'It’s a new era': End James Thompson hopes to lead way for new-look Wisconsin defense

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
PLATTEVILLE – James Thompson embraces challenges.
That is the vibe Wisconsin’s redshirt junior gives. Put more of a leadership role on Johnson's shoulders? No problem. Push him to help fill the void left by all-Big Ten performer Keeanu Benton and he can't wait to get to work. Ask Thompson about the possibility of rotating more players on the defensive front than we saw last season and he responds, why not?
The Cincinnati native wants to embody all defensive line coach Greg Scruggs wants in a player.
“We want to play fast but physical and have good, strong, violent hands,” Thompson said. “One thing Coach Scruggs says is before everything else he wants to see effort, effort and the activity you put in there.”
That mindset should serve Thompson well this season. The development of the defensive line will be one of the key stories for the Badgers, and Thompson's play will go a long way toward determining how much of a success the scheme implemented by new coordinators Mike Tressel and Colin Hitschler becomes.
“We have to set the tone because everything starts up front,” he said. “Coach Scruggs, Coach (Luke) Fickell (say) we have to be dominant at the line of scrimmage and that is how we’re going to win games.
Here is a look at Thompson and the boost he could provide to UW.
Thompson’s 6 ½ tackles for loss last season are the most for a returning lineman. His 23 games played the past two seasons are second only to redshirt senior tackle Rodas Johnson (25) .
Isaiah Mullens started three of the first four games last season but suffered a torn meniscus in Week 5 against Illinois and missed the next six games. The injury created more opportunity for Thompson, who managed six tackles in 10 games as a redshirt freshman.
Thompson started seven of the final eight games. Seventeen of his 26 tackles came in the final nine games, a stretch that started with the Illinois game. Six of his tackles for a loss were made during that stretch.
It was a solid season. How much will his production and impact increase with another year of development?
“Now it’s about being a confident leader and setting the tone for the D-line,” he said. “I’m trying to be the hard rock for the D-line and play well for them.”
Could less be more for Badgers' defensive linemen?
Scruggs would like to rotate eight defensive linemen during a game. Last year the Badgers played four to six linemen on most weeks, although eight saw the field in a blowout win over New Mexico State in Week 2.
Whether UW can get that many linemen in the mix will be determined by the group's development during camp and beyond. The potential, however, is there with the return of Thompson, Johnson, Mullens and senior Gio Paez plus the addition of transfer Darian Varner and the potential of younger players such as Curtis Neal and Jamel Howard.
“Yes, it’s realistic,” Thompson said when asked about the possibility of an eight-man rotation. “There’s dogs on the D-line. We’ve got to bring the whole crew up there. If we have eight D-linemen, everybody is going to be fresh coming in and out. We want constant pressure.”
How a rotation that large would affect individual playing time is to be determined, but Thompson is ready for anything.
“Put me in for how many snaps you need,” he said. “If you put me in for the whole game, I’m going to play the whole game. It doesn’t matter.”
Can the Badgers' defensive front be better than advertised?
It’s the preseason, the time of year when predictions rule.
If you believe Phil Steele, the Badgers have the sixth-best defensive line unit among the Big Ten’s 14 teams. Lindy’s rates the group seventh.
We didn’t get Thompson’s reaction to those rankings, but it’s safe to say he feels stronger about the unit than those publications despite the loss of an anchor like Benton.
"Now it’s a new era, new people to step up and we’re trying our best to play as good as them if not even better,” Thompson said. “The D-line has a new message to everyone in the Big Ten and everyone we’re going against. We’ve got to set the tone and prove we’re the best D-line in the Big Ten.”

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