Young UW defense steps to forefront in intra-squad contest

first_imgIn a spring season filled with press concerning the Badgers’ quarterback competition, the UW defense showed signs of being far more than a one-year wonder. With seven starters gone from last season, including standout defensive linemen Jonathan Welsh, Jason Jefferson, Anttaj Hawthorne and Erasmus James, Bret Bielema’s defense entered the spring searching for an identity with a slate of players lacking the recognizable names of years past.Saturday’s annual spring game served as a showcase for a hungry young Badger defense. Players on both the Cardinal and White squads stood out in the 14-14 tie, displaying the unit’s overall balance. Defensive backs Zach Hampton and Ben Strickland, both playing for the White team coached by secondary coach Ron Lee, intercepted passes on the day.Hampton, currently in a tight competition for the starting free safety job with Roderick Rogers, darted in front of wideout Jarvis Minton late in the first quarter to snag starting quarterback John Stocco’s pass, putting an exclamation point on what has been a standout spring session for the junior.“It felt great,” Hampton said of the play. “Coming in I wanted to get an interception, just to boost my morale a little bit, boost everybody in the DB’s. We had a little celebration for at the end when we got an interception, so that was fun. But, it just capped off a pretty good spring for myself.”Strickland, in his own right, ranked among the game’s leaders in tackles in addition to making his interception, a leaping grab on a Stocco pass near the goal line. After beginning the spring third on the depth chart at right cornerback, the sophomore walk-on has moved up, taking repetitions almost exclusively with the No. 2 defense.“You always want some plays to come back,” Strickland said. “You can’t be right on every play, but it’s a matter of growing up as a corner and a young player on the team, and you look for leadership, and the other corners try to help you out. But, once your time comes, you’ve got to make plays, and I might have made one today, but I have other things that I’ve got to improve on.”All told, the Cardinal and White defenses received contributions from players at nearly every position. Starting sam linebacker Mark Zalewski recorded a sack and chased White squad quarterback Tyler Donovan all over the field throughout the first half. Second-string linebackers Josh Neal and Jammar Crane drew praise from head coach Barry Alvarez with their play.“I thought Josh Neal, again, he had a great spring,” Alvarez said. “But he’s a tough guy and loves to plays. Jammar Crane, those two young linebackers really did some good things. I liked what I saw.”Youngsters similarly stepped up on the defensive line, where a number of inexperienced Badgers are looking to replace last season’s heralded front. Sophomore Kurt Ware recorded a sack, while classmate Brandon Kelly batted down a Stocco pass at the line of scrimmage. Redshirt freshman Jason Chapman also dropped Donovan for a loss, and starting defensive tackles Nick Hayden and Justin Ostrowski provided a solid push on the line.“They got experience last year with those injuries that we had to the defensive line,” Bielema said of his young defensive line. “So, they had some valuable experience in there during that time. And they’re getting coached the same way that all those four guys that are going to get drafted here in a couple weeks got coached and did some special things.”For a defensive unit that entered the spring season as a question mark, Saturday’s performance was a bit of vindication.“If they continue to improve, if they continue to do that during two-a-days and have a good summer, I think we’ll have a chance of being a nice defense,” Alvarez said.last_img read more