Seniors Jeff Mack and Alex Lewis hold down the Badgers starting spots at the inside linebacker positions and they do so with personality. Mack is Wisconsin's defensive leader. A vocal stalwart, the Badgers were a different team with Mack in the lineup than without him last season. In the eight game Mack started, the Badgers were 7-1. They were 1-5 when he sat out.
Mack has missed a number of games due to injury in his career and his health is vital to the strength of Wisconsin's defense. The team was tougher against the run and against the pass last season when Mack was playing. He makes the calls on the field, putting the Badgers in the right position to make plays. More importantly, the team appeared to take on a different, tougher, persona when he was on the field.
Mack has looked in fine shape throughout fall camp. His instincts are better than most and he looks quite at home at his natural inside linebacker position. For the most part in Wisconsin's offense, Mack plays between Lewis and starting outside linebacker Kareem Timbers, allowing him to see the field and flow to the ball. He has all the right skills to do so and make plays. Mack has the range to get all over the field and is a solid hitter when he arrives at the play. His pass coverage has improved and he appears markedly stronger and faster this year than in seasons past.
Mack is not a dominant player by any stretch, but he does everything well and he should develop this season into one of the better linebackers in the Big Ten.
Wherever the ball has been, you are likely to find Jeff Mack. The same can be said, though, for his partner at inside linebacker, Alex Lewis.
Lewis is probably the most excitable, and potentially the feistiest member of Wisconsin's football team. Long on talent, Lewis's production was hit or miss last season as he struggled to pick up the system and get into the flow. He will still make a mistake once in a while but certainly doesn't suffer for lack of effort or enthusiasm. Lewis never backs down and he has only one speed—full throttle, pure aggression.
Lewis has appeared a different player this fall, always on the attack, making plenty of big plays and startling hits. But the improvement is far greater than that. He has been very good in pass coverage, picking off passes in successive practices at one point. The 6-1, 237-pound Lewis plays much bigger than his size. He has been extremely physical at the point of attack, never shying away from bigger blockers. You can hear the pops when he plugs running lanes.
Lewis's quickness, however, has been more impressive. He has shown incredible range and an ability to hold his own in pass coverage. In nickel situations, Lewis typically lines up at rush end. His pass rush skills are very raw, but he is so quick off the ball that he should make some plays from that position. It also gives the Badgers the extra flexibility of having an end in the game who can easily flow into coverage if the team chooses.
Injuries and inexperience have made the Badgers inside linebacker positions a source of paltry production the past few seasons. Even some of the better Wisconsin linebackers in recent years have struggled playing down-after-down, with spread offenses taking advantage of a lack of quickness at the position. This season, that will not be a problem. Mack and Lewis can play well in any situation. The inside linebackers should be one of the team's strengths this season.
The position also enjoys a wealth of depth. Senior Kyle McCorison has been the top reserve throughout camp with redshirt freshman Mark Zalewski and sophomore Elliot Goode receiving consistent reps with the second-unit defense. McCorison started four games last season, giving him ample experience.
Goode has been particularly impressive late in camp. The 6-2, 240-pound player has good size and combines it with good range. Goode is a quick player with above average pass coverage skills. As a result, he has played on the team's No. 2 nickel defense consistently this fall.
Zalewski received the bulk of second unit reps for nearly a week but appears to be losing ground slightly to Goode. Zalewski is a little smaller than Goode, but also a little quicker. He isn't quite as fluid in pass coverage, but he is a little better at stepping up versus the run.
Redshirt freshman Reggie Cribbs and sophomore John Gillen have also had productive camps and have received reps with the second defense. They will likely occupy the third team spots on the depth chart this season, though in effect they will play with the scout team. At 224 pounds, Cribbs is a little on the small side for an inside linebacker, but he has played the position well this fall, stepping up versus the run and showing very good range. He has exceptional hands and should develop into a solid presence in pass coverage at the very least. Gillen has very good size at 6-4, 246 and he uses it well. He entered fall camp listed No. 7 at inside linebacker, and very well could remain at that spot, but he has served notice that he will be a factor in next spring's competition for what will be two open starting positions inside.