Wisconsin’s defense has been downright terrific over the past two seasons, ranking near the top of the country in the key statistical categories.
But with defensive coordinator Dave Aranda leaving the Badgers for a gig on the LSU coaching staff this offseason, will the success on that side of the ball continue in Madison?
During the 2015 season, Wisconsin led the country in scoring defense, allowing 13.7 points per game, and ranked second in the country in total defense, allowing an average of 268.5 total yards per game. Opposing offenses rushed for just 95.4 yards per game against the Badgers’ defense (fourth-best in the country) and passed for 173.2 yards per game (seventh-best in the country).
While Michigan is getting all the headlines this offseason for its sensational defense (the Wolverines return a ton of talent but also lost their defensive coordinator), Wisconsin was better, statistically, a season ago.
That being said, Aranda, who made the Badgers one of the nation’s top defensive teams in 2014, too, could make a big difference with his departure.
“I don’t want to say an adjustment period because that’s taking a step back. You’re always trying to take a step forward,” linebacker Vince Biegel said during Big Ten Media Days. “But this year, different coaches, whole different personnel, different challenges, different strengths. This year is a whole new year, we’ll see what comes of it. I’m confident in the young men that we have: our secondary, our linebacking group, our experienced front seven. It’s going to be a fun D to watch.”
Wisconsin must replace a few key playmakers, namely linebacker Joe Schobert — 2015’s Big Ten Linebacker of the Year — and also have three holes to fill in the secondary, including the one created by the departure of All-Big Ten Second Team safety Michael Caputo. But Biegel leads a strong group nonetheless. It makes the biggest challenge moving on without Aranda and getting used to new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
“I become very close with my D-coordinators because when they’re game planning for an opponent I like to be right in his ear, make sure I’m part of the gameplan. And I really like to have a strong connection with my D-coordinator,” Biegel said. “Coach Aranda, I had a tremendous relationship with him, and it was definitely tough to see him leave. I don’t have any hard feelings or resentment regarding him leaving. I understand he’s got to make the best decision for himself. But I think there’s no better guy to fill in than Justin Wilcox.
“The biggest challenge for us is probably becoming comfortable with coach Wilcox. There’s still room for improvement on that. We definitely made up ground for that in the spring, becoming more comfortable with coach ‘Cox and what he expects from us and what he wants from us, as well. It’s been a win-win situation. We’re looking forward to continuing to build that relationship with coach ‘Cox.”
In somewhat of a ridiculous coincidence, Wisconsin opens the season against LSU, meaning Aranda will be on the opposing sideline and presumably had some tips for head coach Les Miles on how the Tigers' offense should attack the Badgers on defense. That’s an added challenge Wisconsin’s defense didn’t need considering it was already going up against one of the top offensive players in college football in running back Leonard Fournette.
But Wilcox brings his own impressive resume, a 10-year defensive coordinator at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington and USC. With Wilcox and Biegel, the Badgers’ defense appears to be in good hands. But can it keep up the success that has been its trademark in recent seasons?