MADISON — Much of the talk during the University of Wisconsin’s first spring football practice under coach Gary Andersen has centered around the offense.
When the Badgers line up in the fall, however, UW fans will notice the changes on defense much more than any new wrinkles on offense. Spring practices have revealed a defense that is more deceptive and aggressive than people are used to seeing from UW.
So how different is the new 3-4 alignment from the effective yet bland 4-3 defense UW traditionally has run?
“About as different as you can be,” new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said.
So different the coaching staff had to back off on the installation of the defense early in spring practice because the players’ helmets were spinning.
“I think we started off heavy at the beginning of spring, and it was too fast,” Aranda said. “We had to scale back some.”
But once the Badgers returned from spring break, the teaching again was ramped up and since then, according to Aranda, things have gone well. The new, more-creative defense should be up and running by Saturday’s spring game.
Aranda followed Andersen to UW from Utah State, where his defense ranked 14th nationally in total yards. UW’s defense was 15th, so any improvement will come in style more than quality.
The Badgers had only 15 takeaways last season, which ranked 105th in the nation. As the coordinator at Hawaii and Utah State, Aranda coached defenses that specialized in pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers. In many ways, UW is making the same transition the Green Bay Packers did when they hired Dom Capers to install his Pittsburgh Steelers-style 3-4 defense in 2009.
“The defense that was played here has been good defense,” Aranda said. “It’s just that this is a different style of defense. We’re going to play basic runs and basic passes in pressure concepts, whereas the (previous staff’s) thought was the pressure stuff was only going to come out on specific situations. For us, (pressure) is just a part of it. We’re going to play everything out of this pressure. We’re going to cover everything out of this pressure.”
The base defense is a 3-4, but that can morph into an even front at any time. Practice observers have seen UW line up with one down lineman and as many as four safeties. The aim is to cause confusion among the offensive players and create mismatches by having the ability to attack from anywhere.
Not unlike Capers, Aranda doesn’t rely on all-out blitzes. Instead, his defenses have the ability to rush the quarterback from anywhere. The deception comes because the offense never knows which of the 11 defenders will rush.
“We try to be aggressive,” Aranda said. “It’s a safe aggressiveness, though. A lot of times it’s just four guys that are coming. ... We don’t necessarily attack protections because there’s only four guys (rushing), but we can stress the protection and try to get, for example, a Brendan Kelly or a Chris Borland matched up on a back.”
Aranda learned some of his defensive concepts while interning under Mike Nolan, who has been an NFL head coach or defensive coordinator for two decades. Almost all of Nolan’s calls contain some sort of pressure or simulated pressure, with the goal being to dictate to the offense rather than the other way around.
One thing Aranda seems pleased with is the players he inherited. The defense returned every lineman from last season and every linebacker except Mike Taylor. The coaches want the unit to be strong up the middle and the Badgers certainly have the experience and talent to make that happen this fall.
Position changes had to be made, though, with Beau Allen moving from tackle to nose guard; Ethan Hemer from tackle to end; and ends Brendan Kelly and Tyler Dippel to outside linebacker. Even though David Gilbert left the program after yet another foot surgery, the all-important outside linebacker position has some promising, though inexperienced, players such as Vince Biegel, Joe Schobert, Jesse Hayes and Nick Hill.
Aranda wants tough, smart, fast players with rangy builds. He has found some of those types at UW.
“Ethan Hemer is a prototypical defensive end for us, Beau Allen is a prototypical nose guard and Brendan Kelly is a prototypical outside linebacker,” Aranda said. “So we’ve got a lot of pieces to the puzzle. It’s fertile (recruiting) grounds for those types of guys, where we’re at. We can recruit linebacker types easier.”
Although the secondary will be called upon to blitz more, the coverages won’t necessarily be more aggressive than they’ve been. The cornerbacks are inexperienced, but Aranda seems unfazed.
“They’ve played a fair amount of man (coverage) and their quarters (zone coverage) was man-based, which ours is, too,” Aranda said. “We’re probably going to play more zone than what they have played, whether it’s cover two or three deep. ... When we are in man, they’re going to be more aggressive. In the zones, they’re probably going to be blitzing a lot more.”
That kind of talk should make UW fans very happy.