New Wisconsin Badgers head coach Gary Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda have brought an aggressive 3-4 scheme to Madison from Utah State. The change is not a complete overhaul for Wisconsin. Last season, both the Aggies and Badgers were creative with personnel groupings most notably when they went to their pass rush packages. At Utah State, Aranda mixed in four-man fronts and could do so with more frequency as Badgers players get acclimated to their new roles early this year.
Still, there will be significant changes to Wisconsin's front seven that could get contributions from seven seniors. Those changes could have an impact on each of their NFL fortunes.
Change can hurt players who were recruited to play in another system. Players may not have the same kind of faith in a new coaching staff that may be looking to develop players with an eye toward the future. Whether the Badgers are buying in to Andersen's system remains to be seen but the change in scheme should help some of them boost their draft stock. No two Badgers could benefit more in 2013 than NT Beau Allen and LB Chris Borland.
The reorganization and reclassification of defensive linemen and outside linebackers will be the most noticeable change. Smaller defensive ends will be hybrid outside linebackers who will rush from different angles and have more responsibility in coverage. Defensive tackles who lack the bulk to anchor the middle of three-man fronts will kick outside and primarily work against offensive tackles instead of guards. Allen will stay on the inside but his alignment will change and that could make a big difference.
Allen has always been at his best occupying blockers and protecting his linebacker. The difference is the new alignment puts him in better position to get his job done. He doesn’t have great initial quickness and his pads tend to rise as he works upfield, so he’s not as effective playing in a scheme that asks him to shade offensive linemen as he is lining up over the center and anchoring, as he will do this year. At 6-foot-3 and 334 pounds, he has prototypical size for a nose tackle in an odd front and centers will have a tough time moving him off the ball. The alignment also will make it tougher for guards to split the difference with their centers and effectively double-team him. Allen has the upper and lower body strength to hold his ground when teams commit two blockers to him, especially when the guard has a hard time squaring up and generating power.
Allen wasn’t much of an interior pass-rusher under the old coaching staff and that’s not going to change under the new regime. His adequate initial burst and below-average closing speed translate to limited upside. He has the power, motor and enough upper-body moves to generate some push and move quarterbacks off the spot. But the bottom line is he’s far better defending the run than he is rushing the passer. The fact that he projects as a two-down player who is a better fit in a 3-4 scheme won’t help Allen when it comes to the draft. However, prospects who have the size and enough foot speed to play 3-4 nose tackle are tough to come by, so it won’t damage his draft stock as much as it would for a 4-3 three-technique prospect.
If Allen can do a better job of clogging the middle, no one stands to benefit more than Borland, an instinctive and rangy inside linebacker who excels at locating and flowing to the ball. At 5-11 and 251 pounds, he explodes into lead blockers and gives as good as he gets, but his height is a concern as it affects his ability to track the ball once an offensive lineman reaches him. Borland’s height will also always be a concern when it comes to his ability to match up with tight ends. He’s better dropping into an underneath zone than he is matching up in man. Borland is at is best when the big boys up front can protect him and his production could balloon back to the impressive numbers he posted in 2011.
His greatest strength on third down though is his ability to get after the passer and that strength has the potential to show up as it did when he recorded five sacks as a freshman. Borland is a relentless pass-rusher with active hands and his low center of gravity makes it tough to knock him off balance as he works upfield. Over the past three seasons Wisconsin took advantage by rushing him off the edge in certain situations. The downside is lining him up on the outside made it easy for the protection to account for him. Look for Aranda to mask where he rushes Borland to create more favorable matchups.
It’s also worth noting that the ability of the players to digest the playbook and terminology will affect how effective this defense is this year. The Aggies threw a lot of different looks at offenses and brought pressure from all over the field last year. Borland should help in that area. Borland is a leader who has above-average football acumen and puts in the work in the film room. He can help keep this defense on the same page and give the Badgers a steady presence in the middle.
Unlike Allen, Borland would fit just as well in a 4-3 defense that can protect him with two big bodies up front as he would at inside linebacker in a 3-4. The reason the change in scheme should help is the potential boost in production and his ability to show off his football smarts by picking up a new scheme as a fifth-year senior.
OTHER NOTABLE SENIORS
DT/DE Ethan Hemer -- Hemer, at 6-6, 296 pounds, has the frame to make a smooth transition from defensive tackle to defensive end in the Badgers’ three-man fronts and can still kick inside to rush the passer regardless of the front. The former walk-on is a steady player who should be stouter against the run playing on the edge considering he’s on the lighter side for a defensive tackle prospect. He projects as a Day 3 pick based on his 2012 tape.
DE/OLB Tyler Dippel -- Dippel can set the edge as a run defender and he flashed active hands rushing the passer in the Ohio State game. Wisconsin also dropped him into coverage and moved him around the front last year. That doesn’t make him an ideal fit for this scheme though. The more space he’s in, the less effective he is and he’s an inconsistent finisher as a tackler so he projects better at 4-3 end than a 3-4 outside linebacker.
DE/OLB Brendan Kelly -- At 6-6 and 250 pounds, Kelly is on the leaner side for a defensive end prospect but he has the athletic ability, length and enough burst to contribute at outside linebacker so he should profit from the scheme change. It may not matter when it comes to his future in football and the reasons are concerns about health. Kelly is sixth-year senior who missed most of his first three seasons with injuries and undergone several surgeries including three to repair a groin injury that sidelined him for the 2010 season.
DE/OLB Pat Muldoon -- Muldoon is on the lighter side (6-3, 258) for a 4-3 defensive end prospect and he doesn’t move that well in space so he doesn’t appear to be a great fit at 3-4 OLB. He doesn’t show great burst or closing speed coming off the edge either.
OLB Ethan Armstrong -- Armstrong, at 6-2, 216 pounds, is another former walk-on and he has shown a tremendous amount of toughness in fighting through injuries. Unfortunately, he’s unlikely to get drafted because of his injury history and lean frame.