch this year at the linebacker position. I’m excited to see what Spencer Lytle and Jaylan Franklin bring to the linebacker unit. While both have limited statistics early in their careers, both bring a lot of buzz and should receive valuable reps this year. As a reminder to everyone, this unit doesn’t re-build. They re-load and are “Linebacker-U” for a reason. There are early season question marks but I expect this unit to be a force by the end of the season.
Cornerbacks- Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks
The cornerback position was young and unproven a few years ago. Today, this is a veteran group with a ton of players who have played a ton of games. Just like the defensive line, this is a group loaded with talent and experience. Two players are Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks. These two look to be the likely starters for the defense.
Williams had arguably his best game as a Badger at Minnesota last year in a nationally televised game. Williams had a late game interception in the fourth quarter that sealed Paul Bunyan’s Ax and a trip to Indianapolis last season. Hicks has been on the field his entire career and has shown he can line up at both corner and nickel positions. These two will have their hands full this year with receivers such as Rashod Bateman and Rondale Moore in the Big Ten West.
Two other players I like in this position group are Rashod Wildgoose and Madison Cone. Wildgoose can play the nickel corner spot and has a ton of experience as a role player and a starter. Cone is versatile player as well and can play both corner and nickel. He’s a really good athlete and should receive reps in the rotation this year at nickel and maybe even the safety position. I also like Semar Melvin to crack the rotation. The redshirt freshman shined at Minnesota last year and should receive his share of snaps too.
Safety- Eric Burrell and Reggie Pearson
Eric Burrell returns this year and is an absolute stud for the Wisconsin defense. Burrell is one of the best returning defensive players in the Big Ten. Burrell was a member of the 2016 class and has 103 career tackles for Wisconsin. He has been a rock on the back end of the defense and should be one of the best statistical safeties in the conference and the country. I did go back and forth between Reggie Pearson and Scott Nelson as the other starting safety. Nelson was the starter last season, but suffered a season ending injury in the first game. Because of this, Pearson got his chance and had a solid season last year recording 60 tackles and two forced fumbles. Because of the experience and reps we saw last year, I give the starting nod to Pearson.
Scott Nelson is a solid safety with a nose for the football. The biggest question for the junior coming into 2020 is his health and being able to stay on the field. If he can stay healthy, he will be another solid contributor for the defense. Collin Wilder also returns this year. Wilder is a redshirt senior who saw action in all 14 games last year as another replacement for Nelson. Wilder will most likely be a backup this year but should receive a good amount of snaps as he has a nose for the ball like Nelson. This is an extremely deep and talented position and should be in great shape to have a really nice 2020 season.