Entering the offseason, defensive line was one of the only positions the University of Wisconsin football team didn’t need to address.
The unit had performed well in 2015, and reserve Jake Keefer was the only player at the position that wasn’t expected to return.
Things changed by the time spring practice began in March.
Arthur Goldberg left the program prior to his senior year following a head injury, and the Badgers suddenly needed to replace one of their best and most versatile linemen.
“You lose a guy with all that experience, it’s tough,” defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield said. “Guys have got to rally. It’s next man up. Everybody’s got to pick their game up. Obviously we’ll miss him, but we’ve got to move forward and get those guys ready to go.”
The group still remains mostly intact as the Badgers prepare for the 2016 season.
Chikwe Obasih likely enters his third year as a starter at defensive end and sophomore Olive Sagapolu appears to have the No. 1 nose tackle job locked down after an impressive freshman season.
Junior Conor Sheehy, who began last season as the starting nose tackle, could be called upon to take over Goldberg’s starting defensive end spot, although redshirt junior Alec James has earned some first-team reps over the past two practices.
Sheehy has gained more than 10 pounds since the end of last season in order to do a better job of taking on blocks and improve at stopping the run.
During UW’s first scrimmage of the spring last Saturday in Ashwaubenon, he recorded two impressive tackles for loss against the first-team offense.
“He’s up to about 290,” Breckterfield said. “He’ll try to get to about 300 by fall. I want him to get a little bigger, keep his athleticism, keep his speed. And he’s done that. It doesn’t look like he’s lost a step.”
Although Goldberg was a starter at defensive end, he played plenty of nose tackle. If Sagapolu went down with an injury this season, Goldberg would have been the most likely candidate to shift over into that spot.
Despite Sheehy’s weight gain and experience at the nose, Breckterfield said redshirt sophomore Jeremy Patterson — who played sparingly last year — is currently working as the No. 2 at that position and would enter the starting lineup if they needed a replacement for Sagapolu.
“Patterson is the guy right now,” Breckterfield said. “He’s got to step it up and have a great spring and get those reps. Right now it’s him. I’m trying to get him to be that guy, and that’s how we’re moving forward. He’s still working. He’s got all spring, all summer and fall to be ready.”
The Badgers have other key contributors returning, including Zander Neuville and Billy Hirschfeld. Breckterfield also left the door open for true freshman Garrett Rand to earn reps when he joins the team in the fall.
While the loss of Goldberg might leave UW a bit thin at nose tackle, the Badgers believe they have the talent to make sure the group’s production doesn’t fall off from last season.
“(Goldberg’s) a good player and a good leader, but we always try to have a next-man-up kind of mentality,” Sheehy said. “We try not to live on last year’s accomplishments. We have a lot of guys coming back. We’ve just got to keep working hard and we can be as good as we want to be.”