Zander Neuville and Alec James creating opportunities for Wisconsin's defense

A former three-star prospect and a walk-on outside linebacker have combined to form a solid tandem in Wisconsin defense's peso package.

LINCOLN, NE – Chikwe Obasih doesn’t like to admit it, but the redshirt sophomore loves the opportunity to get off the field when Wisconsin’s defense is facing a third-down situation.

Make no mistake, Obasih is as competitive a football player as they come, but his reasoning is perfectly understandable. On a group comprised of young, energetic players, Obasih loves watching redshirt sophomore Alec James and redshirt freshman Zander Neuville cause some chaos in Wisconsin’s third down “peso” package. 

“I get pumped up for third downs,” Obasih said. “I get ecstatic when they come in, I get to come out and I can watch them eat and get after the quarterback. It’s third down for a reason, and I feel like those two can get after the quarterback.”

With the talent Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) possesses at outside linebacker, the role the two linemen in the peso package is to take up as much of the opposing offensive line’s attention as possible. Whether it be trying to eat up blocks or draw double teams, the work of the duo is marked more so by the stats of the backers and not themselves.

The results speak for themselves. Entering Saturday afternoon’s game against Nebraska (2-3, 0-1) at Memorial Stadium, senior outside backer Joe Schobert leads the country in tackles for loss (13) and sacks (nine) and junior outside linebacker Vince Biegel (six tackles for loss, three sacks).

Throw in the fact that freshman inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Chris Orr continue to rack up the tackles and play beyond their years, it’s evident that the young duo on the interior is doing their job.

“They give you the ability to be multiple,” said defensive coordinator Dave Aranda of the duo, who are helping Wisconsin hold opponents to 31.9 percent (22 of 69) on third down. “We can go from a four-man front to an odd-front. We can play physical with them, or we can move and slant with them. That’s what we’re looking for out of that grouping, as much movement as possible and as much options as possible. We don’t want to be locked into one thing. We like to be able to change the approach from one third down to another. Those guys have enabled us to do it and they’re happy to do it.”

The pairing of James and Neuville is a unique one. James – a three-star prospect from Brookfield, Wis. – was a coveted three-star prospect with multiple Power Five offers from all over the country.

Neuville, from Waupaca, Wis., didn’t have any Division 1 offers and said his best scholarship was a 50 percent offer to Division 2 Minnesota State. It became his dream his junior year, however, to take an opportunity to play football at the University of Wisconsin, a chance given to him by head coach Gary Andersen.

That made the news of getting a scholarship prior to the start of fall camp such a relief and resulted in a great phone call to his parents, letting him know they could spend that tuition money on something else.

“Coming in I wasn’t thinking I would get a scholarship in a year, but it was just awesome,” said Neuville, who received his scholarship at the same time that his good friend, Eden Prairie, MN, linebacker Ryan Connelly, was awarded his.  “I was definitely a little surprised.”

To say Neuville worked to get into this situation would be an understatement. Coming in an outside linebacker, Neuville was switched to defensive end prior to the start of the 2014 season. Since then he’s practically lived in the weight room, talking to UW’s strength staff and nutritionists to figure out how to put on the best weight possible.

He also was a sponge around the veteran defensive lineman and the defensive staff to learn the tips and tricks of the trade.

“I really had no idea with any of the technique because I was strictly a linebacker in high school,” said Neuville, who put on approximately 40 pounds in six months. “Another thing was scout team. Josh Oglesby played a big part, too. He was a really big mentor with me.”

When spring practices began, Neuville, with his added weight, took advantage of a new coaching staff and open competition on the line. Getting an opportunity to work in the third-down role, Neuville’s consistent performances allowed him to quickly rise up the depth chart.

He ended spring as number one on the depth chart on the package and hasn’t given it up.

“I felt pretty good when I was putting the weight on, but when we got to spring ball and I started running around, it felt different than when I was 220,” said Neuville. “It was nice having the spring to get used to it. The summer conditioning helped a lot, too, because we did a lot of speed work and conditioning work.”

Watching the game tape, Neuville is blunt saying that he has many areas he can improve in. Still adjusting to the speed of the game and the blocking tendencies of linemen, Neuville has no tackles and only one pass deflection, despite playing in all five games.

The linebackers behind him have quite a bit more, meaning he’s doing his part on a Wisconsin defense getting stronger by the week.

“I know I can get a lot better,” said Neuville, “but it’s hard to say I am not having fun.”


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