MADISON, Wis. — To those Wisconsin fans worried about what the defense might look like this year without linebacker Chris Borland and seven other starters, the returnees would like to send a message.
“We’re still here!”
Coach Gary Andersen said he likes that this team feels as if it has something to prove going into his second year in Madison.
“You know a lot of guys have played a lot of games here, but they may not have been labeled ‘starter,’ ” senior inside linebacker Derek Landisch said. “So I think people come out here with a chip on their shoulders, and they’re ready to prove something.”
The Badgers, who play LSU on Saturday in Houston, finished 9-4 last season in Andersen’s successful debut season. He had built-in experience with a senior-laden defense, though Wisconsin did rotate players in and out at a fairly regular frequency.
That gave guys such as Landisch and nose guard Warren Herring, another key player in this year’s front seven, valuable experience in what had been a newly installed 3-4 scheme. Landisch noted that having a full year of grasping Andersen’s defense should help.
“A lot of people don’t recognize that. I think that’s something that’s really going to help us, the familiarity with the defense, with the scheme,” Landisch said.
There is star power on offense with 1,600-yard rusher Melvin Gordon carrying on the tradition of strong Badgers backs. Andersen is still sorting through a quarterback competition between incumbent Joel Stave and dual-threat challenger Tanner McEvoy, although McEvoy apparently has won the job. The readiness of the young or inexperienced receivers remains in question, though the offensive line appears to be as bullish as ever.
Four things to watch ahead of the Saturday’s showdown:
1GO-GO GORDON: The junior bypassed a chance to enter the NFL draft — bad news for the rest of the Big Ten. Gordon is the nation’s active career leader in rushing average with 8.1 yards per carry. He has also grown more polished in interviews and taken on more leadership off the field — perhaps in preparation to compete for some shiny individual postseason trophies.
“Expectations are always high,” Gordon said. “When you expect greatness, you don’t just expect it from yourself — you expect it from everyone else.”
2TANNER TWO-STEP: If Andersen were to go with Stave, McEvoy may not be just holding a clipboard. Andersen has said he is looking at installing more “spread-type” looks, which would suit McEvoy. That could help ease the growing pains for the receiving corps.
3CHANGING UP: Speaking of the trendy spread, the Badgers are looking at shaping a lighter, faster and more versatile defense. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said the goal is to punch up the big-play potential while tracking down scrambling quarterbacks and keeping up with three- or four-wide looks.
4SAFETY VALVE: Six-foot-1 junior Michael Caputo might be the perfect example of the more versatile Badger. He’s listed at safety, and should play a key role in stopping the run. The Badgers say they can’t replace Borland’s big-play prowess, though Caputo has the potential.
“It’s hard to say to replace somebody because we’re all different athletes,” Caputo said. “But we’re all looking to be playmakers.”