Nov. 2, 2010
MADISON, Wis. -- UW defensive line coach Charlie Partridge likes to talk about ‘’changing the math” with his players. While the phrase has application to poker, it also holds meaning for Partridge, who has been shuffling the deck in each of the last two seasons because of graduation losses to starting personnel.
“We like to write on the white board: defeat a block, change the math, get involved in some plays through your job,” Partridge said. “We use that phrase a lot. In other words, beat a block, and don’t allow them to block up to who they want. Get rid of the blocker, and change the math.
“I don’t know a better way to say it – it’s a confidence thing. Don’t be scared of losing your responsibility. You can defeat a block through your job, and still produce. That’s a lesson he’s learning.”
Partridge was talking about defensive end Louis Nzegwu, the junior from Platteville, who, along with linebacker Kevin Rouse has the second-most sacks (two) on the defense behind J.J. Watt.
“Louis has been quiet the last couple of weeks in terms of his production,” Partridge said, “but he’s done a nice job of doing his job, taking care of his responsibilities. It’s time for that next step.”
To change the math.
“You think back to when he was producing a lot more, and it was against spread teams,” Partridge said. “Not that he was doing poorly against the power teams (Ohio State, Iowa, etc.). It’s just that his opportunities to make plays increases against that style of team (spread).”
From a competitive standpoint with Nzegwu at defensive end, Partridge was asked about the development of David Gilbert, the sophomore from Coral Springs, Fla.
“David has gotten a lot better since he has been here,” he said. “He has gotten more consistent with his footwork and his strike. He’s getting better at defeating blocks. He’s really on the cusp of playing a lot more. He and Lou have evened back up again; and their playing time will show that.”
Partridge emphasized that everybody has things to work on, including Watt, who’s the third-leading tackler on the defense behind linebackers Blake Sorensen and Culmer St. Jean.
“Obviously, J.J. has had a ton of production,” he said of Watt, who has the second-most TFLs (13.5) in the Big Ten behind Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan (18.5). Watt also five sacks, five hurries and six passes broken up. “And he’s getting a ton of attention because of all of that.”
Rightly so, Partridge agreed.
“He needs to continue to do the things that he has done to get him where he is,” Partridge went on. “You can’t allow the media to change how you do things. You need to work the way you’ve worked.”
Is there any chance Watt might be distracted? “I don’t think that’s his nature,” Partridge said. “But when any human being is continually told how good they are for awhile, eventually they can’t help but listen. That’s J.J.’s battle. He has gotten to where he is with tremendous work ethic, and talent.”
So what would Partridge tell Watt? “Don’t change what you’ve done,” he said. “Don’t let all the potential distractions get to you. Like, ‘Are you going to leave for the NFL?’ He’s getting those questions. You have agents and their runners potentially contacting him and his parents.
“All of that stuff is very real,” Partridge stressed.
How has Watt responded? “The way he should,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t’ realize how strong of an effect it can have – all the potential distractions, all the people who are trying to contact you and really get a piece of you. I don’t think anyone can understand until you’re in it. We’ve warned him that this could potentially happen, and now that it’s happening, he’s handling it the right way.”
Watt went to school on how O’Brien Schofield dealt with the same things last season. “Those two had a good relationship,” Partridge said, “and I think J.J. realized that OB did as good of a job as anyone handling all of those outside pressures by being totally in the moment here.”
Coming into this season, the most pressing questions involved the inside techniques. Especially since Patrick Butrym, a junior from New Berlin, was the only returning player with any experience.
“He has done a nice job of holding the point these last four weeks when we’ve gone against more power style teams,” Partridge said of Butrym who has 10 career starts. “He has really done a good job of eating up two guys (blockers) and allowing our linebackers to run. He’s playing really very solid.”
Jordan Kohout, a redshirt freshman from Waupun, started the first seven games opposite Butrym at defensive tackle before getting injured against Ohio State. He didn’t play at Iowa.
“His game was coming along nicely before the injury (ankle),” Partridge said, adding that he has made his greatest strides with his footwork. “It finally has become consistent enough where he was putting himself in a good position, rep after rep, which is what we need him to do.”
Ethan Hemer, a redshirt freshman from Medford, replaced Kohout in the starting lineup against the Hawkeyes and responded with six tackles. Where has Hemer improved the most?
“Fundamentals,” Partridge said. “His hand placement and strike were something that needed a lot of work. He has made tremendous improvement in these areas. These are things that they had no problem getting away with in high school. All of a sudden , now, if they step one-inch out of place, they’re beat, and the defense is put in a bad way if that happens.”
Spelling the starters has been Beau Allen, a true freshman from Minnetonka, Minn. “He has been holding up really pretty good,” Partridge said. “His game has come along very fast. His combination of size and foot quickness is pretty special. He has a different approach than most true freshman. If he has a bad practice, he’s upset about it, which has led to his fast improvement.”
Partridge noted that defensive end Pat Muldoon, a redshirt freshman from Mason, Ohio, is still not 100 percent after having off-season surgery on both knees. That has limited his reps in practice.
Tyler Dippel, a redshirt freshman from Slinger, and Eriks Briedis, a sophomore from Miami, Fla., have each factored into the defensive line rotation to varying degrees.
“With Tyler, it’s about staying focused on every single play, and not turning into a Tazmanian Devil and forgetting that you have a job to do,” said Partridge. “I love the way he plays from a physical standpoint. He just has to increase his focus and his first step needs to get better.
“Eriks is so much better than a year ago. His first step is fine. But his second and third step need to get better. He’s kind of peeking around the corner to where you can see playing time and production increasing but there are a few things that he needs to clean up with his footwork.”
If you’ve been paying attention, you realize that Partridge is a stickler for taking care of the details, however small, and playing the proper techniques. And that will really come into focus over the final month of the regular season when the Badgers face a steady diet of spread offenses.
Whether it’s Purdue, Indiana, Michigan or Northwestern, each attack has its own personality. But the objective is relatively the same, that is, to spread the field horizontally to create natural seams. One of the variables is the zone-read where the quarterback will mesh with the running back and read either the backside defensive end or linebacker – or in Purdue’s case, the defensive tackle.
This is an offense that has evolved out of the old school triple option to where it’s now being executed out of the shotgun. Rich Rodriguez and the late Randy Walker have generally been credited with refining and popularizing the spread at various intervals, though Kansas State’s venerable Bill Snyder was doing zone-read with his quarterback Michael Bishop in the late ‘90s.
A defense is obligated to play assignment football against the offense.
“You’ve got to be so much more disciplined,” Partridge said. “You have the dive, you have the quarterback, and you have the pitch. And it puts an emphasis on everyone having a responsibility and not deviating – or you can end up really hurting the defense.”
Partridge conceded that the bye last Saturday could not have come at a more timely juncture in the season for the Badgers from the perspective of the players “getting some time to get their bodies fresh, and their minds fresh after an eight-week grind. It was the perfect timing really.”
Is there any concern over losing the momentum that was generated by those back-to-back wins over Ohio State and Iowa? “It’s certainly always something that you’re aware could happen,” Partridge said. “But with everything in front of us right now, I think the kids are excited to work.”
Especially knowing they control their own destiny as far as claiming a piece of the Big Ten championship. That’s doing the math, not necessarily changing it.