April 5, 2010

Midway through spring camp: The defense

MADISON - With the second half of spring break set to open Tuesday afternoon, albeit a closed practice, BadgerBlitz.com takes a look back at the first half of spring practices. After focusing on the offensive side of the ball last week, the attention now shifts to the defense.

WHAT WE KNOW…

About the defensive line:

First of all, we know that J.J. Watt is poised for a breakout season. He is up to approximately 290 pounds and looks even quicker than he used to at the defensive end position. He is explosive off the snap, powerful around the edge and quick enough to pounce on the quarterback.

He is also poised to assume the leadership vacancy left open by the departure of former end standout O'Brien Schofield.

"I'm trying to be a leader and I'm trying to step in and pick up from what O'Brien and Chris Maragos left behind," Watt said earlier in spring camp. "We need a guy like that. We need a guy that guys can look to and say, 'Hey, I want to follow him. I want him to lead our team into battle.'

"I'm trying to be the guy every single day for our team out here and hopefully these guys follow the work ethic in the weight room, on the field and in the classroom."

As far as Watt goes individually, he is looking to remain steady in his rushing lanes and run stuffing capabilities while working to get stronger when it comes to passing situations.

"One of the biggest things I'm trying to work on is my pass rush because I was a little disappointed in it last year," Watt said. "The first thing is my first step off the line. I'm definitely trying to work on that and the first couple of practices have been positive.

"Every single day, if I can get a little bit better on my pass rush and keep improving in the run game I'll be just fine."

Though Watt is a fixture on the defensive line, the rest of the unit is still looking to find its fillers. Patrick Butrym, a regular in the defensive tackle position a season ago, is looking to build off that performance.

So far in spring it seems as though Butrym has taken it upon himself to make improvements in his game, especially after getting a taste of regular playing time last fall.

"I got a couple of starts last year and definitely got some valuable experience," Butrym said. "That's not important for me, but it's important for the defensive line. I can kind of pass on some of that leadership and experience to some of the younger guys."

One of those younger guys Butrym was surely talking about is fellow defensive tackle Jordan Kohout. Following a redshirt season where Kohout was, at times, overwhelmed, it seems as though the young tackle prospect is starting to fall into a comfort zone at his position.

It's not so much procedure with Kohout anymore, it's more about getting the reps and making improvements to his overall game.

"I think last year I had a problem with worrying about external stuff and not focusing here so much," Kohout said. "I'm really focused on the moment here. It's really approaching it one play at a time just like coach Charlie Partridge always stresses.

"It's working real well for me."

Midway through spring camp, it seems as though Kohout and Butrym are forming a bond as interior lineman, one that would do nothing but translate to success on the field.

"You've got the communication part which is so important," Butrym said. "Then you also have the verbal communication and I think Jordan and I are starting to get that down. That's not just on the field, you develop that off the field. You become friends and stuff like that because you're around each other so much.

"It definitely benefits you on the field."

Finally, at the other defensive end position, one of spring camps true position battles has broken out. With David Gilbert and Louis Nzegwu both vying for a spot in the regular line rotation, there is plenty of good competition swirling around the side of the line opposite Watt.

"I like the fact that they're competing with each other every day because they are making each other better," Partridge said. "May the best man win the starting spot."

Quick hits from the defensive line:

-Tyler Westphal has been participating in practice on a regular basis for the first time since the fall of 2008. While he probably isn't ready to contribute, he is starting to get back into the flow of things and seems to be developing a steady confidence about himself.

"He hasn't played football since the fall of 2008," Partridge said. "Every rep is critical for him. He's got to get better fast."

-Anthony Mains, though he is a bit small to play defensive tackle, has stepped in for the injury Eriks Briedis and hasn't performed too bad at the position.

"I'll give the kid credit," Partridge said. "This may one of the best things that happens for him because he's having to fight for every snap."

