Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Linebackers

Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Linebackers

Football

Wisconsin Position Analysis: Badger Linebackers

Main Story – The No.2 OLB

After the departure of T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel for the professional ranks, Wisconsin fans knew the outside linebacker spot was in for a heavy transition. Andrew Van Ginkel was one of the key personnel that made sure that thought process carried no weight.

Last season Van Ginkel was tied for second on the team in sacks (6.5), tied for second in interceptions (two) and fourth in tackles for loss (10.0). It’s hard to figure out what was more impressive, him being a reserve outside linebacker last season or the fact that he transitioned from defensive end upon arriving from junior college in January 2017.

With UW having to replace two starting outside linebackers for the second straight season (Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs), Van Ginkel appears primed to have a breakout season. A high motor athlete who has shined in pass coverage and run defense, Van Ginkel registered two interceptions and a sack in a recent team scrimmage, doing nothing to lessen expectations for himself this season.

The main question is who lines up opposite him to take the pressure off of him. The top answer would be junior Zack Baun.

Heralded as a top athlete when he arrived from Brown Deer High School, Baun went from playing 12 games as a redshirt freshman (15 tackles, 3.5 TFLs) to seeing his 2017 season end before it even started because of a broken left foot.

Needing to stay off his foot for three months, not to mention a grueling rehabilitation, Baun appeared to turn a corner in fall camp and regained some confidence in his foot. Taken a good majority of the first-team reps opposite Van Ginkel during fall camp, Baun has flashed his strengths as a player who can cover the field with ease, thanks to his background as a high school quarterback, and delivered five solo tackles in the 34-3 season-opening win over Western Kentucky.

“He brings a different athletic ability to the position,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard told reporters in camp. “The big thing with Zack is just getting healthy and getting through the season. You feel like he’s been around for a long time but really hasn’t got a lot of game experience. … He knows what he’s supposed to do and now it’s gaining the confidence to go dominate like we ask that position to do.”

Like in past seasons, Wisconsin won’t simply rely on two players at the position. The top reserve will be Tyler Johnson, who is now on scholarship after recording eight tackles, two for a loss, one sack and two forced fumbles last year. First-year position coach Bobby April will also likely give some younger players their first meaningful snaps. After not seeing action last season, sophomore Christian Bell worked throughout the latter parts of camp with the second-team defense. At 6-4 and 250 pounds, Bell moves effortlessly with his length and speed, allowing him to successfully defend the edge.

While he is still on the skinny side at 223 pounds, the 6-6 Izayah Green-May has now completed four camps at Wisconsin and has a wingspan that could prove beneficial in certain packages if needed.

Subplot – Lots of Inside Linebackers

For the second straight season, Wisconsin has an overabundance of quality inside linebackers, a key to keeping a healthy rotation and avoiding a drop off should an injury arise. But in a room full of talent, senior T.J. Edwards stands above the rest.

Having started in 39 of his 40 appearances, Edwards owns 254 tackles, 26.0 TFLs, 5.0 sacks, two forced fumbles, seven interceptions and 20 pass breakups. The only inside linebacker to start all 14 games last season, Edwards logged 75 tackles (53 solos), 11.0 TFLs, four interceptions and 11 pass breakups and two sacks. UW’s staff went easy on Edwards in camp and rightfully so; he has nothing else to prove, evident by his team-leading seven tackles in the opener.

Next to Edwards will likely be a heavy dose of senior Ryan Connelly and junior Chris Orr, the latter being the backup. Leading the team in tackles last season with 88, including 11 tackles for loss, Connelly got stronger as the season went on, averaging 8.4 tackles over the last five games while adding 7.5 tackles for loss.

In UW’s Orange Bowl win, Connelly made eight tackles, broke up two passes and had an interception.

Orr played only one snap in the 2017 season before an ACL tear ended his season, but the Texas native returned to churn out a successful 36-tackle campaign last season. He also showed he still has some speed, returning an interception 76 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter against Nebraska.

Paired with Orr on the second team will be either sophomore Mike Maskalunas, who recorded 11 tackles in 13 games last season but is currently battling a leg injury, or sophomore Griffin Grady, who ended the media portion of fall camp with an impressive scrimmage by making plays all over the field.

Stat to Know

Butkus Award runner-up T.J. Edwards returns for his fourth year as a starter at inside linebacker for Wisconsin. In his previous three seasons, the Badgers have allowed an average of just 14.4 points per game.

More BadgersInsider
Home