Setting the Stage
This group will look vastly different than the one that made the lives of quarterbacks and tailback miserable a season ago. Wisconsin needs to replace both starting outside linebackers from last season and the Badgers top four inside linebackers – Jack Cichy (shoulder), Ryan Connelly (shoulder), T.J. Edwards (foot) and Chris Orr (knee) – won’t be participating in contact drills during spring. Needless to say the Badgers are going through a youth movement at positions, as plenty of inexperienced players will get reps.
Player to Watch: OLB Andrew Van Ginkel
Wisconsin seldom goes the junior college route, but the staff viewed it a necessity to bring in an outside linebacker with experience with the impending graduation of Vince Biegel and the expected departure of T.J. Watt. Despite just enrolling at Wisconsin, Andrew Van Ginkel becomes one of Wisconsin’s most experienced players with 22 games played at the FCS and junior college level, although most of those have come at defensive end.
Having registered 31.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks in his two years, Van Ginkel is being counted on to get a grasp of the defense and provide depth for UW on the outside.
“He’s played college football before, obviously not at the Division-1 level yet, but he’s a quiet kid who likes to get down to work,” senior outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. “He’s learning things fast. I think once he gets the pad and learns the playbook a little bit, he’s somebody that can shine.”
Story Line to Watch: Dooley’s impact
Walking into the first meeting of outside linebackers after the bowl game, Dooley quickly realized how different things were. Not only was he the only senior, he was the only outside linebacker with tangible experience from a season ago.
“It’s an opportunity for me to teach the younger kids and help them grow into the spot and help them learn how to play,” Dooley said. “It is a young group and there is a big learning curve for all the younger players and myself, so I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Dooley didn’t use the word daunting to describe the task of replacing Biegel and Watt, instead using the word “challenging” to describe the task ahead of his group. Watt led the team in tackles for loss (15.5) and sacks (11.5) while finished third in tackles (63). Biegel finished with a respectable 44 tackles, six tackles for loss and four sacks in 12 games, missing the road game at Michigan and the home game against Ohio State while recovering from foot surgery.
His absence allowed Dooley to step in for a pair of starts and gain some confidence. Starting with the game at the Big House, Dooley registered seven tackles in three of four games and became important for his confidence.
“It’s a confidence builder,” Dooley said. “I had been playing in some of the games because we rotate a lot, but starting in those two games really helped me realize that there isn’t any difference when you start a game or you rotate into a game. It’s still the same game flow, except you’re taking the first snap of the game. That’s the only difference. When that happens, you just have to be yourself and nobody else, make plays and have fun.”
There are plenty of young players for Dooley to mentor. Redshirt freshmen Christian Bell (transfer from Alabama last summer), Keldric Preston (6-4, 254 pounds) and Noah Burks (6-2, 240 pounds) came in with a lot of expectations. UW also has early enrollee Izayah Green-May, who missed a lot of his senior season with an elbow injury and will likely redshirt to add weight to his 6-6 frame, and a host of walk-ons.
The most important player for Dooley, however, is Zack Baun. Playing 12 games last season, Baun finished with 15 tackles and 3.5 tackles but all but one of those tackles happened in the first six games of the season. The duo was paired together last year but really only had game experience in the games Biegel was hurt. Now they are being looked at as a potential starting combo.
“At practice when Vince was healthy, it was always me and Zack together in practice, so we’ve had that connection and be able to work from last spring and this past fall,” Dooley said. “It’s going to be exciting this spring, too.”
End-of-Spring Goal: On the Same Page
The newest addition to Wisconsin’s coaching staff, spring will be a learning period for inside linebackers coach Bob Bostad, who has spent nearly all of his career coaching offensive linemen. Not only will Bostad be without his top four inside linebackers during drills, he’ll have to teach a lot of young players the position. Senior Leon Jacobs will take a lot of reps with the defense and can provide a good security blanket at a position he started at two years ago. Sophomore Griffin Grady got some experience playing in 12 games last season, while sophomore Tyler Johnson has been moved from outside to inside. Sophomore Nick Thomas will be going through his third spring on campus and walk-on Mike Maskalunas already has made a pick-six in 7-on-7 drills. The challenge this spring for Bostad is to find out who can compete and who can make plays if pressed into duty.