Gilbert's return boosts Badgers' defense

Wisconsin's wish list for the 2012 season certainly starts with a capable and effective quarterback. But an elite pass-rusher might come next.

Although the Badgers' defense put up good numbers in 2011 -- ranking 15th nationally in total defense, 13th in scoring defense and fourth in pass defense -- it didn't put much heat on opposing quarterbacks (71st nationally in sacks). J.J. Watt certainly was missed. Watt had taken the baton from another top pass-rusher, O'Brien Schofield, following the 2009 season.

Who can turn up the heat in Badger Country this fall? David Gilbert nominates ... himself.

"I always wanted to be a premier pass-rusher here," Gilbert told ESPN.com. "It's what I like to do. It's my passion. So I don't think I'll have any problems being that. That's what I bring to the team."

Wisconsin gladly would welcome it from a defensive end who may have been on his way to big things in 2011 before suffering a broken right foot in practice before the Big Ten opener against Nebraska. Gilbert had started each of Wisconsin's first four games and had recorded three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

He tried to rush back in time for Wisconsin's Rose Bowl appearance, only to suffer a second break as well as nerve damage shortly before the team headed to Los Angeles. He initially scheduled surgery for March but decided against it, and has been rehabbing ever since.

"I'm 93 percent," Gilbert said, admitting the specific percentage is a self-diagnosis. "The X-rays are pretty positive, but you don't want to get a third break there. It's an easy injury to resurrect. I wouldn't run a shuttle to my right side. Lateral movement is my final test, so I'd say 93 percent.

"It's a learning process, but I'm definitely close at this point in my recovery."

The lengthy rehab and setbacks have taught Gilbert patience and the importance of communicating with his doctors and trainers. But his approach to the game hasn't changed.

He wants to make a splash on every snap, and compete with his teammates for big plays.

"If I make a play, I go up to whoever it is closest to me and they've got to make a play next," he said. "It's a competition between defensive players, how perfect we can be. I want them to make plays. Pass the juice. That's what it is: Pass the juice all game."

The "pass the juice" phrase comes from Gilbert's high school days in Coral Springs, Fla.

"We were all so greedy in high school," he said. "I had to find a way to phrase it. We were competing all the time for tackles. If anyone got four yards, we were pissed. We were coming for your head. We didn't want to give anyone anything. That was our mentality."

Gilbert hopes he can instill the mentality with Wisconsin's defense, which can trace its shortcomings to a handful of plays. The two long passes for touchdowns against Michigan State and Ohio State certainly stand out, but Oregon also gashed Wisconsin for touchdowns of 91, 64 and 54 yards in its Rose Bowl victory.

"When you play against a team that can get three good plays on you and win, that's going to fuel the mentality even more than you don't want to give anyone anything," Gilbert said. "A yard is too much. Zero yards is too much. We want negative yardage. That's the mentality I'm going to try to put with everyone on the defense.

"If you let up for one second …"

Wisconsin loses some key pieces on defense -- safety Aaron Henry, cornerback Antonio Fenelus, defensive tackle Patrick Butrym -- but it also regains the services of two defensive starters, Gilbert and cornerback Devin Smith, who missed almost the entire 2011 season. Head coach Bret Bielema last month caused a stir when discussing Smith's value, telling ESPN Radio Madison, "If Devin Smith had played the entire year at the way he was playing at the time he got hurt, we probably never would have lost."

Bielema feels similarly about Gilbert.

"There were two significant injuries for us last year, to David Gilbert and Devin Smith," Bielema told ESPN.com. "David has a chance physically to be a premier player in our league. He's really starting to come into his own.

"Hopefully, he'll be the backbone of a third straight [Big Ten] championship run this year."