-Ethan Hemer is progressing at the defensive tackle position. He possesses great size for the position, but just needs to become more consistent.

"Physically he's there, not totally, but he's 290 pounds," Butrym said. "That's a solid size for him and he's definitely using that to his advantage. He's starting to develop those fundamentals and improve on that. Once he does that he can become a solid player in the rotation."

About the linebackers:

With both Chris Borland and Mike Taylor out for the entirety of spring camp, there have been plenty of chances for some of the younger players on the roster to develop and get reps during the first eight practices of the spring season.

Culmer St. Jean seems quicker and more deliberate in the middle while Blake Sorensen and Kevin Rouse are turning heads on the perimeter. Both Sorensen and St. Jean have plenty of game experience as they are a couple of older players at the linebacker position. Due to that, they are focused on helping some of the younger guys smooth into their roles.

Kevin Claxton, a former safety turned linebacker, would fit that mold. Having never played the position, Claxton looks to be a quick learner as he has stuck his head in many plays. If nothing else, he has proven to be an imposing force in the middle of the field with a powerful and bruising tackling style.

"At strong safety last year I was a little bit in the box and I had the mentality of going in and taking blocks," Claxton said of his mindset. "I guess it changes a little bit because I have to have that mentality every play, of going in and taking on those big guys down there.

"So I guess (I have) the mentality to be able to be physical every play with the offensive line and fullbacks."

While Borland and Taylor are more less shoe ins for their respective starting position, it seems the depth at the linebacker position is going to be pretty solid come fall camp.

About the secondary:

At the cornerback position it seems as though both Devin Smith and Antonio Fenelus are poised to build on their first seasons with an exceptional amount of reps.

Smith is consistent and probably the most physical corner besides Niles Brinkley on the roster. He seems to gain more confidence with each and every rep he gets.

Fenelus, who struggled early on in spring camp, particularly on deep routes, seems to have a mindset that allows him to build from his past mistakes. Having a new position coach in Chris Ash makes it difficult for Fenelus to do anything else.

"Antonio, (with) everything coach Ash says, is probably having the best spring ball more than anybody else on the team right now," safety Jay Valai said before spring break. "And that is just because he's listening to coach Ash and filtering everything and keeps on moving forward."

With Brinkley dinged up with a minor injury, it has really been Fenelus and Smith running the corner position with the No. 1 defense.

Behind those two are Valai and new safety Aaron Henry. Henry, a player that has struggled to get back to his pre-injury playing level, seems to be closer to that than ever before.

He has been granted a fresh start of sorts. He has a new position, a new season, a new coach and a healthy knee. Now, midway through spring camp, it seems as though Henry is starting to inch closer to being what he showcased as a freshman.

"I'm more excited just to be back on the field and being able to play," Henry said. "It's a new position so I'm real, real excited. With Jay Valai back there, he's helping me. Chris Maragos, he's really critiquing me as well. When you've got guys like that, especially like Jimmy (Leonhard) and Chris who can come back and always help, it definitely sheds some light on your situation and definitely has me looking forward to the future."

Finally, at the other safety position, it seems as though Valai has focused himself on becoming a leader of the secondary in general. He has always had the knack for making the big hit but struggling in other areas. Now, entering his final season, it seems as though Valai is focused on becoming the best player he can be.

"I wanted to be more technically sound and more of a vocal leader," Valai said. "We're just coming together as a unit, I think that's the main thing. I think if our team plays as one unit on the football field and one unit as a team it's going to be shown on the field."

Quick hits regarding the secondary:

-Former linebacker Conor O'Neill is making a rather smooth transition to the safety position. After trying to add weight without much success, O'Neill welcomed the move to safety.

"Conor is a smart dude," Valai said. "He's working hard and he's grinding."

-Marcus Cromartie is not afraid to mix it up with anyone on the field. He has a strong demeanor about him, but his inconsistencies have prevented him from really pushing Smith or Fenelus for the starting nod.


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