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Dave Aranda bridges gap in Badgers' transition

MADISON, Wis. -- Gary Andersen enjoyed his time at Wisconsin but didn't embrace everything that came with the program. Andersen's lead assistant, meanwhile, developed a stronger connection to all things Badgers.

When Andersen left for Oregon State, he talked with defensive coordinator Dave Aranda about joining him in Corvallis. They had a good thing going after successful runs at Utah State and Wisconsin. The two were largely aligned in coaching backgrounds and philosophy.

"It was very hard to have that talk with Coach Andersen," Aranda said recently in his office overlooking Camp Randall Stadium. "I have so much respect for him and owe him so much. He gave me a job at Utah State when I was on a couch with my kids watching 'Scooby-Doo.' We were fired at Hawaii, had nothing going on.

"He believed in me when not a lot of other people did."

But Aranda believed in Wisconsin, too -- the place and the people. His eldest daughter, Jaelyn, already had endured several moves because of her dad's nomadic profession. His wife, Dione, loved it here.

Wisconsin's players also helped Aranda stay put.

"It's how different they are," he said, "the work ethic and the gym-rat mentality they bring, how much football means to them. It’s over the break and guys are texting, 'What about this [defensive] check? I saw this look on TV.'"

New coach Paul Chryst, a Madison native and former Badgers quarterback and assistant, carries countless links to the Badgers' past, both recent and distant. Chryst comes in with the institutional knowledge Andersen lacked.

But Aranda is the bridge from the previous staff to the current one. His retention at Wisconsin, while largely overlooked nationally, could end up being one of the more significant assistant coach moves of the offseason. Chryst can coach the quarterbacks and try to fix a passing game that has hamstrung Wisconsin, while giving his defensive coordinator close to complete autonomy.

The Badgers have surrendered just 299.4 yards per game in Aranda's first two seasons, ranking third among FBS defenses behind Michigan State and Louisville. Last fall, Wisconsin finished third nationally in fewest first downs allowed, lowest third-down conversion percentage and drives reaching its own red zone.

Aranda has made important changes in his first two years -- switching to a 3-4 alignment, mixing in exotic looks and calls, prioritizing speed and pressure -- while embracing Wisconsin's tradition of player development. The next phase is striking the right balance between the base look Wisconsin featured in 2013 and the movement-heavy scheme employed last season because of an influx of youth and new starters. Aranda also is demanding more takeaways, an area where Wisconsin has struggled.

"I want it to be an old-fashioned, intelligent, tough, hard-nosed defense that creates takeaways," Aranda said. "We'd like to take all the toughness Derek Landisch brought, the intelligence that Marcus Trotter brought, the savviness and confidence that Chris Borland brought, the grittiness that Ethan Hemer brought.

"We want to have that historical Wisconsin toughness, intelligence, savviness and confidence, but with more takeaways. We want to not necessarily look to gang up on a tackle, but to look to find the ball, to be ballhawks, whether we’re stripping it or catching it."

Aranda will lean on Wisconsin's defensive backs to reinforce his message. Cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton return, alongside safety Michael Caputo. They were the Badgers' only three returning starters on defense entering 2014, and should lead the way this fall.

Caputo and Hillary both earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last fall. Shelton, meanwhile, endured somewhat of a sophomore slump as he couldn't follow a four-interception freshman season with any picks. Safety Peniel Jean, Wisconsin's only departing starter in the secondary, was the only Badger with multiple interceptions last fall.

"The DB group we've got coming in will be the best we’ve had in terms of speed, change of direction, experience," Aranda said. "We want to be able to have a playmaking mentality in our back end. When the ball’s up in the air, we come down with it."

Aranda expects leadership from the secondary, especially Caputo, who embraced the role last year. But a top spring priority is finding the same guidance up front after losing linemen Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski. Wisconsin returns more defenders with starting experience this year than last, and potential standouts like outside linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel.

"There’s good names there, good personalities," Aranda said. "They're going to have to show it."

Despite strong numbers in the first two seasons, Aranda knows there's a higher rung for Wisconsin's defense. He points to games like the 2014 Big Ten championship (59-0 loss to Ohio State) and the 2013 regular-season finale (31-24 loss to Penn State) as evidence.

"We can play better, finish the season better," he said. "I can do a lot better job, definitely."

Like his players, Aranda has unfinished business here.