Matt Fleming/BadgerNation

Wisconsin junior defensive end Alec James' offseason work has paid off with a bigger role in the defense

Get the latest updates from defensive end Alec James' bigger role in 2016, inside linebacker Griffin Grady likely burning the redshirt and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox in today's Wisconsin insider notebook.

MADISON – With two starters returning at defensive end, not to mention some talented underclassmen starting to stand out, Wisconsin junior Alec James knew he would have to elevate his game in order to make a dent on the Badgers’ line. So far, so good.

Pushing himself in the offseason to be a bigger playmaker and contributor, James started the year in a defensive end rotation with Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy and delivered with three tackles and a sack in the win over LSU.

“We always talk about doing your 1/11th and as long as I do my job, the plays will come,” James said Wednesday. “That was my whole main focus going into the game, do my job and trusting my teammates.”

Mainly Wisconsin’s third-down specialist last season, teaming up with Zander Neuville in the Badgers’ peso package in a formation that had only two down linemen, James finished with 17 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack, seven of those tackles coming against Northwestern. It was good experience, but James knew he’s have to be a better run stopper to earn a more expansive role.

He did that in the offseason, adding a couple pounds to his frame and expanding his on-field knowledge through film study and extra work on the field.

“His work ethic is very impressive,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “He’s got some really good physical tools. He’s a very smart player. He’s a very tough guy. Doesn’t say a lot, just goes about his business. (Defensive line coach) Inoke (Breckterfield) has done a great job working with him and you can see him get better each week.”

The prep work leading into the opener showed James he had an opportunity to create some plays. While the three interior players for LSU returned, the Tigers saw right tackle Vadal Alexander and left tackle Jerald Hawkins selected in the N.F.L. draft.

LSU went with tackles Toby Weathersby on the right side and K.J. Malone on the left side in the starting lineup. The duo had combined for one start (Weathersby last season), something that may or may not have played into advantage for James on his 9-yard sack of LSU quarterback Brandon Harris.

“Last year going into the opener, that was really your first time playing a lot of ball,” James recalled. “This year it’s more like we know what we can do, so let’s just do what we do.”

Able to line up at multiple spots along the line because of his skill set, James said that will come in handy when No.10 Wisconsin (1-0) hosts Akron (1-0) this weekend in the home opener. After going against a Tigers’ offense that was mainly pro-style, the Zips will – as their namesake eludes to – will spread teams out with a mobile quarterback, two talented receivers and a big tailback.

That will allow James to slot back into a peso package formation, doing it this time with a new arsenal of moves.

“We have numbers we want to reach (as a group), but the main thing is doing your job, making sure you don’t try to play outside yourself and mess up the defense,” James said. “I want to try to make plays every game, but my focus is letting the plays come to me.”

Grady Ready for Action

Knowing Wisconsin had immense depth in front of him at inside linebacker, true freshman Griffin Grady was content knowing he’d have a full year to learn the defense, build his strength and adjust to college football. It appears that has been thrown out the window.

With Chris Orr done for the season and T.J. Edwards’ status still unknown, Grady has been bumped up to second string inside linebacker for Saturday.

“As a competitor you want to get on the field, and I love to play the game,” Grady said. “You’ve got to just embrace it. I love to play football and I’m going to get an opportunity here to see the field. I’m going to make the most of it.”

A former four-star prospect who recorded 151 tackles last season, Grady was a part of the travel squad last weekend to Lambeau Field, brought along in case of an emergency. He received few reps leading into the opener, but has seen things ratcheted up through the first three days of Akron prep.

“With LSU I was that fallback option because we already had our depth chart set and they still planned on redshirting me,” Grady said. “Now with Chris getting hurt and things shifting around, I’ve got a lot more reps getting ready for Akron. It’s a lot different offense than what LSU was running. It’s good to get out here and go against a speed offense, which fits my play more.”

No matter what combinations are on the field until Edwards returns, Wilcox is pressing forward with his group

“You don’t ever want to lose anybody, and I don’t know if there’s a coach out there that thinks you have too much depth,” he said. “Obviously losing Chris and having T.J. out is not ideal, but that’s the game of football. It’s the next man. That’s why guys practice and that’s why they come here and why you prepare because things happen. When it’s your time, guys rise to the occasion and step up and play.”

Alvarez Signs New Contract

The oldest athletic director in the Big Ten conference is sticking around for a few more years.

It was announced Thursday that Barry Alvarez signed a five-year contract extension through January 31, 2021.

The school’s Director of Athletics since 2004, Alvarez’s new agreement went into effect on Sept. 1 and was the result of a successful performance review with UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

Alvarez will turn 70 in December and said Wednesday that he still enjoys the job and isn’t ready to start thinking retirement.

Other than the expiration date, the contract extension kept the same terms as the previous agreement. Alvarez is being paid $1.125 million this school year. 

In addition to the 16 seasons he coached the Badger football program (during which he guided UW to three Big Ten championships and a school-record 119 victories), Wisconsin has won 56 conference titles and 14 national championships during his years as director of athletics. Off the field, Wisconsin student-athletes have achieved a cumulative 3.0 grade-point average consistently since 2009-10, with more than 1,300 of them earning academic All-Big Ten recognition.

Extra Points: Wilcox said sophomore inside linebacker Ryan Connelly has shown improvement since he arrived and played “totally in control” on Saturday … It appears left guard Micah Kapoi (left leg) did not practice on Wednesday … Wilcox answered questions regarding the health of sophomore inside linebacker T.J. Edwards’ status for Saturday with a “we’ll see.”

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