September 3, 2010

Defensive tackle progression no surprise

In looking at the Wisconsin defensive line as a unit entering the month of August the middle of the position would have fit in as a category in Jeopardy.

There were that many questions surrounding it.

Who was going to replace Jeff Stehle, Dan Moore and Dan Cascone inside? Who was going to step up and help alleviate the transition and void left open by O'Brien Schofield? And is J.J. Watt able to handle the load himself or does he need another rush end to open things up for him.

Now, with the calendar reading September and the season opener one day away, it seems as most of those questions have been answered.

Hey, Watt, are you surprised with the way your position stepped up during fall camp?

"I wouldn't say surprised, no," Watt said. "I've seen them in the spring and through the summer. The defensive tackles have been working extremely hard and they've been doing a ton of work after practice. They hit the weight room harder than anybody this summer.

"To see them flourish into great defensive tackles it's been fun to watch."

Beyond Patrick Butrym, nobody on the interior of the defensive line has seen any game action. So admittedly, it will be difficult to decipher how players such as Jordan Kohout, Ethan Hemer, Eriks Briedis and Beau Allen will perform under the lights.

But they say you play like you practice and if that's the case, the defensive tackles should be in decent shape entering the opener against UNLV.

"We didn't question ourselves," Kohout said. "The outside world definitely did. That was the same thing that happened with the group of seniors last year. We try not to pay attention so much to the outside world. We knew that we really worked our tails off during the summer and we know what we had to get done this fall (camp) to have a great team.

"We think we just did that."

Perhaps more than anybody else, Briedis really stepped his play up entering his third season as a scholarship defensive tackle. It is easy to say the Florida native just finished his finest camp as a Badger.

For Butrym, a player involved in the program for a while, a different Briedis was revealed during last spring camp. The strides started to be seen.

"He started to stop making mistakes that he was making," Butrym said. "I think once he started to learn from the mistakes and when somebody coaches you and tells you to do something and you can actually do it, I think that's when you can start to make strides and become a good player.

"I've always tried to help him along the way. Some guys just developed slower. He developed slower but he's picking it up now and he's going to be a contributor this year, too."

Kohout, who missed a chunk of practice midway through camp is healthy and was able to relish the improvement he saw in his fellow tackles during his absence. As a result, he's excited to see the defensive tackle rotation in action.

"I'm not sure how coach Charlie Partridge is going to dictate the rotation," Kohout said. "I'm confident. I think we'll be good. It's nice to have a good and deep defensive line where we can rotate guys."

With Watt book-ending one side of the line, the opportunity for David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu to step up has been there throughout fall camp. And much like he did last year, Watt will be able to function at a high level should they perform at a high level.

"It helps," Watt said. "It sure helps. We have two guys over there that have been working extremely hard this camp. I have no doubt that they're going to be just fine over there. The biggest thing is I have to work hard myself. Nothing is given to me. Just because I played decent last year doesn't mean I'm going to be good this year.

"I have to come to work every single day just like last year."

At this time it seems as though both Gilbert and Nzegwu will receive plenty of reps. Nzegwu will likely be the starting end, but that doesn't mean anything is guaranteed.

Unless, of course, his play on the field dictates that and forces the coaches to keep him on the field.

"He came to work this fall camp," Watt said. "He's picking up right where OB left off. He's quick, he's extremely sudden and he brings a lot to the table. He's the speed over there and I'm the power on the other side. I'm extremely excited to have him.

"He's definitely come with a workers approach and it's been fun to watch."

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