Keeping track of which defensive players were on the field for the University of Wisconsin football team was a challenge in the season opener Friday night.
The fact it was by choice — and had nothing to do with mounting injuries — was a positive sign for the Badgers.
If a 49-0 victory at South Florida is any indication, depth might be the biggest strength of a defense trying to bounce back from 2018 performance that wasn’t up to the program’s lofty standard.
“None of us has to stay in for more than three to four plays at a time,” sophomore defensive end Matt Henningsen, who returned a fumble for a touchdown, said after UW’s first shutout since late in the 2017 season. “We’re going all out every single play, running to the ball, doing everything we can and we know that we’ve got guys we can trust behind us that will fill in and essentially just play Wisconsin football the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Henningsen was speaking for the defensive line, but he easily could have been referring to any of the three levels of the unit. UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard kept his players fresh in humid conditions by using nearly everything at his disposal.
Twenty-one UW defensive players saw action in the first half alone. Seventeen of those players got at least six snaps, and 13 players registered double-digit snaps by halftime.
“We’re pretty deep in all positions right now,” UW senior outside linebacker Zack Baun said. “We’re just playing for each other.”
Some caveats to mention at this point:
South Florida is hardly an offensive juggernaut and was in its first game in a new system under offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell. It didn’t help matters for the Bulls that they were without sophomore Johnny Ford, a speedster who played tailback last season and was expected to be a big part of the offense as a slot receiver. Ford sat out the game for undisclosed reasons.
Still, this was an encouraging start for a UW defense that needed one after last season. South Florida finished with 157 total yards in 56 plays and didn’t run a play in UW territory until its final series of the game.
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Afterward, Baun reminded reporters that he’d predicted back on media day in late July that the UW defense would have a bounce-back season after allowing 22.6 points (most since 2008) and 344.2 yards (most since 2007) per game.
“I wouldn’t say ‘bad.’ Let’s eliminate that (word),” said Baun, trying to find the right term to describe the 2018 performance. “Of course that’s something we talked about. Coach (Paul) Chryst made it a point, we needed to get back to playing good, Wisconsin football, fundamentally sound.”
Baun and sophomore Izayah Green-May started at outside linebacker, but Noah Burks, Tyler Johnson and Jaylan Franklin also got snaps.
Senior Chris Orr and sophomore Jack Sanborn started at inside linebacker, with junior Mike Maskalunas and true freshman Leon Chenal seeing plenty of action. Maskalunas finished as UW’s leading tackler with six, while the other three inside linebackers had five apiece.
The Badgers spent the entire game with five defensive backs on the field, with sophomore corners Faion Hicks and Deron Harrell joined by three safeties to start the game: sophomore Scott Nelson, junior Eric Burrell and redshirt freshman Reggie Pearson. The main players off the bench were sophomore cornerback Rachad Wildgoose, junior cornerback Caesar Williams and junior safety Collin Wilder. Williams broke up a pass that ended up being picked off by Burrell in the first half, while Wilder recorded his first career interception in the second half.
Others to see time in the secondary: junior safety Madison Cone and true freshman cornerback Semar Melvin.
Up front, juniors Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk started in the two-lineman look. Henningsen and sophomore nose tackle Bryson Williams played early, senior end David Pfaff got snaps in both halves and true freshman nose tackle Keannu Benton made his debut in the second half.
The best part for the Badgers was there didn’t appear to be any dropoff regardless if it was starters or backups in the game, or if it was a mix of both.
“For our defense to go out there and execute as well as we did,” Nelson said, “I think it really spoke well to the detail that we’ve been practicing with and just the energy and the focus that we had.”