Wisconsin football 2023: Greg Scruggs wants the defensive linemen in attack mode

MADISON – Greg Scruggs doesn’t appear fazed that Wisconsin’s most disruptive defensive lineman is gone, vying for a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster.
Even without nose tackle Keeanu Benton, who last season led UW linemen in sacks (4½), tackles for loss (10) and total tackles (35), the Badgers' defensive line coach is pushing his unit to make more plays in 2023.
“I think we have to be a little more aggressive than what they might have been accustomed to in the past,” said Scruggs, who was the New York Jets’ assistant defensive line coach last season. “Getting these guys to understand that I want to make you a football player, make you a guy that attacks the rock, gets after the ‘Q’ and plays the run violently.
“I think that is a switch of mentality just because of the structure of the defense, not the coach. They have to attack. They have to. We can’t sit back and catch blocks.”
During the spring, defensive coordinator Mike Tressel generally played a 2-4-5 formation but also used a 3-4 front. No matter what schemes Tressel uses this season, several linemen who in the past have played complementary roles will be asked to do more.
That group includes ends Isaiah Mullens, Rodas Johnson and James Thompson and nose tackle Gio Paez. Temple transfer Darian Varner is also expected to contribute. Varner had 7½ sacks and 12½ tackles for loss last season but missed all spring with a left-foot injury.
Mullens, a sixth-year senior, missed six games last season (torn meniscus) and recorded only 11 tackles. Johnson and Thompson combined for three sacks and 12½ tackles for loss. Paez, limited by a pectoral injury early in the year, recorded 10 tackles.
“Between (Nick) Herbig and Keeanu we lost a lot,” Scruggs said. “And I wanted those guys to see it. It was not an indictment on them. It was more a call to action on what we have to do. So just in case you wanted to get comfortable, understand we’ve got to get some things straight.
“It’s just the reality of it. Hopefully it motivates the guys to want to get better every day and not get comfortable.”
Thompson understood the message.
“There’s never going to be another Keeanu,” he said. “Keeanu isn’t on the team. But we’re our own individuals. This is a whole new team, a whole new defensive front. We all have our different playing styles, our strengths and weaknesses.”
Here are other players, changes to watch as UW prepares for the season.
Isaiah Mullens had hoped to turn pro after the 2022 season
The 2022 season was Mullens’ fifth at UW. His goal was to play well and give the NFL a shot. Then he suffered the knee injury in the loss to Illinois in Week 5 and missed the next six games.
“My plan was to go try out after my fifth year (but) I got hurt,” he said. “I made the decision to come back. I don’t regret my decision. My little brother is here, too. So, everything fell into place. Just happy to be back for my final year.”
Mullens’ lengthy stay on the injured list offered a cautionary tale about trying to predict how quickly a player might return from injury.
“I got an X-ray,” Mullens said. “Everything looked fine but I was still in pain. They (said) we’ll see how you (practice) during the week and it got progressively worse.”
An MRI revealed the torn meniscus.
Mullens underwent surgery and was told he could be back in three to four weeks if all went well.
“It took a bit longer to get back, which was frustrating,” Mullens said. “It sucked…I’m glad I was able to come back by Minnesota and the bowl game. It was still bugging me, but I didn’t care. I wanted to play and be with that staff.”
The linemen will have to adjust when UW deploys a 2-3-6 look
It remains unclear how frequently Tressel will run his 2-3-6. But when he does, the defensive ends will have to play more in space than they are accustomed to in other alignments.
“They have to adjust to having more time, more space to work,” Scruggs said. “You don’t have to be a great athlete to play it. You just have to have great technique.”
Is Gio Paez ready for a full-time role in 2023?
Paez was UW’s No. 2 nose tackle for the last two seasons behind Benton. He has played 20 games over three seasons, including 10 last season and nine in 2021.
He recorded just two tackles in 2021 and 10 last season.
According to Paez, he bulked up to 322 pounds last season after suffering the pectoral injury. The injury affected his ability to strike offensive linemen at the snap so he wanted more bulk to anchor at the point of attack.
Healthy again, Paez weighed just 309 in the spring.
“The weight room people know what they’re doing,” Paez said. “I already see my body changing…I need to take it into my hands to be durable and not have to deal with these (minor) injuries. I want to be there when they need me and do what I’m called to do.”
How has the loss of weight affected is performance?
“My get-off is better,” he said. ‘You lose a 13-pound dumbbell, you move faster.”
Isaiah Mullens got to know Fickell and Tressel during his recruitment
Mullens, from Columbus, Ohio, got a feel for Fickell and Tressel as coaches when he was in high school.
Fickell was still an assistant at Ohio State when the Buckeyes were evaluating Mullens. Tressel was an assistant at Michigan State.
Mullens’ memories of Fickell made his decision to return to UW for a sixth year that much easier.
“He is a respected dude in the game,” Mullens said. “Great coach. Great person, too.”

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