CHICAGO – Vince Biegel was thrilled when he was given the green light from his family and, most importantly, his girlfriend.
Weighing the pros and cons of putting off the N.F.L. for one more season and returning to school keeps a lot of players up and night, but Biegel knew he had unfinished business and room to grow as a player, so that decision was easy.
The decision he required the approval of those closest to him was to bring back his much-talked about mullet.
“It’s part of who I am,” said Biegel, who sported the 80s hairdo his sophomore year. “It’s a big personality of who I was. I want to bring that back one more year.”
Sitting at his own podium at Big Ten Media Days at Hyatt McCormick Place Tuesday, Biegel’s hair is still a work in progress. Fortunately for Wisconsin, his leadership is not.
One of only 15 seniors on Wisconsin’s roster, Biegel has embraced the role of leader of team, let alone of a defense that will have its work cut out for itself in the weeks and months ahead. Facing a Big Ten schedule that has Wisconsin playing, in consecutive weeks, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern, it’s not a shock to see UW picked third in the West Division – behind Iowa and Nebraska, respectively – in a Cleveland.com preseason poll.
Biegel doesn’t want it any other way.
“I feel like I’m the emotional leader; I feel like I’m the heart of the defense,” said Biegel, who has started 28 of 42 career games, including the last 25. “That’s a role I take with a lot of heart and a lot of pride. This is something I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid at Wisconsin Rapids. To be able to live that dream today is definitely a blessing.”
Since overcoming a foot injury that limited his freshman season to two games, Biegel has become one of the best outside linebackers in the Big Ten. Working opposite Big Ten Linebacker of the Year Joe Schobert a season ago, Biegel set career highs in tackles (66), sacks (8) and tackles for loss yards (14 for 81).
It’s part of the reason why his name has dotted the preseason award watch list for the Bednarik (most outstanding defensive player), Nagurski (top defensive player) and Butkus (best linebacker) and Pro Football Focus rated him the nation's top returning outside linebacker (grading him No. 1 both against the run and as a pass rusher).
“Vince brings a ton to our defense,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. “He’s obviously a very good football player. His competitiveness, he plays with an edge, practices with an edge. He’s all in, and I think it can be contagious. Our team needs Vince in a lot of ways.”
While he’s learned on the field from a bevy of talented linebacker coaches, the most recent being LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Biegel said he’s crafted his leadership style from players like Chris Borland, Mike Taylor and Brendan Kelly, three upperclassmen that help guide Biegel during his first injury-plagued season on campus.
“I was really fortunate to have those guys as leaders to look to as a freshman and sophomore to see there example of how to conduct things,” he recalled. “Obviously (I) took some of their game and put it in mine and craft it into what I do.”
Biegel tends to go all in no matter what he does. After his sophomore season, he and a handful of teammates shaved their heads to raise awareness for childhood cancer. He decided to sport a Mohawk during his junior year. But when he tweeted at the end of March that the mullet was returning, he has since received 54 retweets and 222 likes – a big number for a hairstyle announcement.
“People miss (the mullet),” senior tailback Dare Ogunbowale said, a hair aficionado in his own right with his dreadlocks. “After the season the mullet goes away and he turns into a different person … He’s growing his hair out now to chop it off for the mullet, so I can’t wait for that.”
No matter what Biegel looks like, his impact will be huge for Wisconsin, which has the sixth toughest schedule in the country based on 2015 win/loss records (UW’s 12 opponents went 98-57 (.623) last season). He is the top returner for a Badgers unit that led the nation in scoring defense (13.7 points per game) and ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense (268.5 yards per game) last season.
A look at Wisconsin’s projected front seven and there’s a lot of familiar names. The majority of the defensive line returns and the Badgers have strength in numbers at both inside and outside linebacker. And even though the secondary has to replace three starters, Biegel said he can see a group that will set the pace for the entire group.
“I think our defense is going to be the strongest it’s been in many years,” Biegel said.
Wisconsin has 38 days to prepare itself to back up that claim. After always having upperclassmen set the tone for the unit, Biegel knows it’s up to him to get Wisconsin where it wants to go.
“I look around and I’m one of the oldest guys out here. For me it’s being able to push myself, having that self control and having the ability to improve my game every single day,” Biegel said. “That really will be the biggest challenge and something I really have been striving for this offseason. It’s something that will make me a better person and a better football player down the road.”