View Gallery (3 Photos)When J.J. Watt left Madison for the lockout-sullied National Football League, he took with him more than just 62 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and seven sacks.Rather, as anyone with a Twitter account or access to Madison-area newspapers will tell you, Watt also took his remarkable leadership abilities. Everything from the tried-but-true “Dream Big, Work Hard” mantra – wristbands reportedly coming soon – to his tendency toward steady, consistent production that undoubtedly kept the Badgers afloat during the trying portions of their schedule.So now, with voids to fill both on and off the field, UW needs to figure out how it will return to within three points of a Rose Bowl victory – or better. Augmenting the significance of those voids is the fact that Watt wasn’t alone in departing the defense. Seniors Blake Sorensen, Culmer St. Jean, Jay Valai and Niles Brinkley are also gone, leaving even more holes to fill in the defense. Sorensen led UW with 66 tackles, while St. Jean, at middle linebacker, was essentially the quarterback of the defense. Valai was known for his big hits and smack talk, but he also kept the team an interesting combination of energized and loose, while Brinkley was a consistent defensive back throughout the season.Coupled with the expectations of a preseason ranking likely ranging from top-five to top-15, the pressure to fill these defensive gaps figures to be monumental. However, despite two consecutive disappointing years following his impressive 12-win debut in 2006, head coach Bret Bielema has proven capable of achieving sustained success in Madison. The Badgers won just nine games in 2007 and seven in 2008, but improved to 10 wins in 2009 and 11 in 2010.So, as Bielema himself likes to say, who will be the “next man in” for Wisconsin’s defense in 2011?Aaron Henry, free safetyDon’t let Aaron Henry’s “Yes, sir; No, sir,” act fool you – the Badgers’ returning free safety and former cornerback may be one of UW’s more polite players, but he rarely lacks for confidence. Last year Henry paired with Valai to form a stout safety duo. The two of them were hard hitters (Henry even took that title from Valai more than a few times), playmakers and significant leaders on Wisconsin’s 20th-ranked defense.Henry finished last season tied for fourth in tackles with 58, tied for second in interceptions with two (one of which was returned 50 yards for a touchdown in Wisconsin’s final regular season game against Northwestern) and pass deflections with nine and first in fumble recoveries with three. In UW’s season opener at UNLV, Henry returned a fumble for a touchdown. At Michigan Nov. 20, Henry recorded a career-high 10 tackles, and one week earlier against Indiana he returned another interception for a touchdown, giving him three defensive touchdowns on the season.With Valai and Brinkley no longer around, Henry will be entrusted with continuing the marked improvement of the Badgers’ secondary. The unit entered last season under extreme pressure as one of the most maligned units in recent years, but under first-year defensive backs coach Chris Ash – now co-defensive coordinator – the secondary thrived. Henry will likely pair with redshirt junior Shelton Johnson at the safety position, and aside from returning starter senior defensive back Antonio Fenelus and senior Devin Smith (mainly a reserve last year), there isn’t much experience in UW’s secondary.Chris Borland, linebackerChris Borland’s UW career started as well as anyone could have expected. At outside linebacker he amassed 54 tackles, five forced fumbles and three recovered while finishing the season as Big Ten Freshman of the Year.Last season Borland played in just two games after suffering a shoulder injury in the opener against UNLV. He missed the following game against San Jose State, and then after recording two tackles in the first quarter of the next game against Arizona State he reaggravated the injury and missed the remainder of the season.This spring, Borland said he expects to be 100 percent healthy by the start of the Badgers’ summer workout program in June. Regardless of if that’s the case, Borland will be preparing for the fall at a new position – middle linebacker. Despite losing St. Jean, Wisconsin still boasts impressive talent at linebacker with redshirt junior Mike Taylor and senior Kevin Claxton.At 5-foot-11, 242 pounds, Borland figures to be a solid fit at the inside position. In his 15 career games, Borland has shown an impressive nose for the ball and a knack for making big plays, as well as an ability to maintain ground to stop the run. All that remains is picking up the mental part of the game St. Jean played so well. But after two years in the system and an already strong football IQ, nobody expects Borland to struggle with the change.Mike Taylor, linebackerAs impressive as Borland has been around the football in his still-young UW career, Taylor might have an even better nose for the ball. He redshirted his freshman year due to a neck injury, and after starting the first seven games of the next season he suffered a season-ending knee injury. In those seven games, he averaged 6.6 tackles per game.Last season, Taylor missed only the opening game while still rehabbing. He started the remaining 12, though, finishing with 58 tackles (tied with Henry for fourth), eight tackles for loss (second after Watt’s ridiculous 21), one sack and two interceptions.Taylor has regularly been more reserved than Borland, who isn’t exactly a vocal leader either. But with Henry likely to fill that role, Taylor and Borland can afford to focus on staying healthy and anchoring what could be the Big Ten’s top linebacking core.All that’s left is a Twitter hashtag worthy of Watt’s #DBWH.Mike is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. Who do you think will step up to lead Wisconsin’s defense this season? Who needs to? Let him know at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @mikefiammetta.
That something is Kedon Slovis, who shattered the program records for both passing yards in a season by a freshman and single-game passing yards by any quarterback in a sterling 515-yard, four-touchdown performance. Slovis was absolutely lights out, putting the pressure on UCLA’s offense by guiding the Trojans to an early lead and responding with scores every time the Bruins mounted a comeback attempt. Aidan Berg is a junior writing about sports. He is also an associate managing editor for Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs every Monday. The University must balance that requirement with the priority of holding onto Harrell. It needs to find an inspired coaching candidate — no, not Urban Meyer — that will be willing to retain and work with Harrell and his crew. This is why USC cannot afford to get rid of Harrell. The relationship between an offensive coordinator and their quarterback is crucial to a team’s performance, and the Trojans have found one that works — really well. Slovis has shown he can be one of the best quarterbacks in school history, but we don’t know what he looks like with someone else calling the shots. Even with the injuries at running back, it shouldn’t have taken that long to develop a complementary run game. But it’s also important to remember that Harrell is young and coaching his first season in a Power 5 conference. Just like Slovis, he’s had a fantastic first season, and he’s only going to get better. Slovis is the perfect signal-caller for Harrell’s modified Air Raid approach. He almost always makes good decisions, so he can sling the ball more than 50 times without risking too many turnovers. He’s also got fantastic accuracy and knows how to find his receivers in positions for them to make plays with the ball. The crazy thing is that due to the attack’s execution-based nature, Slovis is only going to get better over time. He’s had a few freshman mistakes where he tried to force the ball between defenders, but that’s something he can iron out. Saturday’s game continued the trend of Slovis putting up monstrous numbers — and not just for a freshman. Over his final five games this season, Slovis averaged 404.6 passing yards and 3.8 touchdowns per game while completing over 70% of his pass attempts. If there were fantasy football for the college game, Slovis’ home stretch would have won the league for many of his owners. USC fans have obviously loved what they’ve seen from the once-unheralded three-star recruit, but there’s a small discrepancy between their future hopes for Slovis and their demand that the University move on from Helton. If USC elects to hire a new head coach, he will almost definitely want to bring on a whole new staff, including an offensive coordinator to replace Graham Harrell. Harrell isn’t necessarily a perfect offensive coordinator either. He sometimes gives up on the run game a little too easily, and Saturday was the first time the Trojans could really make a team pay for dropping eight by running the ball effectively. USC football has been heading for a head coaching change ever since the team’s embarrassing 56-24 home defeat to the Oregon Ducks a few weeks ago. At the time, the Trojans were 5-4, and no matter how the rest of the season went, it seemed like the right time to move on from Clay Helton and bring in a staff that could help the considerable talent on this roster reach true contender status. The Trojans have something special on their hands. It’s rare to have two key pieces of your team be so productive and yet have so much room to grow. It’s even rarer for those two pieces to fit perfectly together. It’s been an encouraging end to the season, but if Harrell doesn’t return next year, the offense will enter the 2020 season opener against Alabama with more questions than answers. To protect Slovis’ seemingly definitive status as a star to rely on for the next three years, USC should do whatever it can to avoid this result. Harrell has been a huge factor in Slovis’ success. The freshman quarterback has said so himself, crediting Harrell’s scheme (and his teammates) for his big numbers. Remember that Slovis didn’t even get the first-team reps until after sophomore JT Daniels went down with a knee injury in the team’s opener. Imagine what he can do with a full spring and fall camp as well as a season of experience under his belt. I’m not going to claim that Slovis couldn’t look just as good under some other offensive coordinator. He has talent that most evaluators obviously missed in the recruiting process. From mental processing to arm talent, Slovis has looked close to the total package these last few games. But we know that he works with Harrell, and that’s not something USC should mess with. USC now has a delicate tightrope to walk. It needs to bring on a new head coach so that it can reach its rightful aspirations as a College Football Playoff contender. It needs a head coach who not only inspires devotion from his players, as Helton does, but spurs them on to new levels of play. It also needs an improved defensive staff, as evidenced by the 35 points allowed to a seemingly unstoppable UCLA offense Saturday. While I still believe that is the correct course of action, something about Saturday’s 52-35 victory over UCLA complicates the coaching matter just a bit.